| Guillermo Nova |
“LOOK, how disgusting,” Cuban farmer Mario Mirabal says, holding his nose while stirring with a stick a bucketful of giant African land snails that he has picked up and burned.
“They eat everything, destroy everything in their wake,” says the farmer, based in the capital Havana, who has lost 4,000 sunflowers to the pest of African origin that is wreaking havoc on the Caribbean island.
In addition to sunflowers, the snails love cassava, bananas and potatoes – though nearly everything is good enough for them.
However many snails Mirabal manages to burn, the next day there are more.
Regarded as one of the world’s most invasive species, the hermaphrodite animals proliferate rapidly, laying between 50 and 300 eggs six times a year. They can grow to the size of a rat and live up to nine years.
The snails can be killed with salt, Mirabal says, “But as you can imagine, we cannot sprinkle our fields with salt, because that would destroy the soil.”
The only remedy he has found so far is to build fences to prevent the molluscs from reaching seedbeds.
The farmer gets some rest from the snails when the sun is at its highest. “They don’t like the sun,” but seek out shady and humid areas, he explains.
The snails also become inactive during the dry season. But during the rainy season that lasts from May to October, they love the climate on the island, where there are also few predators to attack them.
Originally from East Africa, the giant snail has spread to “all continents except for the Antarctic,” says Luis Alvarez-Lajonchere, a mollusc expert at the University of Havana.
Until 2014, however, no snails had been seen in Cuba, and their arrival there is a mystery.
“We don’t know the real reasons why it came to Cuba,” says Michel Matamoros Torres from the Institute of Investigations on Plant Health (INISAV).
Some people believe the snails were imported by people wanting to eat them or to keep them as exotic domestic animals. But the most common theory is that the snails were brought for use in Afro-Cuban religious rituals. “We cannot affirm that religion has something to do with the giant African snail … [but] we are alerting the religious community,” Matamoros Torres says.
The snails reportedly first appeared near houses of Afro-Cuban religious practitioners or places where ceremonies were held. Some Cubans believe that the snails are used as talismans to obtain a house or to elude police. Experts are reluctant to give numbers on how many snails are on the island. “This information is not yet public, although we do keep tabs on the population [of snails] that is destroyed. The number is high, but we don’t want to create alarm,” Matamoros Torres says.
For the time being, snails have been spotted mainly in Havana, in 40 areas of Cuba’s capital city.
In the Metropolitan Park in the heart of the city, more than 12,000 of the molluscs were extracted by hand. “In only two hours, we had picked up more tan 300 snails,” Alvarez-Lajonchere recalls.
“Sometimes it is not possible to eradicate a monster of this scale. You can limit its access to natural areas, but that takes a lot of resources,” the expert adds.
Matamoros Torres is concerned that the snail could transmit diseases to humans and animals. It is known to spread eosinophilic meningitis, which can develop neurologic sequelae in humans, but rarely kills its victims.
These creatures are “impacting the country’s agriculture,” says Jose Antonio Cruz, whose farm has been invaded by the molluscs, in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde.
“How is it possible that man discovered the nuclear bomb, capable of annihilating humanity, and cannot find the means to get rid of the snails?” – Text & Photos dpa