Florida Enlists Expert Indian Snake Hunters to Solve Its Python Problem


An Irula tribesman and snake catcher named Kali prepares a cobra for venom extraction in India. ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images
An Irula tribesman and snake catcher named Kali prepares a cobra for venom extraction in India. ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

An "established population" of animals sounds like a friendly animal family hunkering down peacefully — perhaps Pooh's pals in the Hundred Acre Wood, or Beatrix Potter's cuddly creations. But no one would like to share their backyard with an established population of pythons. One hopes for a much more itinerant population of those.

Faced with invasive Burmese pythons that made their way to the Southern state in the 1980s, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission needed a solution to get rid of them. So, they turned to the Irula — tribespeople in India who catch snakes occupationally — to help with the challenge. And the nearly $70,000 investment — the amount the commission paid to fly out the tribesmen and their translators — is paying off.

Two Irula snake catchers bagged 14 snakes in just two weeks of work by simply following subtle trails through sand and reed. (Well, that and using detection dogs.) The tribe generally hunts snakes in southern India to collect antivenin for treating deadly snakebites, but its techniques are working in Florida, too — even if some of them seem unusual in American culture. Their method of singing prayers during a hunt, for instance, is probably not how the commission generally tracks the snakes. But according to the Miami Herald, the Irula are so skilled that they can identify a python's sex and the amount of time it has been in an area.

The stakes are quite high. The Everglades, where the pythons have established a home, has a whole feast of small animals — including endangered species like the Key Largo wood rat — that are defenseless against the non-native python. Not only do the enormous snakes have few predators, but they also threaten human and pet safety. Captured pythons are usually euthanized.

Last year, more than a thousand people spent a month trying to track pythons for the "Python Challenge," and only 106 snakes were turned in. That means that whatever the Irula hunters are doing is working quite nicely. And they're teaching their South Florida counterparts a few tricks.