Environment First Look

To catch a python: Florida hires Indian tribesmen to root out invasive snakes

Tribesmen from India are working alongside a team of Labrador retrievers to help Florida remove Burmese pythons from the Everglades.

India’s Irula tribesmen, legendary for their snake-catching skills, are helping address one of Florida’s thorniest wildlife challenges: the infestation of Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

The unlikely partnership is the brainchild of Frank Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida. He’s been working for five years to bring Irula tribesmen to Florida – and after the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission contacted him to ask for help in eradicating Burmese pythons, he finally succeeded. Two Irula, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, arrived in early January and plan to stay in Florida for two months.

The results have been impressive. In just two weeks, the two tribesmen captured 14 pythons, with help from a canine unit that sniffs out the snakes. And when the Irula leave, locals should be equipped to continue the work, Professor Mazzotti indicated.

“The job of the tribesmen is to find the snakes, catch them, and teach us how to do it better,” Mazzotti told UF News. “They are better at finding snakes than anybody else in the world.”

Native to Southeast Asia, Burmese pythons were first discovered in Everglades National Park two decades ago. Researchers say they suspect pet owners in the area became alarmed as the snakes grew, and – unsure what to do with them – simply released the pythons into the wild.

Once in the park, the snakes began eating native creatures and reproducing, causing massive ecological damage. As Richard Mertens reported for The Christian Science Monitor in September:

A study by Michael Dorcas, formerly a biologist at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., found that in some places pythons had devoured nearly all the mammals, including raccoons, marsh rabbits and even deer.

In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service placed the Burmese python on its list of injurious species, preventing them from being imported or transported across state lines. 

Wildlife officials also took steps to reduce the python population in south Florida, with limited success. Biologists tried sending radio-tagged “Judas” snakes to reveal the location of other snakes, poisoning prey, and training dogs to retrieve snakes, the Miami Herald reported. Each year, hundreds of mostly amateur hunters participate in a Python Challenge to capture the snakes. Last year, it took 1,000 hunters to catch 106 snakes, an improvement over the 68 caught in 2015, but still a disappointing haul given the number of people involved.

In the face of these struggles, the Irula method has proved surprisingly effective. They focus on areas with thick brush, searching under boulders and high grasses. Without them, University of Florida biologist Ed Metzger told the Miami Herald, seven of the 14 snakes would not have been found, let alone eliminated.

And working with dogs has helped the tribesmen decide where to search. University of Florida assistant research professor Christina Romagosa is in charge of a team of canines provided by Auburn University's Canine Performance Sciences. In one case, Professor Romagosa told UF News, the Laborador retrievers helped the tribesmen identify an area where four pythons were living.

“These techniques help us to target our searches better,” she said.

As South Florida experts watch the hunters work, they’re learning to understand the snakes, and improving their ability to catch pythons themselves.

“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,” Kristen Sommers, chief of FWC’s Wildlife Impact Management Section, said in a statement.

The research team is keeping track of the cost per hour and cost per python of the new program. So far, however, it compares favorably with other programs: For $68,000, the two hunters and their translators can stay in Florida for two months.

Mazzotti, for one, says he is optimistic about the pilot program’s potential going forward.

“Hopefully, we can manage or eradicate an invasive species that is wreaking havoc on the ecosystem,” he told UF News.