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USDA seizes more than 1,200 illegal giant snails

WASHINGTON -- The giant African snail damages buildings, destroys crops and can cause meningitis in humans. But some people still want to collect, and even eat, the slimy invaders.

The Agriculture Department is trying to stop them. Since June, department authorities have seized more than 1,200 live specimens of the large snails, also known as giant African land snails, all of them traced back to one person in Georgia, who was selling them illegally.

The USDA discovered the snails through a tip from social media at the end of June. From that tip, the department seized more than 200 snails from a person on Long Island, New York, who identified the seller in Georgia. The department then interviewed the seller and seized almost 1,000 more snails in Georgia, plus one each in Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York.

Agriculture officials said the investigation was ongoing and they would not identify any of the individuals.

It's important to capture the snails without delay, authorities say, because they multiply so quickly, producing 1,200 or more offspring a year. And the snails, which can grow larger than the size of a fist, have no natural predators in the United States. People are their only threat.

Florida authorities know this all too well. Agriculture officials there are in their third year of trying to eradicate the snails. They were discovered in Miami in September 2011, and they've been found on houses, where they eat plaster and stucco to gain calcium for their shells, and in residential gardens, where they tear through plants.

Mark Fagan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, said the agency so far has found 141,000 snails in 26 areas of Miami-Dade County. Luckily, he said, they have not yet progressed into any of the state's rich agricultural areas. The snails eat 500 types of plants, including most row crops and citrus, so keeping them away is an important investment for the state's US$100 billion-a-year farm industry.

Florida first saw the giant snails in the 1960s, when a boy from Miami was believed to have smuggled some of them in from Hawaii. His grandmother eventually released his snails into her garden — starting an infestation that took 10 years to eradicate.

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This Sept. 30, 2011 photo shows a collection of giant African land snails in Miami. The Giant African Snail eats buildings, destroys crops and can cause meningitis in humans. But some people still want to collect, and even eat, the slimy invaders. (AP)

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