Over the past decade, at least 260 exotic pets have escaped from homes in Florida alone. Around 20 of those pets have been Burmese pythons. One 11-foot python in 2009 managed to slither out of its home and into an apartment complex in Orlando. Yet another got out of a cage on Summerland Key in 2007, winding up at a nearby bank parking lot.
Meanwhile, in the Burmese python's native range in Southeast Asia, the reptiles are struggling. There, its populations are in steep decline due to habitat loss and people capturing the snakes for skin, supposed medicinal compounds and for the exotic pet trade.
As a realtor might say, the problem is partly one of "location, location, location." A new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment proposed removing the exotic pets from their non-native ranges and using them to boost species numbers in the places where they traditionally exist in the wild.
The same tactic could apply to any animal population that has recently become established beyond its native habitat.
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"In general, species which establish populations outside their native ranges (called 'introduced populations') are considered to be a problem," lead author Luke Gibson explained to Seeker. "In their new territories, they could present threats to native species in the form of predation, competition for food or nesting sites, or the exposure of new diseases and/or genes never before seen in that new territory."
In addition to Burmese pythons, other escaped exotic pets that have established ranges outside of their native territories include the Javan myna, yellow-crested cockatoo and certain species of Amazon parrots, which are now present in feral populations in California.
Examples of other introduced populations not necessarily consisting of former pets include the Southern bell frog, Cuban iguana, Weka (bird), Barbary sheep, Shark Bay mouse and numerous other animals. Plants can fall into this category too, such as the purple pitcher plant, Pico de Paloma, ginkgo, Monterey pine and dawn redwood.
Gibson of the University of Hong Kong and co-author Ding Li Yong of the Australian National University in Canberra say that saving endangered species isn't always as simple as transporting individuals from introduced populations back to their native ranges. Reintroduction is just one of four basic possible solutions.
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One is to stock captive breeding facilities with the escaped exotic pets or other species. Another is to use the animals as research surrogates, helping to guide conservation efforts. Yet another option proposed by Gibson and Yong is to "harvest" the introduced populations, which in some cases could mean that captured animals could "offer an alternative supply for the pet trade, thereby moderating hunting pressures faced by their imperiled wild counterparts," the authors wrote.
"We don't favor any particular solution," Gibson said, "because it really depends on the context."
He and Yong's ideas aren't so far-fetched, as introduced populations of the Arabian oryx and Père David's deer have already been successfully used to boost native populations of these animals. The solution seems to hold promise, so long as the original problems affecting the native habitats are also addressed, be they habitat loss, hunting by humans and/or other threats.
Gibson says that "as species continue to be moved around the world due to the trade of wildlife ... we need to think carefully about what to do with these introduced populations and not squander this unique opportunity."
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