The alligators of the Florida Everglades are struggling to hang on to their status atop the famous swamp's food chain because of an invasion of Burmese pythons that first escaped from local pet shops 17 years ago.
The enormous snakes have thrived in the vast, humid national park and now number more than 100,000, severely threatening its unique ecosystem, say scientists who want to organise a huge python hunt there.
"They are threatening endangered wildlife there and Lord forbid a visitor in the Everglades ever encounters one," said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, in a letter to United States President Barack Obama's Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar. "There's only one way to [stop] this: kill the snakes."
Last week, a python broke out of its tank at a home in Orlando and strangled a 2-year-old child sleeping in her cot. Other specimens, who have escaped from homes, have been blamed for denting the population of wading birds, racoons and even deer.
Nelson recently introduced a bill to ban imports of the creatures, describing it as "a matter of time" before a tourist is killed by one. "They have become such a problem in the park, you could spend the next 10 years setting traps," said his spokesman.
Dozens of the creatures, whose natural habitat is the tropical jungles and swamps of Burma (Myanmar), first escaped from pet shops during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Their numbers have been boosted by escapees from private homes.
Salazar, the US Government's top wildlife official, now supports population control, despite stiff lobbying from the animal rights organisation Peta, which claimed yesterday that the alien invaders "ended up in Florida through no fault of their own".
BAG A SNAKE
One expert hunter, Tom Rahill, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that he stalks the big snakes at night, wearing animal-handling gloves and snake-proof boots. His preferred method of capture involves using a pole with a loop at the end, to seize the snake by the head.
"It explodes with activity and generally wraps around the catch pole. You take a catch bag, like a laundry bag, and wrestle the bag around the snake and close the bag. It's amazing the power these snakes have. I grabbed one and it dragged me into the water."