What Judas snakes, snake-sniffing dogs and even hunters from around the globe have struggled to accomplish may finally be pulled off by a pair of singing snake catchers from India: solving the riddle for finding Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades.
In just two weeks this month, the two tribesmen from Southern India, working with the University of Florida, caught 14 pythons. That included a monster 16-foot female holed up in the ruins of the old Nike missile base on Key Largo.
For perspective, consider last year’s second Python Challenge, an annual contest to draw attention to Florida’s python problem. The hunt attracted 1,000 hunters, most of them amateurs. Over a month, they managed to bag just 106 snakes. The year before, hunters snagged 68.
“If we fall anywhere in that range, I’m going to be really happy,” said UF biologist Frank Mazzotti, who heads a team of researchers investigating pythons and other wildlife.
The pilot project, being funded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is also relatively cheap: just $68,888 for two tribesmen and two translators for two months.
Since arriving in early January, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, both in their 50s and members of the Irula tribe, India’s famed snake hunters, have headed into the Everglades almost daily. Armed only with tire irons to punch through dense burma reed and sharp limestone rock and trailed by biologists, the pair are on the lookout for the sparkle of snakeskin in the bush. They’re also searching for what the snakes left behind: a ripple in the sand, a tunnel through grass or scat.
All these signs can alert them to the presence of the snake, the malai pambu, a snake far bigger than any the men have encountered in India.
In the nearly two decades since pythons became established in South Florida, finding them has proved one of the thorniest problems for controlling their spread. The cryptically patterned snakes easily disappear into marshes that are nearly impossible to search. Biologists have tried sending out radio-tagged “Judas” snakes to ferret out other snakes, trained dogs and even tried poisoning prey. But the number of voracious snakes, blamed for nearly wiping out the population of small mammals in Everglades National Park, keeps growing. This year for the first time, hatchlings were found in Key Largo. In November, one turned up in Biscayne Bay on a water monitoring station.
The idea of having Irula snake trackers train to target python has been percolating for years among Mazzotti; award-winning herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, a leading conservationist in India and alum of the old Miami Serpentarium; and another Serpentarium alum, South Florida herpetologist Joe Wasilewski. In 1978, Whitaker founded a snake-hunting co-op for the tribe after unregulated snake trading was banned. The tribe now hunts cobras to collect antivenin to battle the nation’s snake-bite problem: about 50,000 die annually and up to 1.5 million are bit.
But almost nobody thought it was possible.
“People said, ‘They know how to hunt in India, not the Everglades, and cobras, not pythons,’” Mazzotti said.
Whitaker was certain the Irula, whose ancestors hunted pythons to the point of extinction in their state, would succeed.
“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,” he said. “This is very big and probably the biggest invasive reptile problem that has ever existed on the planet, so let’s do something.”
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