Thursday, 14 September 2017

Conservationists See a Hurricane Risk: Florida’s Exotic Pets Could Escape - via Herp Digest

By Livia Albeck-Ripka, New York Times, 9/8/17

Some conservationists worry that exotic species like the Nile crocodile, left, could escape during Hurricane Irma. The number of Burmese python, right, boomed in Florida after Hurricane Andrew destroyed a reptile breeding warehouse in 1992.Credit
Left, Joe Wasilewski/Associated Press; right, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; photo illustration by The New York Ti

When Hurricane Andrew battered South Florida in 1992, conservationists say, a slithering, voracious species escaped a breeding facility and made its way toward Everglades National Park. There, the Burmese python, originally from Southeast Asia, would feast on raccoons, eggs and deer, multiplying into the tens of thousands until it had ravaged the ecosystem

Now, with Hurricane Irma fast approaching Florida, wildlife organizations are concerned that other nonnative species could be unleashed in the state. There are more than 1,200 species of reptiles and amphibians kept in captivity in Florida, according to the United States Association of Reptile Keepers. Many of them, like the veiled chameleon, Mexican spinytail iguana and Javan file snake, are nonnative.    

“You’ve got a lot of exotic pet breeders down in South Florida,” said Bruce Stein, associate vice president for conservation science at the National Wildlife Federation. “The question is: What’s next?”

There is no definitive proof that Hurricane Andrew was responsible for the invasion of the Burmese python, which was first spotted in the Everglades in the 1980s. Exotic pets are frequently released in the wild by their owners. But after a reptile breeding warehouse was destroyed in the 1992 hurricane, the python population boomed.

Dr. Stein said he feared that amid the chaos of a powerful hurricane, amphibians and reptiles like the “extremely aggressive” Nile crocodile could break loose from breeding centers and private collections. “It’s not inconceivable that we have a repeat of what truly is an ecological disaster in the Everglades,” he said. “It’s a ‘black swan’ event: low probability, high risk.”

Florida, with its muggy, swamp-like conditions, has long been a hub for exotic breeding. More wildlife shipments pass through Miami’s ports than anywhere else in the country except New York and Los Angeles. Once a year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission organizes an amnesty pet drop-off: Keepers can give up their king cobras, Komodo dragons and other exotic species, no questions asked.

Commercial keepers need a permit for certain nonnative species. Those who apply must submit a disaster plan to the wildlife commission, but they create the plan themselves. “It’s really just for their own use,” said Gaby Vega, a spokeswoman for the commission’s Captive Wildlife Office.

In an evacuation, the reptile keeper’s association advises slipping snakes into a bag and putting the bag, tied closed, inside a crate. Owners can take the crate with them or anchor it to the ground with a rope, so that the snake doesn’t drown or float away.

“To have something happen similar to what happened with Burmese python, that’s extremely unlikely,” said Phil Goss, the association’s president. “We only advocate for responsible keeping.”

Mike Van Nostrand, who owns Strictly Reptiles, a reptile wholesaler and breeder in Hollywood, Fla., said he wasn’t worried about the 10,000 animals inside his shop, many of which are exotic. “I don’t have a plan,” he said. “My building is a fortress. It isn’t going anywhere.”

Tony Daly-Crews, who keeps about 70 animals, lives in Jacksonville, which is expecting only a Category 2 or 3 storm. He said he would be bagging, crating and locking his eastern diamondback rattlesnakes inside his breeding facility. Had the forecast called for a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, he said he would have tried to evacuate his home. (On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services waived regulations that restricted interstate reptile travel.)

Conservationists also worry about other types of animals. Peter Jenkins, president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention, said nonnative tropical fish could enter waterways from breeding ponds during storm surges.

Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped out the Schaus swallowtail butterfly, a native species that lives only in the Florida Keys. An estimated 350 butterflies remain today, and Dr. Stein said they were at risk again from Hurricane Irma

Low-lying islands, like Bahia Honda State Park, located in the Keys, were also at risk, Dr. Stein said. He described them as harboring “an extraordinary number” of rare and endangered species and “ecologically precious” ecosystems.

No comments:

Post a comment

You only need to enter your comment once! Comments will appear once they have been moderated. This is so as to stop the would-be comedian who has been spamming the comments here with inane and often offensive remarks. You know who you are!

Related Posts with Thumbnails