To hunt pythons in the Florida Keys and Everglades, it helps to have experts who have done it for generations.
On Jan. 17, two members of the Irula tribe of India guided a team of federal and state wildlife staffers to four pythons in the remains of an abandoned missile base inside the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo.
One of the pythons pulled out of a bunker’s concrete shaft measured nearly 16 feet long, apparently the largest Burmese python yet captured in the Keys.
“We’ve caught a few of the 8- to 9-footers,” refuge manager Jeremy Dixon said Monday. “This was magnitudes larger. You can’t even get your hands around something that size.”
Inside the same shaft as the huge female reptiles were two male pythons in the 8-foot range.
The trappers, who worked about five hours to remove the snakes from the shaft’s narrow confines, did not know the males were there until they opened a separate access hatch. The fourth python was found in another of the three earthen bunkers, about all that remains of the Cold War installation.
“Removing these snakes was a big success but it also gives us a lot of cause for concern,” Dixon said. “Are they throughout the refuge or just in these specific structures?”
The Irulas, Vadivel Gopal and Masi Sadaiyan, come from a tribe historicallys known for its expertise in ridding agricultural fields of rats and snakes, including pythons.
“They’re not afraid to get dirty and crawl into small areas that snakes like,” said Dixon. “They work hard and pay attention to detail. They know the signs of where snakes have been.”
The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spearheaded the effort to bring the Irula tribesmen to South Florida, part of work to stem the threat of invasive Burmese pythons. The exotic snakes found South Florida to their liking and are suspected of devastating the mammal populations of Everglades National Park.
Agency staff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey joined the project, which included the use of detector dogs trained in a UF and Auburn University program.
On a prior trip to North Key Largo, the python-sniffing dogs “detected but didn’t locate” the unwanted snakes at the former Nike missile base, which prompted the search there by the Irula tribesmen.
“One of the biggest issues we have in the refuge is leftover infrastructure from decades past,” Dixon said. “A lot of it has been demolished in place, but it turns out that’s really good habitat for the snakes.”
Sadaiyan and Gopal caught 13 pythons in South Florida, including the four on their one day in the Keys, in their first eight days.
“It is outstanding that they have been able to remove pythons from Key Largo,” said Frank Mazzotti, a reptile expert working with UF. “And to get four pythons, including a 16-foot female, is just incredible.”
No snake eggs were found in the North Key Largo bunker but the presence of the two male snakes raises the possibility of mating activity, Dixon said.
The pythons were taken to a USGS facility in Everglades National Park where they were euthanized for research into the reptiles’ eating habits.
“This effort involved several agencies in a collaboration to help find better ways to detect these invasive snakes,” Dixon said.
The Crocodile Lake Refuge and adjacent state parklands are the only known habitat for endangered species like the Key Largo woodrat and Key Largo cotton mouse. Pythons are a major threat to the species’ survival.
On Jan. 19, a dead 9-foot python was found on Card Sound Road.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206