Famed Irula snake trackers from India in Florida’s war on pythons

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In this article, Jenney Staletovich (Miami Herald) writes about how Florida scientists—the University of Florida’s Frank 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—enlisted tribesmen from Southern India, Irula snake trackers, to find Burmese pythons in Florida’s Everglades. The number of voracious snakes has been blamed for nearly wiping out the population of small mammals in Everglades National Park, and it keeps growing. Now, Burmese python hatchlings were found in Key Largo and one even turned up in Biscayne Bay. See excerpts here and read the full article—truly fascinating—at the Miami Herald (also see related videos!)

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. [. . .]

Even to South Florida experts, Irula tracking techniques seem mysterious. They move slowly and rather than focus on roads and levees where snakes have typically been found basking, they head straight for thick brush. The Irulas believe the boulders and high grasses that line the levees are more lucrative hunting grounds. That seems to be proving true: UF biologist Ed Metzger has so far determined that seven of the 13 snakes captured would not have been found without the trackers. [. . .] To the surprise of local biologists, the trackers have also been able to detect information critical to snake management: the python’s sex, approximate size and even how long ago it was in the area.

[Photo above: Irula trackers and biologists discovered this 16-foot female python, along with three other snakes, holed up in a 27-foot long, 18-inch wide shaft at the old Nike missile base in Key Largo last week. Courtesy of Joe Wasilewski.]

For full article, see http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/environment/article128233064.html

Also see (photo above and article) at http://www.nbc-2.com/story/34325031/fwc-using-tribesmen-to-remove-pythons-in-florida

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