Reptiles

Florida enlists snake hunters from India in fight against invasive pythons

Vadivel Gopal, Joe Wasilewski and Masi Sadaiyan holding a python removed from a former missile base in Key Largo, Fla.

Vadivel Gopal, Joe Wasilewski and Masi Sadaiyan holding a python removed from a former missile base in Key Largo, Fla.  (Courtesy of Romulus Whitaker)

Move over dogs and amateur snake hunters in Florida – let a pair of singing, bushwhacking tribesmen from India get the job done.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has tapped two adept hunters from India – armed with tire irons – to find and get rid of Burmese pythons, which are wiping out small mammal populations in the Everglades.

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“I pointed out that part of the year, the swamp is quite dry and that’s the time when they would be able to find the things like back home, the tracks of snake,” Romulus Whitaker, a conservationist in India, told the Miami Herald. “This is very big and probably the biggest invasive reptile problem that has ever existed on the planet, so let’s do something.”

In two weeks this month, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, both in their 50s and hailing from the famed Irula snake hunting tribe, have caught 14 of the elusive pythons, including a 16-footer hiding at a former missile base on Key Largo.

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For comparison, 1,000 hunters, mostly amateurs, in the state’s annual Python Challenge contest caught 106 snakes over the course of a month last year and 68 the year before, the Miami Herald reports.

“If we fall anywhere in that range, I’m going to be really happy,” University of Florida biologist Frank Mazzotti told the newspaper.

The two men live with South Florida herpetologist Joe Wasilewski. They go after the snakes around boulders and in the thick brush instead of focusing on roads and levees where they may be basking. They look for clues such as ripples in the sand or a tunnel through grass. And when things get slow, they stop to sing a prayer or smoke a cigarette.

UF biologist Ed Metzger said half the snakes captured so far would not have been found without Sadaiyan and Gopal’s tracking expertise. Pythons that are captured are killed or kept for education.

“Since the Irula have been so successful in their homeland at removing pythons, we are hoping they can teach people in Florida some of these skills,” said Kristen Sommers, chief of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Impact Management Section.

Back in India, the tribe’s ancestors have hunted pythons to the point of extinction in their home state in the southern part of the country, the Miami Herald reports. The modern-day tribe now targets cobras to collect an anti-serum used in the fight against India’s snake bite problem – which claims around 50,000 lives each year.

“Coming to America is really fun and interesting, but catching all those snakes, that’s why [we’re] here,” Sadaiyan said.

Click for more from the Miami Herald.