Enormous Burmese pythons slithering through the Florida wilderness and fighting large alligators have met their match – in the form of tribal snake hunters from India assisted by specially trained sniffer dogs.
An introduced species, the carnivorous, semi-aquatic Burmese python gained a foothold (though that’s probably not the best term) in the region when hatchlings escaped into the swamps. Hurricane Andrew roared through the area in 1992, flattening local pet shops and liberating exotic snakes, along with parrots, wallabies and mountain lions.
Burmese pythons can grow longer than five metres.
Detector dog with snake: Photo by Alex Dyson, University of Florida
Florida and its amazing Everglades region are big tourist drawcards and wild pythons don’t fit into the environment. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are cooperating to catch and expel pythons from environmentally sensitive areas.
A breakthrough came when Irula tribesmen – world-renowned snake catchers from southern India – joined the battle. Teams also started using detection dogs, and the combination did the trick.
In their first eight days on the job, the Irula tribesmen removed 13 pythons, including four on their first visit to Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on North Key Largo.
Indian snake charmers and snake catchers are renowned. Traditionally, the main occupation of the Irula tribe is catching snakes. They successfully hunt and capture Indian pythons in their home province of Tamil Nadu.
“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,” said Kristen Sommers, section 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.”
Group photo with Irula tribesmen: Photo by Ed Metzger, University of Florida
The FWC and UF/IFAS are targeting environmentally sensitive areas for python removal. Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge was chosen because it’s home to the endangered Key Largo woodrat and many protected bird species.
UF/IFAS wildlife biologist, Frank Mazzotti, and his team are working with the Irula tribe on the project. Earlier this month, Irula tribesmen, UF/IFAS, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and US Geological Survey operators removed four Burmese pythons from the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
That’s where the dogs come in. UF/IFAS researcher, Christina Romagosa, and her team work with Auburn University’s Canine Performance Sciences Program. The dogs’ keen sense of smell helps the Irula snake hunters locate and ultimately capture the pythons.
“Dogs are helping to identify areas where pythons are hiding, paving the way for human searchers to target that area for removal,” Romagosa said.
“It is outstanding that they have been able to remove pythons from Key Largo,” Mazzotti added. “And to get four pythons, including a 16-foot [almost 5-metre] female, is just incredible.”
Written by Peter Needham with assistance from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission