Giant African snails are eating their way across Havana

I wrote this piece for USA Today. See original version.

HAVANA — Giant African snails are quietly eating their way across Cuba’s capital, gobbling up leaves, flowers, bark and even the bones of dead animals.

The snails, one of the world’s most invasive species, can grow up to 8 inches long and weigh a pound. Some Cubans use the snails in religious rites. And experts fear Cuban authorities won’t be able to stop the slimy menace.

“I think it’s highly improbable that the snail will be eradicated in Cuba,” said James Coupland, an entomologist in Ontario, Canada, and an authority on invasive snails.

Giant African snails can transmit disease and have damaged crops in Florida, Georgia and other states. The creatures abound at Parque Forestal, a recreational complex in Havana. They are most active at night and often burrow underground by day.

Darian Ruiz, 13, uncovered several of the snails on a recent morning. “It’s coming out. Look!” the eighth-grader exclaimed as one snail emerged from its shell.

Some Cubans are afraid of the snails, calling them poisonous. “That snail gives off a poison that has caused quite a few deaths in Cuba,” said Dayron Valdez, 36, a visitor to the park.

Cuban biologist Antonio Vazquez said he hasn’t heard of any snail-related deaths in Cuba, but the creatures sometimes carry a parasite that can cause meningitis in humans.

Vazquez, a snail specialist at Havana’s Institute of Tropical Medicine, noted the institute first detected the African snails in January 2014, about 10 miles southeast of Havana. By September 2015, the snails had spread to at least 13 other spots across 100 square miles.

“We are almost certain that it is limited only to Havana and two adjacent provinces,” Vazquez said.

He doesn’t know how the snails wound up in Cuba, but “what we’re almost sure of is that it is related to the practice of religions of an African origin.” Many snails have been found in forested areas or near homes where Cubans practice Yoruba, a religion with roots in Nigeria and neighboring Benin.

African snails also are considered a delicacy in Nigeria.

“Everyday food in Cuba is not very protein-rich,” said Stephan Palmie, a University of Chicago anthropologist who studies Afro-Caribbean cultures. “African escargot might be welcome.”

African snails can be legally exported to the United States if they’re cooked or frozen. Margaret Lanier buys them frozen for her African restaurant in Miami Gardens, Fla. “They’re from Nigeria,” she said. “I just have to cook it.”

In Cuba, Vazquez said an outreach program with key Yoruba leaders “may help in slowing” the snails’ march across the island. But now that the snails are established in Havana, it will be “quite difficult” to wipe them out, he said.

African snails rapidly reproduce and have few natural enemies in Cuba, other than mice and rats. And they are survivors. They prefer tropical climates but can endure cold and even snow. If their favorite plants aren’t around, they’ll snack on car paint and stucco, experts say.

Florida has tried several times to get rid of the snails, starting as far back as the 1970s. Posters urging residents to report snail sightings warned: “This is not science fiction. This is real.” The state trained dogs to sniff out snails and encouraged grade-schoolers to become “junior detectives” and help out.

By June 2016, inspectors had collected and destroyed 161,960 African snails in South Florida. Some neighborhoods remain under quarantine. It’s illegal to remove live snails from those areas without a permit, according to U.S. Agriculture Department regulations.

“There is a good chance that the snail will be eradicated in South Florida, as that program has been very effective,” said Coupland, who is assisting with the effort.

He said the African snail is also well ensconced in South America, with a high probability of an invasion in the Caribbean isalnds. A new infestation is being reported in the Dominican Republic, Coupland added.

He said it’s too early to assess the snail’s long-term impact in Cuba, but noted some people apparently keep the snails as pets.

A woman tweeted a photo in July of a huge African snail that she cradled like a bunny. “Please. My rabbit. He’s very sick,” the woman tweeted.

She told USA TODAY that she tweeted the photo but wasn’t the woman holding the snail in the photo, which racked up 136,631 likes.