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Agricultural inspectors have seized 1,304 giant African snails, one of the world's most destructive invasive species, from sites around the United States, the Department of Agriculture said on Friday.

The slimy pests, which can grow as big as rats, eat up to 500 different kinds of plants and can damage buildings and humans' health. They are a particular problem in Florida, where an extermination campaign is under way.

The Agriculture Department said in a statement that officials with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service seized an adult giant African snail and 284 juvenile snails on New York's Long Island on June 26.

The snail came from a seller in Georgia who owned 949 of them. He told officials they were originally bought from a British source and were sent to the United States by mail.

All the snails were seized. Based on information from the Georgia man, the inspection service also confiscated one giant snail apiece in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Albany, New York.

Inspection service officials also seized 67 snails in July that had been imported from Nigeria to theUnited States via Los Angeles.

They can grow as large as rats.

Importation of giant African snails into the United States is illegal without an inspection service permit, and the agency is not issuing them, the statement said.

The snails can eat up to 500 different kinds of plants and can carry a parasitic nematode that causes meningitis in humans.

A giant African snail can reproduce quickly, producing about 1,200 eggs a year. They also can devour plaster and stucco in their search for calcium they need to grow their shells.

The giant African snail was first found in southern Florida in the 1960s and it took 10 years and $1 million to eradicate it. The animal was reintroduced in Florida in 2011.

The snails are collected or eaten by some people. They may have been introduced to Florida by a Miami group practicing Santeria, a religion with West African and Caribbean roots that was found in 2012 to be using the snails in its rituals.

Source: Reuters