Indian snake hunters lend skills to stop Florida python invasion

Two snake catchers from India might have the secret to saving Florida wildlife from Burmese pythons.

The nonnative giant constrictors, which can grow up to six meters long, escaped into the wild in the 1980s. Ever since, their giant appetites have devastated populations of wildlife in the Everglades, the tropical wetlands at the southern tip of the state.

Officials tried everything: snake-sniffing dogs, radio-tagged informant snakes and even hunting bounties. Nothing was effective.

Until they turned to the experts.

So far, the elusive snakes haven’t been able to slither away from two snake trackers, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal. The two, both in their 50s, are members of the Irula tribe in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state. The ancient tribe is renowned for its snake-tracking skills.

Two men holding large snake (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Jeremy Dixon)
Snake-catching experts Masi Sadaiyan (left) and Vadivel Gopal snagged three pythons from an abandoned missile silo on Key Largo, Florida. (USFWS/Jeremy Dixon)

The men were invited to the Everglades by python researcher Frank Mazzotti of the University of Florida. Working as a team, they caught about 30 pythons in four weeks. In contrast, last year 1,000 trained hunters could only catch about 100.

“Masi and Vadivel are doing an incredible job,” Mazzotti said. “All they need is a glint of snake and they pounce. The rest of us are usually wondering where the snake is. Next thing, we see they are holding it.”

No one knows how many of the giant snakes live in Florida, but it’s clear what they’ve done to populations of small and medium-sized mammals in the Everglades. From 2003 to 2011, researchers noted a drop in sightings of area raccoons, opossums and white-tailed deer by more than 90 percent. The culprit? Pythons.

The snakes eat pretty much anything that walks or flies. Even alligators are on the menu, along with endangered rodents and birds.

People holding Burmese python (University of Florida/Ed Metzger)
Sadaiyan and Gopal pose with biologists and their biggest haul yet: a 5-meter Burmese python. (University of Florida/Ed Metzger)

In India, the Irula tribe is known for catching poisonous snakes like cobras and kraits. They extract and sell venom to laboratories that make anti-snakebite serums.

Now, Sadaiyan and Gopal have their biggest targets yet, and plan to stay in Florida until the end of February.

“We are hoping they can teach people in Florida some of these skills,” said Kristen Sommers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.