Fred Grimm

Forget computer engineers. Indian snake hunters are crucial foreign labor in Everglades

Irula tribesmen chase pythons in the Everglades

Two Irula tribesman, from India, hunt pythons in the Everglades.
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Two Irula tribesman, from India, hunt pythons in the Everglades.

Silicon Valley, with its insatiable need for highly skilled foreign labor, especially from India, has nothing on us. South Florida is downright desperate for the imported expertise of Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal.

Google, Apple, Oracle, Intel — all have begged the feds to relax limits on how many software engineers with advanced degrees and “specialty skills” they can import from the Europe and Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent.

American techies, of course, rail against the contention that Asian engineers outperform homegrown workers. They argue that tech firms are just employing a clever variation of outsourcing. That these foreigners are stealing American jobs.

Forget that stuff. That argument hardly applies to the special kind of Indian expertise imported by the University of Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Sadaiyan and Gopal can do what we can’t. Which is maybe save South Florida from an economic catastrophe.

The two visiting emissaries from southeast India’s famed Irula Snake-Catchers’ Cooperative can track pythons. Understand, I’m not referring to the hunting techniques employed by our homegrown snake wranglers, who occasionally surprise a python sunning itself on an Everglades hammock.

Sadaiyan and Gopal track snakes through the underbrush. These guys, like generations of Irula tribesmen before them, can figure out the whereabouts of cobras, vipers and kraits in their homeland. In South Florida, they can search out Burmese pythons, the discarded castaways of the pet trade that are propagating like crazy in the Everglades, annihilating native mammals and wading birds. Who knows what’s next on their menu? Pets? Small children? County commissioners?

The two Irula tribesmen can track pythons to their very lair, using skills developed generations ago. The Irula became snake catchers in the reptile-infested Tamil Nadu state (known as Madras during the British colonial days). They were so damn efficient, capturing snakes and selling the snakeskins, that the region’s serpents were nearly wiped out (allowing the rat population to surge).

In 1972, the Indian government outlawed the snakeskin trade. The Irula adjusted, catching cobras, vipers and the wildly dangerous kraits and milking them for poison to sell to drug companies for use in anti-venom medicine, then setting the snakes free. It’s a crucial industry in a country where venomous snakes kill 46,000 people a year, according to the Daily Mail India edition.

Two snake hunters for $68,888 sounds like a better deal than paying Pitbull a million bucks.

The Herald’s Jenny Staletovich (who usually stalks snakes of the political kind) reported that the FWC has allocated $68,888 for the two-month project, covering the costs for two snake hunters along with a pair of Tamil-language translators. Which sounds like a better deal compared to the million bucks Visit Florida paid Pitbull to promote Florida tourism with a music video and on social media. Let Pitbull wrestle a 16-foot python out of an abandoned vine-choked missile silo, then we’ll be getting a bang for the taxpayer’s buck. (And the makings of a hell of a music video.)

Indian writer and filmmaker Janaki Lenin was with a party of wildlife biologists accompanying Sadaiyan and Gopal last week when the snake catchers descended into an old Nike missile silo in the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo. “With a machete, Masi cut the strangler fig roots that blocked the entrance,” she wrote for FirstPost.com, an Indian online publication.

Lenin wrote that pythons were rarely seen in the refuge. None had been captured in the traps set around the area. No one but the Irula hunters had any notion that they’d find a snake that afternoon. Then, she wrote, Masi shouted, “Malappambu,” Tamil for python, from inside the bunker. Make that pythons. They found two males and a 16-foot female.

University of Florida biologist Frank J. Mazzotti told me via email Thursday that the snake hunters had snagged 15 pythons in their first two weeks. Most of those, he judged, would have gone undetected without the tracking skills of the Irula. Staletovich noted that last year 1,000 local hunters, participating in the state-sponsored monthlong Python Challenge, found only 106 snakes.

Mazzotti said “our best hope” in the struggle to contain the python outbreak would be to set up an “early detection and rapid response” system. Maybe we ought to import a few more Irula rapid responders.

The python infestation has seemed hopeless. But maybe not. The International Union for Conservation of Nature now lists the Burmese python as “critically endangered” through large swaths of its natural habitat in southeast Asia, mostly due to the skin trade.

And python leather is currently fetching premium prices. The Guardian reported Wednesday that Paris-based Kering — owner of high-fashion brands like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen — was building its own python farm in Thailand.

No wonder. Gucci python boots are going for $3,500. A Fendi python jacket costs $11,500.

So: Parisian fashions and Irula snake catchers. Maybe we’ve found the magic combination that can save the Everglades.

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