The python hunters

Celebrated in Florida for helping in the fight against its invasive Burmese python problem, Vadivel Gopal and Masi Sadayan are back. And back to being two ordinary Irula snake-catchers. Or, are they?

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Updated: April 16, 2017 7:11 am
 Python, Python hunters, Irulas, Romulus Whitaker. Whitaker, Irulas Whitaker, Irulas Florida, Florida pythons, snake catching tribe, Irula snake catchers, Madi Sadayan, Vadivel Gopal, Indian Express, Sunday Express Vadivel and Masi with Whitaker in the Everglades National Park, after catching a 16-foot female python, holed up in a 27-ft long, 18-inch wide shaft at an old missile base in Key Largo in Florida. (Arun Janardhanan/Photos in Florida courtesy Romulus Whitaker)

Five shirts, bought for Rs 200 each, from a shop in Kelambakkam, near Chennai; four trousers; a pair of shoes; and self-made herbal medicine against snake venom. Vadivel Gopal packed all this in his only bag, for his first trip to the US. Masi Sadayan took one less pair of trousers. Romulus Whitaker picked up the tab for both.

They didn’t know how long they would be there in Florida, or what weather they would encounter. But Vadivel, 49, and Masi, who doesn’t know his age but guesses it is early 40s, hoped the clothes would suffice.

It was their second trip abroad. Since they left their phones behind, they could only talk to their wives on weekends. Vadivel’s wife Pushpa says they talked a total of four times, over two months.

Now, nearly a month after they returned home, it is Florida that seems unreachable. Neither Vadivel nor Masi remembers the place or the forest where they spent their time, or the institute where they gave lectures, or the restaurants they visited. A small-four letter name, ‘Jose’, is the only thing that has stuck. That’s short for their host, herpetologist Joe Wasilewski. “The names just didn’t register!” laughs Vadivel.

Rejoicing after one capture whose details, they say, they have forgotten. (Arun Janardhanan/Photos in Florida courtesy Romulus Whitaker)

Florida itself is not likely to forget Vadivel and Masi in a hurry. Under a pilot University of Florida-funded ‘python detection project’, the two were taken to the US to help catch Burmese pythons. The non-poisonous snakes, one of the largest in the world, grow up to 20 ft. At an estimated number of 10,000-plus, the species has wreaked havoc with the food chain in Florida’s Everglades National Park, known as “the largest subtropical wilderness in the world”.

The success story of Vadivel and Masi —described as “the best snake-catchers Florida has ever seen” (CBC Radio) — was featured in several newspapers, and on BBC and Fox News. “What Judas snakes (named thus for being radio-tagged so that they can reveal snake nests), snake-sniffing dogs and even hunters from around the globe have struggled to accomplish may finally be pulled off by a pair of singing snake-catchers from India,” The Miami Herald reported, while commenting on Vadivel and Masi’s “mysterious” tracking techniques.

BBC talked about the men armed with “crowbars and machetes” surviving on “Trinidadian Indian food”, while Fox News said they carried “tire irons”. The Toronto Star dubbed them ‘The pied python pipers of the Florida Everglades’.

Neither Vadivel nor Masi can read or write. Grinning, Vadivel says he counts as his biggest achievement the chance to catch “the white man’s snake”. They would eventually catch 33 Burmese pythons, which were either killed or kept for research purposes.

Vadivel and Masi belong to a tribe of snake-catchers called Irula, based in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, most of them, including Vadivel and Masi, live in Sanneri village near Chengalpet town, 60 km south of Chennai, while others are spread out over the northern districts.

Romulus Whitaker, a world-renowned herpetologist otherwise known as the ‘Snake Man of India’, says that it was in 2009 that he sent a proposal to Florida University to hire Irula snake-catchers to address Everglades’s python problem. Mostly seen in Myanmar and nearby Southeast Asian countries, the Burmese pythons are believed to have reached Florida, half-way around the world, as a result of accidental and intentional releases by exotic pet owners in the 1980s, says Whitaker’s office. With the 2,000-sq km Everglades’s subtropical climate and habitat providing the pythons a perfect home, their numbers have grown, straining the wetlands eco-system and putting its native species at risk.

Whitaker, who lived in Florida in the 1950s and 1960s and had worked in the Miami Serpentarium, describes the Everglades as a forest swamp. “They call it tree island, probably the biggest island in the world. During our stay, we did not even cover 1 per cent of the swamp,” he says. According to him, the Everglades python menace is “probably the largest reptile problem ever reported on the planet”.

With the 16-foot female python. (Arun Janardhanan/Photos in Florida courtesy Romulus Whitaker)

To contain the snakes, the Florida authorities have tried everything from drones that can sense heat and implanting radio transmitters inside female pythons, to “python challenges” that offer rewards of up to $1,500 for catching snakes, and an iPhone app allowing people to report python sightings. Then came the tribe from south India.

The Irulas call Whitaker, who lives in a small farmhouse 2 km from Senneri, “Ram sir” and revere him as “God”. Having returned from abroad after a stint in the US Army, Whitaker set up the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperatives Society in 1978. Later taken over by the Tamil Nadu government, the society has won many awards for the study of venomous stakes, and has 350 members, including women.

After finally hearing from the Florida conservationists recently, Whitaker went to meet Vadivel and Masi, with whom he had been on a trip to Thailand last year. When he asked whether they would like to go to Florida, the two never thought of refusing. They say they recalled what Whitaker had told them, of not letting their traditional knowledge of snakes go waste.

The three, apart from Whitaker’s wife and interpreter Janaki Lenin, left for the US on January 5. Whitaker’s office says the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission paid for their air tickets, travel and lodging, apart from a “modest stipend”.

In all, Vadivel and Masi earned a little more than Rs 1 lakh each. That itself made them an oddity in Florida, where as Whitaker points out, media reports talked about the South Florida Water Management District hiring local snake-catchers for a minimum wage of $8.10 (around Rs 520) per hour plus bonus for pythons caught. While they were hired to catch venomous snakes in Thailand forests, in Florida, their brief was to trap only the non-venomous ones.

Masi recalls that for the first four days after reaching Florida on January 7, they stayed indoors. The first day they headed out, they struck gold. “We caught our first python, an 8-feet one, on the banks of a water body, as it came out around noon,” he says. Masi smiles talking about the reaction of the others in the team, including Whitaker and Wasilewski. “They clapped and hugged us.”

They would go out hunting twice every day, except Sundays, accompanied by Edward Metzger, a wildlife research technician part of the Everglades Invasive Reptile and Amphibian Monitoring Program. They would set out at 6 am, return by 1-2 pm and venture out again in the evening. They would travel up to two hours in

Wasilewski’s car to get to the innermost areas of the swamp. Once they had tracked down a python with the help of scale marks on the soil, or from droppings or the skin shed, they would clear the bushes around with knives and a special stick, and go about trying to catch the snake. They looked around river banks, mostly near boulders or in bushes.

Masi with his wife Sushila, who works for the Whitaker family. (Arun Janardhanan/Photos in Florida courtesy Romulus Whitaker)

Asked about the effort they had to put in, Masi says it was “nothing”. “The dry terrain in Tamil Nadu is tougher.”

“You literate ones write on the lines of a notebook. We too prepare our canvas first, clearing the bushes, before catching a snake,” says Vadivel, showing a stick forked like a V with which they catch the head of a snake while grabbing its tail by the other hand. “Beware, you have to drop the snake if it turns back (to bite).”

One of the first things they did when they reached Florida was to find appropriate wood to make this stick, Masi says, adding, “Like cattle graze during the day, snakes come out for prey and sunlight in the morning and evening. Since most snakes are incapable of burrowing, they occupy shelters dug by rats. We are trained to catch rats from childhood and that helps us get the snakes.”

Their biggest catch, Vadivel recalls, was a female snake, captured from an old army settlement in Key Largo in the Upper Florida Keys. It was nearly 5 metres long, weighed 75 kg and had laid 62 eggs. It was the eighth or ninth snake they caught, he says.

“It was around 7 pm, and the settlement was in ruins. Trees had sprung up inside buildings fallen to disuse. There were five snakes inside a chamber,” Vadivel recalls.

One of the snakes they caught emptied its bowels on Masi.

Ask them about their “most difficult catch”, and Masi says they don’t see it like that. “Snakes are the same everywhere.”

In an e-mail interview to The Sunday Express, Metzger said, “The goal of bringing the Irulas to Florida was not only to remove pythons but to have an educational exchange between the Irulas and Florida biologists, managers, and local snake-catchers. The Irulas explained their methods, what signs to look for, and which habitats they felt would be best for pythons.”

According to him, Vadivel and Masi proved to be “the most efficient hunters we’ve ever measured in terms of captured pythons per kilometre, and among the best in terms of captured pythons per hour”.

By the second week, their feats had made their way to the media. Vadivel and Masi don’t remember the details of all the interviews they gave. “Whenever people met us, Whitaker or his wife would help us interact with them,” says Vadivel.

The two were also invited to give lectures to naturalists, local snake-catchers and students at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “They asked us simple questions, such as the secret of tracing and catching a snake,” says Masi. Local snake-catchers joined them for some trips.

Whitaker says host Wasilewski threw a farewell for Masi and Vadivel before they left Florida. “We had amazing food and meals. It was a real party.”

The Thailand trip, in comparison, had been less successful. It was Vadivel and Masi’s first trip abroad, and their first time on a plane. “We were taken to catch the Spitting cobra, which project venom from fangs. There were students who wanted to learn our techniques. But we did not get any Spitting cobra in our 14-day stay in the forest,” Vadivel says. They did, however, catch two other cobras, and were paid around Rs 11,000 while all their expenses were covered.

In his four decades of catching snakes (he started out at age 8), Vadivel says he has been bitten twice. Once it was by a “Suratta Pambu” — Saw-scaled viper, one of the most venomous snakes, found in dry areas — and about eight months ago, by a “Kannadi viridian” — Russell’s viper, one of the most dangerous snakes in the Asian subcontinent, behind thousands of deaths a year. He treated both bites with the yellow-colour concoction the Irulas put together from locally available herbs.

Masi was last bitten a few months before the Florida trip, he says. “It was a Russell’s viper. I took the herbal medicine, spent a night at home peacefully and went to a hospital in Chennai next morning.”

Vadivel says that to prevent the snake poison from spreading, they also bite at times into a “Karuppu Gundumani” (a black seed from a shrub that has poisonous proteins, with its roots containing Glycyrrhizin, used as an emulsifier and gel-forming agent in food and cosmetics).

Masi says the medicine or herbs should be taken within five minutes of a snake bite. “It stops the venom from entering the nervous system and reaching the brain, preventing the worst. You should not sleep after taking this medicine,” Vadivel says. The yellow medicine was their “life insurance” in Florida, he adds.

The Irula cooperative society works for Whitaker’s Crocodile Bank Trust, as well as the Madras Snake Park and the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust that he set up. The society, that has an annual turnover of over Rs 1.5 crore, allows snake-catchers to catch up to 8,300 snakes per year, as per forest rules, to extract venom. The snakes are later released. Besides being paid for snakes depending on the species, the society also pays a bonus and incentives. The Irulas earn between Rs 250 and Rs 2,300 a catch.

This work is crucial. “The Irula Cooperative, now operating under the Department of Industries and Commerce of the Tamil Nadu government, produces most of the snake venom used to make life-saving anti-venom in India and adjoining countries,” points out Whitaker. “In India, over 50,000 die from snake bite each year, the highest number in the world.”

Lately, the Irulas, used to leading a semi-nomadic life catching snakes and collecting medicinal plants, have started settling down, says C Manjula, a researcher who has studied the tribe for over 10 years. Many work as agricultural labourers or in brick kilns. The government has helped them move into houses from traditional huts.

K Rajan, the secretary of the Irula cooperative society, says the government has also announced schemes for education of their children. “Unlike earlier, most of the students from Irula families are attending schools and at least complete their Class 10. We also provide them safety equipment such as shoes and gloves,” says Rajan.

Masi’s wife Sushila works for the Whitaker family. She says that the Irulas, who have a deity called Kaniyamma, worship everything about nature — the trees, sky, water, sea. “Our knowledge is from our forefathers. That knowledge is there in our eyes, our footprints. That helps us catch rats and eat them, that helps us identify a snake.”

The American newspapers may have written about them singing while weaving their magic, but it is not true, Vadivel chuckles. “Only once or twice would we have sung. Singing has nothing to do with catching a snake. After all, snakes can’t hear.”

He breaks into a song though, and wife Pushpa corrects him. “She sings better,” Vadivel admits.

Pushpa grins that she was worried Vadivel didn’t want to come back. “True, I did not,” he nods. “There, life was so easy, we really liked the people, even if we were not able to understand them.”

Vadivel got Pushpa a sweater from the US and a few sweets. He only bought a few jackets for himself, as the cold finally hit. Masi gifted Sushila a jacket, earrings and bangles. Sushila says he also bought sweets and dresses for their grandchildren.

Chengalpet is one of the hottest regions of Tamil Nadu. It is hot and humid, and the temperatures seldom fall below 28 degrees Celsius. Pushpa and Sushila are looking forward to a chance to wear their new clothes.

Maybe they will get one on the motorcycle Vadivel hopes to buy, with his Rs 1 lakh.

Meanwhile, back in Florida, Metzger said, while “only time will tell” whether they would call the Irulas again, or how the interaction with Vadivel and Masi would be put to use, there has been at least one success.

“One leader of a non-profit organisation was able to apply his new knowledge and captured a python looking deeper into the vegetation — as the Irulas recommended.”

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