The land of sunshine, endless beaches, palm trees, and resort hotels, Florida is also home to a growing number of Burmese pythons. In Florida's Everglades National Park, 95 pythons were captured last year―not counting a 13-footer that exploded after trying to eat an alligator.
In February, a group of tourists at the Pa-hay-okee Overlook chanced upon a battle between an alligator and a python, with the snake wrapped around the alligator in a tight embrace. After a fierce struggle, the alligator rolled over and grabbed the snake in its mouth, swimming off as the victor.
Another group of tourists later watched another battle between a snake and an alligator at the Everglade's Anhinga Trail. After spending more than 24 hours in the mouth of the alligator, the snake was able to break free and slither off into the marsh.
The Burmese Python is a popular―and legal―pet snake in the United States. In the last five years, nearly 150,000 Burmese pythons have been imported into the US. Its hatchlings sell for as little as USD 20.
The problem though, is that once the cute baby snakes turn into 15-foot-long beasts that eat more than their owners do, most owners decide to get rid of them by releasing them into the wild. The snakes are perfectly at home in the Everglades' water, heat, and vegetation, and they have no predators.
"All of the Burmese pythons that we see in the park are a product of the international pet trade," said Skip Snow, a wildlife biologist at the Everglades National Park. Snow's office maintains a 'python sightings' hotline, so people can alert them to snakes on the loose.
Since the mid-1990s, park rangers have had to respond to a steadily increasing number of calls about Burmese pythons in the Everglades. The problem is getting much worse now because these snakes have now started breeding in the park.
In their newfound habitat, Burmese pythons feed on squirrels, black rats, possums, and even house wrens. Wildlife officials are worried because these snakes, which can grow to 20-feet long, may be preying on native mangrove fox squirrels and wood storks as well, besides competing with the eastern indigo snake for both, food and space.
The eastern indigo snake is listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as a threatened species. There are serious concerns about human safety as well, since the mammoth snakes are able to subdue and kill alligators, which are much stronger than humans.
To keep the problem from getting worse, state Rep. Ralph Poppell is proposing a bill to add Burmese pythons to Florida's list of regulated reptiles. The bill, which could force python buyers to complete state training, buy a license, and face jail time if they release their snakes into the wild, is being heard in committees on both sides.
The Burmese python is just one of thousands of non-native animals and plants that have invaded the United States in the last few decades. Florida is now infested by exotic creatures, such as the African monitor lizards and vervet monkeys.
Although some of these species arrive accidentally, stowing on cargo ships or inside packing materials, many of them enter the US legitimately, as a part of the booming trade in exotic pets, plants, and food items.
A survey earlier this year showed that 16 species of non-native tropical fish have been found at 32 locations along the southeast coast of Florida; all of them most likely introduced when hobbyists got tired of their aquariums and dumped their fish into the ocean.
Florida is not alone in dealing with the problem. The emerald ash borer, a metallic green Asian beetle that arrived at the Great Lakes in wooden packing material a couple of years ago, has destroyed over six million trees in Michigan. The African clawed frog, native to Kenya, eats almost anything and breeds prolifically.
The frog has completely taken over Lily Pond in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, altering the ecosystem by eating insects, fish, and even birds. The only way to prevent them from spreading would be to kill them, but doing so would cost millions of dollars and California can't afford it.
The ecological impact of the growing threat from foreign species is grim. Invasive species are a leading cause of species endangerment and extinction worldwide. Almost half of the species on the endangered species list in the US are there because their habitat is threatened by invasive species.
According to Steven Williams, the director of the USFWS, invasive species are the number one environmental threat to the US. Experts say the US has been lagging to act in response to this growing problem and is paying the price today. Once invasive species are established, they are virtually impossible to eradicate, so the focus is to simply control them.
Increased global travel and trade have only served to exacerbate the biological pollution. The booming trade in exotic animals has compounded the problem, with the officials at the Miami International Airport reportedly confiscating 70 foreign shipments each day.
Some contained thousands of animals such as tarantulas, lizards, and snakes. Many of the species are illegally imported, but then, there are several exotic animals that are legal, including the 22 of the 24 python species known around the world.
Snow, the Everglades National park biologist, knows that the problem is a grave one. He has just one thing to say to pet owners who may have grown tired of their exotic animals: "Please don't release them into the wild."