Animals

India Snake-Catcher Tribe Helps Florida With Its Python Problem

The Irula people are lending the Sunshine State a hand rounding up invasive Burmese pythons.

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India's Irula people, who catch snakes for a living in their native country, are coming to the aid of Florida wildlife officials in their battle against invasive Burmese pythons in the Sunshine State.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), in their first week members of the tribe have already captured 13 pythons. Of those, four were removed from the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on North Key Largo, including a 16-foot female.

"It is outstanding that they have been able to remove pythons from Key Largo," said University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences biologist Frank Mazzotti, who is working with the Irula tribe members in South Florida, in a statement. "And to get four pythons, including a 16-foot female, is just incredible."

The early results might not be too surprising. The Irula, who live in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are known for their snake-catching prowess in rural India, where the skills to spot and carefully remove snakes from an area are handed down from parents to children. The skills are welcome in their country. Tens of thousands of people die from snake bites each year in India, and more than a dozen deadly snake species live there, among them the common cobra and the Russell's viper.

Burmese pythons, native to Southeast Asia, somehow ended up in the Florida Everglades in the 1980s and have been a problem ever since. Apart from alligators and people, the adult pythons – with the capacity to grow to 16 feet and longer - don't face many predators and will themselves prey on a wide variety of animals. Wherever raccoons, foxes, rabbits and other mammals suddenly become scarce, that's where the pythons have been found settling in.

Irula tribesmen and local wildlife staff are working together in Florida to round up Burmese pythons.

Now, though, the snakes face an expert group of reptile hunters.

"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," explained Kristen Sommers, leader of the FWC's wildlife impact management section. "We are working with our partners to improve our ability to find and capture pythons in the wild. These projects are two of several new efforts focused on the removal of these snakes."

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Officials are now trying to pinpoint key spots where eradication of the pythons might be most pressing. Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, for example, has been an early recipient of snake-hunting help: It's home to a range of protected bird species as well as the endangered Key Largo wood rat.

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