Every morning, two Indian tribesmen in T-shirts and long trousers, leave their dwellings in southern Florida and head into the Everglades to hunt for some of the world’s biggest snakes.
Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, members of the once-nomadic Irula tribe, are armed with crowbars and machetes. Wearing fleece jackets and baseball caps, they slash and wade their way through the largest subtropical wilderness in the world to hunt down Burmese pythons.
The non-native snakes – which escaped into the wild in Florida or were released as pets – pose the biggest threat to the small mammal population of the national park. They also eat birds, alligators and deer.
Masi and Vadivel, members of an ancient tribe, have become unlikely globe-trotting snake-catchers. Last July, they went to Thailand to help researchers implant radio transmitters for their study, and ended up catching two king cobras.
Back home, the men are part of a thriving 35-year-old co-operative of community members, who catch snakes and extract and sell their venom for a living. India is home to 50 species of venomous snake and bites kill some 46,000 people a year, accounting for nearly half the snakebite deaths in the world.
The Irulas poached snake and lizard for their skins until the trade was outlawed in 1972. A decade later, they formed a co-operative near the southern city of Chennai and switched to catching poisonous snakes – mainly cobras, kraits and vipers – to extract and sell venom. The venom is now sold to seven laboratories, who manufacture most of India’s anti-snake venom serum.
Last year, the co-operative’s 370-members, including 122 women, sold snake venom worth 30 million rupees ($446,500; £357,900), up from a mere 6,000 rupees in 1982.
They have a government licence to catch 8,300 snakes every year – each snake is released in the wild after four extractions in a month – but demand they are allowed to catch three times as many.