Federal officials want to keep nine kinds of constrictor snakes out of the United States, saying they belong to invasive species that pose the single biggest threat to the nation's environment.
"This is the story of the invasion of the snakes in the United States of America," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday, standing near a live python at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
He said the Burmese python and the other "alien snakes" are diestroying some of the nation's most treasured — and most fragile — ecosystems.
New York is the biggest point of entry in the U.S. for imported wildlife, the secretary said. The ban covers any kind of import of invasive snakes into the U.S.
In 2009, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inspectors at Kennedy handled more than 27,000 separate wildlife shipments valued at more than $1 billion, or 16 percent of all U.S. wildlife imports.
Last year, 54,000 live reptiles entered through the New York airport.
The proposed ban covers nine species of giant constrictor snakes including the Burmese, North African and South African pythons, the boa constrictor, and the anaconda — green, yellow and Bolivian, as listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
About 1 million such snakes have been imported in the past 30 years and even more bred domestically.
The snakes are popular as pets but destructive when released into the wild — especially in sensitive ecosystems like Florida's Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys. Having no natural predators, the adaptable snakes breed and feed on alligators and other imperiled species whose remains have been found in their stomachs.
"This is an important day for conservation in the United States," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton.
He joined Salazar at a news conference in a Kennedy customs warehouse where the live python was on display along with a collection of intercepted snakeskins.
Teams of two open and examine shipments of snakes and other animals — wearing gloves and using a crowbar to open crates containing potentially dangerous creatures.
The ban proposal will be open to public comment for 60 days before a final decision is made.
An invasive species can be any kind of living organism not native to an ecosystem and that causes harm — from amphibians like the cane toad to plants, insects, fish, fungus and bacteria.
The legislation to ban the snakes was introduced in Congress by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla.
The Burmese python thrives in south Florida and a population of boa constrictors live south of Miami, while recent evidence suggests northern African pythons are reproducing on the city's western boundaries.
Hamilton said he hopes the nine snake species will soon join the list of illegal wildlife trafficking that includes poisonous snakes.
At Kennedy, inspectors handle all snakes as if they were poisonous — in case the documents accompanying them don't match the wriggling goods packed in sacks inside wooden crates.
Across the country, more than 169,700 shipments of wildlife and wildlife products came in last year, with an estimated value of $2.7 billion.