Burmese pythons and other giant snakes imported as pets could endanger some of America’s most important parks and wilderness areas if they are allowed to multiply, according to a report released on Tuesday.
Wildlife experts say the Burmese python is distributed across thousands of square miles (kilometers) in south Florida. There could be tens of thousands in the Everglades, a wildlife refuge that is home to the Florida panther and other endangered species.
The Burmese python and four other non-native snakes–boa constrictors, yellow anacondas, northern and southern African pythons–are considered “high-risk” threats to the health of U.S. ecosystems because they eat native birds and animals, the U.S. Geological Survey report said.
Two species, the boa constrictor and Burmese python, have already established breeding populations in south Florida and experts have found “strong evidence” that the northern African python may be breeding in the wild as well.
Florida wildlife officials say the Everglades wetland is a dumping ground for pet owners who find their snakes too large to handle when they mature. They eat birds, reptiles, rodents and other small mammals and are considered a major threat to endangered species like the wood stork and Key Largo woodrat.
“This report clearly reveals that these giant snakes threaten to destabilize some of our most precious ecosystems and parks, primarily through predation on vulnerable native species,” Robert Reed, a USGS invasive species scientist, said in a statement.
State wildlife managers recently allowed hunters to kill invasive snakes. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress to ban the importation of some constrictors and the Humane Society of the United States recently said it supported laws to stop the importation of and trade in large reptiles.