JOSH HRALA, JAN 27, 2017, Science Alert
To help with their growing Burmese python problem, officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have brought in the big guns: members of India's Irula people, who make their living hunting snakes in their homeland.
Accompanied by hunting dogs, the tribesmen and park officials have so far caught 13 rogue snakes in eight days, including one female that measured a whopping 4.9 metres (16 feet) long.
"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, 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.”
Florida has been struggling to prevent introduced Burmese pythons from invading sections of the state for quite a while now.
The National Parks Service (NPS) says Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) – one of the largest species of snake in the world – were introduced to the delicate Floridian ecosystem after pet owners either lost their snakes or intentionally released them into the wild.
Burmese pythons are a native Southeast Asian species, and since being introduced to the wilds of Florida, they've became a formidable invasive species in the region, thanks to a lack of predators.
"By preying on native wildlife and competing with other native predators, pythons are seriously impacting the natural order of south Florida's ecological communities," say NPS officials.
"The continued proliferation of Burmese pythons – and the continued introduction of new foreign species – can further threaten many of the endangered plants and animals we're working diligently to protect.”
Between 2002 and 2012, over 2000 pythons have been removed from the Everglades and the surrounding area, but the problem is getting worse.
The FWC has now turned to the people who are revered as some of the best snake catchers in the world: the Irula.
The Irula are an ethnic population from India’s Tamil Nadu and Kerala states, whose prime source of income is catching rats and snakes – two creatures that cause a lot of trouble for people in their homeland.
Since these individuals have grown up and made their livings hunting and catching snakes, Florida officials asked for their help in fighting the problem in the US.
According to the FWC, the plan is to use specially trained dogs to sniff out the snakes in the hardest hit areas. Once a snake is spotted, the Irula can capture it, and share their techniques with officials and the public.
"Dogs are helping to identify areas where pythons are hiding, paving the way for human searchers to target that area for removal," said Christina Romagosa, from Auburn University’s Canine Performance Sciences Program.
The good news is that the plan has been working so far. The FWC reports that, after just eight days on job, the team has already captured 13 snakes, including four from the hard-hit Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on North Key Largo.
"It is outstanding that they have been able to remove pythons from Key Largo," said biologist Frank Mazzotti, from the University of Florida.
"And to get four pythons, including a 16-foot [4.8-metre] female, is just incredible.”
The partnership between the Irula and the wildlife team is only just getting started. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out, but if their current rate of capture is any indicator of the future, it seems like a perfect match.