Durban - More and more exotic pets – including Burmese pythons and American turtles with pretty stripes – are escaping or being let loose into the wild in South Africa every year.
Several escaped Burmese pythons, which can grow to 7m, have been seen on the Kwa-Zulu-Natal coast, along with red-eared sliders (a freshwater turtle that has become one of the worst invasive alien species in the world).
Warren Schmidt, a member of the government-led Nurseries and Pet Trade Partnership, said there had been, roughly, a tenfold increase in the number of exotic reptiles imported by pet owners over the past decade.
The increase was partly driven by the desire to keep colourful or unusual exotic pets as an alternative to more traditional ones as they normally required less space, making them ideal candidates for townhouses and smaller flats.
“But their vivid colours fade or they lose their commercial value, and they often end up as unwanted pets that are released into the nearest patch of bush or pond,” Schmidt told a conservation symposium in Pietermaritzburg recently.
Some had also escaped and there was a danger that they would start breeding and establish themselves as invasive alien species similar to the Indian myna, common house crow or Himalayan tahr.
Apart from the risks of alien invader problems in their new habitats, the exotic pet trade could also denude the ecologies of their native countries if they are captured from the wild. Schmidt said Burmese pythons were easily confused with indigenous southern African pythons. In two recent cases in KZN, Burmese pythons were caught and released in Verulam and Southport when they were mistaken for native pythons.
Although there was no evidence that the exotic pythons had established breeding populations in South Africa, it was possible that they could breed with local reptiles to create hybrid species, and also pose competition for threatened local species.
Although there were no laws to prohibit pet owners from keeping these snakes, he noted that Burmese pythons were highly invasive in Florida in the US, especially in the Everglades.
Another potential problem species was the red-eared slider, a North American turtle which was listed among the Top 100 Worst Invasive Species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Schmidt said red-eared sliders were popular pets across the world and several shipments had come to South Africa, despite their classification as Category 1a Invasive Alien Species. Researchers had found, abandoned, several sliders in Durban, Pretoria, Joburg, Scottburgh and Cape Town, even though it was illegal to sell or keep them in this country.
“These exotic reptiles pose a threat to our indigenous terrapins through disease and parasite transmission, as well as competition for similar resources. They also threaten biodiversity in wetland ecosystems and are known carriers of salmonella, which can be transferred to people who handle them.”
Schmidt said a public awareness and education campaign was needed to inform the public about the responsibilities and requirements of keeping exotic animals in captivity. - The Mercury