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Snake hunters from India are the latest weapons in Florida’s war on pythons

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 30-01-2017 Lori Rozsa
The Florida team, two Irula tribesmen and a captured python. © Ed Metzger/University of Florida The Florida team, two Irula tribesmen and a captured python.

Faced with losing a frustrating battle against invasive Burmese pythons, the state of Florida has turned to an unusual source for help: two experienced snake catchers from India.

The men from the Irula tribe are successful python hunters in India, and they were brought in, along with two translators, to work with detection dogs earlier this month to track down and capture the giant snakes. So far, they’ve bagged 13 in less than two weeks.

The effort is part of a series of what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission calls “unique projects” to capture and kill the pythons, which have been rapidly spreading through the Everglades and dining on native animals, driving some nearly to extinction.

The commission says it paid $68,888 to hire the Irula men and their translators and fly them to South Florida from their home in southern India. They’ll stay in Florida through February, working in the field with University of Florida biologists and two python-detecting Labrador retrievers to find, capture and kill the snakes.

The men, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, are working near Key Largo, which until this year was thought to be free of the snakes. The Miami Herald reported that their skill is rooted in tracking techniques that “seem mysterious” even to Florida python experts.

“If this works, it’s great,” said Elizabeth Moscynski, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce. “There’s just a thin stretch of road between us and the mainland, so of course the snakes were going to slither their way here. We’ve got a lot of endangered species down here, so it’s just like a smorgasbord for those snakes.”

The project is the latest in a series of attempts to contain and eradicate the Burmese python. The snake is not native to Florida — although it is to India — but started showing up in the Everglades in the 1980s, probably after the release or escape of exotic pet snakes. In the past decade, their numbers have exploded to between 5,000 and 10,000, according to government estimates.

At first, sightings were rare. Now they’re almost commonplace, and native animals such as rabbits, raccoons, alligators and deer are disappearing at alarming rates. Videos and photos of dead pythons with their bellies distended by the large animals have gone viral several times over the years.

Auburn University’s Bart Rogers holds a python captured with the help of Floyd the detection dog. © Alex Dyson Auburn University’s Bart Rogers holds a python captured with the help of Floyd the detection dog.

Moscynski said she worries that the snakes will come after the endangered wood rat on Key Largo and then head south to invade the other keys, eventually reaching the habitat of the petite and endangered Key deer.

“Will they make it that far? Let’s hope not,” she said. “If this effort, bringing in the hunters from India, will help, I applaud it.”

The state has tried a variety of tactics, including contests — “python challenges” that offered rewards of up to $1,500 to those who caught the longest snake — and an iPhone app allowing people to report python sightings. But none of it has been enough to slow the steady slither of the invading snakes.

Christina Romagosa, a researcher with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, started working on tracking the snakes using detection dogs more than seven years ago.

“We were down there trying to determine if dogs can be used to look for pythons, and the answer is yes,” Romagosa said. “Pythons are a cryptic species. They hide really well. Humans are not good at finding them.”

The two Labs employed in the current effort, Vito and Floyd, are part of a team based at Auburn University. They can use their noses to detect a python to within a few feet.

“If you’re walking through an area in the Everglades and there’s a python nearby, chances are very low that humans will see it,” Romagosa said. “That’s why we’re using dogs, and then the Irula tribesmen come in and do the capture. They’re specialists. That’s their livelihood.”

A photo by Everglades National Park shows a dead Burmese python that had swallowed an American alligator. © Reuters/Everglades National Park A photo by Everglades National Park shows a dead Burmese python that had swallowed an American alligator.

Kristen Sommers, section leader for the Florida game commission’s Wildlife Impact Management Section, said many people mentioned to the agency that the Irula tribe might be an option to address the python problem in the Everglades.

The Irula are world-renowned for their snake-catching abilities. The traditional job of men in the tribe was snake and rat catcher.

“We are very pleased with the effectiveness of the Irula tribesmen,” Sommers said in an email.

Just how effective will be assessed after the men and dogs have been at it for another month, but meanwhile, wildlife officials are thinking up other python-fighting ideas: training members of the public to find and capture the snakes (and possibly asking the Irula to help with the training), as well as trying to find a pheromone that would attract the pythons so they’d be easier to find. Sommers said the state is also looking into “the potential for a python-specific toxicant.”

Moscynsky of the Key Largo Chamber said she is glad the state is making an effort to eradicate the snakes. She knows how hard it is — she tried to kill one herself.

“I was coming home at night, and I saw something off in the distance crossing the road. It was a python,” she said. “I was thinking, what do I do? You want to kill it, or call somebody to kill it, or do something. I was driving a Honda Accord, which is a pretty heavy car, so I slowed down and ran over it. The snake took up two lanes. It was that long. I’m thinking, I must have killed it.

“When I turned my car around to go back to it and call the police about it, it was slithering its way across the road. I didn’t do a thing to it,” she continued. “I read later that you have to cut off their heads.” 

Also watch: India's snake charmers struggle to keep tradition alive

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