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Florida has learned to live with many invasive species, from parrots to pythons. But despite spending millions of taxpayer dollars to eradicate it, there is one slimy, slow-moving pest the state agriculture department cannot catch up with. NPR's Greg Allen reports on the fight against the giant African land snail.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: They can be up to eight inches long. They eat almost any plant. They leave behind a smelly trail of mucus and carry a parasite that can infect humans with meningitis.
That's - what? - I think that's about four inches, five inches?
MARK FAGAN: No, this is 5.2 inches.
ALLEN: 5.2 inches.
Mark Fagan is with Florida's Department of Agriculture. He's holding a large, eye-catching shell, dark brown with yellowy stripes. He says there's another interesting fact about giant African land snails. They're hermaphrodites and don't need another snail to mate. So it doesn't take them long to get busy.
FAGAN: These snails can reproduce anywhere from 100 to 300 eggs per month, beginning at 6 months of age and throughout the entirety of their eight years.
ALLEN: Fagan is part of a team of 48 people that has spent the last three years combing South Florida in a hunt for the snails. Agriculture is Florida's second-largest industry, after tourism. The state has spent $6 million so far in an effort to eradicate this destructive but admittedly slow-moving pest. Fagan has met me in a residential neighborhood in the town of Davie, near Fort Lauderdale.
FAGAN: Just on these two properties alone that we're standing in front of, we have found upwards to 700 snails now.
ALLEN: Florida had an outbreak of giant African land snails before, almost 50 years ago, which it successfully controlled. This new snail onslaught was detected in 2011.
FAGAN: We found them on the trees, and...
FAGAN: Oh, yeah.
ALLEN: The infestation in Davie seems to have started here, in a large, abandoned greenhouse.
FAGAN: It was an orchid nursery, primarily. And when the owners sold it, this is what they left behind. You got a lot of clay pots and a lot of habitat, even in here, for the snails.
ALLEN: It's believed snails may have arrived here in the soil of plants brought from elsewhere. Besides plants, the giant African land snails also consume flowerpots and stucco to get calcium for there shells.
FAGAN: When we originally started finding them in Miami, there were quite a number of homes where there was stucco damage. And, you know, we could walk by and go, OK, this one - there's snails in there.
ALLEN: The agriculture department has already hit the area with a pesticide.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAKING)
ALLEN: Using a rake, a member of the team, Juan Suarez, has uncovered a dead snail.
JUAN SUAREZ: But my coworkers - I can see from a distance that they have a few more. From what I see, they are all dead. That's good.
ALLEN: Suarez says after three years of hunting them, he sometimes dreams about giant African land snails and even recognizes their not-so-pleasant smell. But it's clear he enjoys the hunt.
SUAREZ: It's like looking for that Easter egg and - boom - there it is. A smelly Easter egg, but...
But not everyone considers the snails a pest. In 2010, federal officials near Miami raided the home of a practitioner of a traditional African religion and seized giant African snails used in a ritual. And in July, customs officials in Los Angeles seized several dozen snails shipped here from Nigeria, reportedly intended for dinner. In West Africa, the snails are considered a delicacy. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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