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Want To Say 'Python' In Tamil? Visiting Snake Trackers Can Help With That

Vadivel Gopal, left, and Masi Sadaiyan came to Florida from India for two months to help catch Burmese pythons.
Kate Stein
Vadivel Gopal, left, and Masi Sadaiyan came to Florida from India for two months to help catch Burmese pythons.

The Tamil word for python is "malaippāmpu." Translated literally, it means "mountain snake."

But two Tamil-speaking snake trackers from India, who are in South Florida to help with the region's python problem, think "water snake" would be a more appropriate name.

"They were thinking we should call it 'taṇṇīr pāmpu,'" said Romulus Whitaker, an American-born herpetologist from India who's been translating for trackers Vadivel Gopal and Masi Sadaiyan. "They feel very strongly that the pythons are attached to water. And, what the heck -- the Everglades is a huge swamp."

Whitaker says Gopal and Sadaiyan think the pythons spend a lot of time in the water. They’ve had trouble finding shedded skins and scat -- snake poop -- on land. 

"It's quite difficult and different in comparison to [India]," Whitaker said.

Gopal and Sadaiyan are members of India's Irula tribe. Back home, they've made careers of catching venomous snakes -- cobras and a couple types of vipers -- to make antivenom for snakebites. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission invited them, Whitaker and another translator to Florida for two months to help catch pythons, survey the python population and exchange ideas with local snake catchers.

Along the way, Gopal and Sadaiyan have explored Wal-Mart and Bass Pro Shops, and attended a fundraiser for the missile base in Everglades National Park. When asked what they'll tell their families in India about, Whitaker says they bring up those adventures.

"They say the food we've been having, all sorts of very interesting American food, has been very nice. And they've had a lot of fun with all the people they've met," Whitaker said. But, he continued, "They still complain they haven't seen enough shedded skins. And they just keep going back to the snake-hunting part of it."

Part of the allure, Whitaker says, is the challenge.

"In India, they're looking at the tracks of snakes. Here, we're hunting where there's limestone and it's very hard for snake tracks to be seen," he said. Breaking from translation, he added: "It drives them nuts."

Still, Gopal and Sadaiyan have been fairly successful in their python search. They caught one python that was 16 feet long and 166 pounds. And as of Monday, they'd collected 33 of the snakes. By comparison, the more than 1,000 hunters who participated in last year's monthlong  Python Challenge caught 106 pythons.

Gopal and Sadaiyan returned to India on Tuesday.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Kate Stein can't quite explain what attracts her to South Florida. It's more than just the warm weather (although this Wisconsin native and Northwestern University graduate definitely appreciates the South Florida sunshine). It has a lot to do with being able to travel from the Everglades to Little Havana to Brickell without turning off 8th Street. It's also related to Stein's fantastic coworkers, whom she first got to know during a winter 2016 internship.Officially, Stein is WLRN's environment, data and transportation journalist. Privately, she uses her job as an excuse to rove around South Florida searching for stories à la Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Regardless, Stein speaks Spanish and is always thrilled to run, explore and read.
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