Florida is finally getting closer to eradicating the giant African land snails that have plagued the state since an outbreak in late 2011. The snails were first found in Coral Gables a year after a religious leader named Charles L. Stewart of Hialeah smuggled them into the country and made his followers drink the snails' mucus. Since then, more than 157,000 of the slimy creatures — which can eat through walls and cause meningitis — have been collected.
Though there’s still a population of the snails in South Florida, it’s nothing close to what it once was. And at this point, Mark Fagan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, says eradication of the snails is possible.
“We were finding buckets full of snails in the beginning... thousands of them,” Fagan says. “Now we’re down to a couple hundred per week, tops — like one little baggie of two or three snails per day.”
The giant African land snail, native to East Africa, is one of the most damaging snails in the world. It consumes at least 500 types of plants, including everything grown in Florida as food. It can also cause structural damage to plaster and stucco and may carry a parasitic nematode that can lead to meningitis in humans. The snails reproduce at a fast pace, laying hundreds of eggs per month.
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Before the latest incursion, the snails were previously seen in Florida in 1966. Back then, only 18,000 of them caused $1 million in damage and took ten years to eliminate.
This time around, inspectors were better prepared and have moved swiftly. In addition to constant on-the-ground collection efforts, the state has led a targeted public service campaign to educate South Floridians about the snails — through outlets such as newspapers, television, billboards, and bus stop ads — and inform residents what to do if they spot one. New signs appeared in Little Haiti this week as inspectors looked for the creatures there.
Fagan says the state’s efforts have been so successful that Florida is becoming an international model for how to eradicate the snails. Local residents have been integral to that effort, he says.
If you see a giant African land snail, call 888-397-1517 to report it. Do not touch it, unless getting meningitis is on your bucket list.