Cult Leader Unleashes Giant Snail Plague

Giant African Land Snails have been rampaging Florida for the past four years, though it seems their reign has finally come to an end.

Living up to nine years and growing upwards of 8-10 inches long, they’re not quite the stuff of illuminated-manuscript margins, but their effect on Florida agriculture has indeed been legendary. Last year the eradication program had cost the state more than $6 million.

It’s theorized the infestation traces back to a Miami-based religious leader named Charles L. Stewart, described by court documents as “El Africano” or “Oloye Ifatoku,” practicing the traditional African religion of Ifa Orisha (which is often confused with the Cuban Santería). According to an interview conducted by the Miami Herald back in 2010, a witness described the ritual thusly: He would “hold [the snail] over the devotee, then cut the [snail] and pour the raw fluid directly from the still live [snail] into the mouth of the devotee.”

The snail ritual was supposed to cure worshipers with medical problems, but instead they went to the authorities complaining it was making them violently ill. On grounds of illegally smuggling Giant African Land Snails into the U.S., state and federal authorities raided Stewart’s house in January 2010, finding at least 20 of the giant snails in a wooden box kept in his backyard. At the time there was no sign that the snails had gotten loose.

This all changed a year later when a family eight miles from Stewart’s home reported that their backyard had become infested.

Press Correspondent of the Florida Department of Agriculture Aaron Keller describes the snails as a “triple threat.” First is the harm they cause agriculture. “Just by the nature of the snail,” Keller explains, “they’re very unique in the fact that they eat upwards of 500 different plants and vegetables. They also eat stucco off your home to help with their shells. They’re a big nuisance to home owners.” Lastly, he explains, “they’ve been shown to carry a parasite linked to meningitis.”

After the discovery four years ago, “our department has taken a really aggressive stance toward them and have really put in a lot of time, resources, and effort to make sure that they are eradicated from the state,” Keller says.

Keller describes a “multi-pronged approach” to help with eradication. Ninety-six percent of all finds have been from tips to the department hotline. “Our team will go out there and literally comb through their property to find these snails.”

Other methods include dogs and traps. “There are two dedicated canine teams specifically for the Giant African Land Snail,” Keller says. “And we put out bait and molluscicide in properties where we have previously identified.”

There are signs that the program is working. “We’re finding less and less of these snails, and the ones we find are usually dead,” he says. “At certain points we were collecting thousands in a given week and now we’re collecting single digits.”

Since the start of the program, an estimated 159,000 of the snails have been removed.