When a small, cute looking, bug-eyed possum, known as a sugar glider, escaped on a Cayman Airways flight earlier this year, it sparked concerns about the potential impact of exotic pet smuggling.
Now leading conservation advocates point to an unfolding ecological disturbance on another island on the other side of the world as evidence of the potential consequences of importing banned animal species into the country.
In the Australian island of Tasmania, sugar gliders are an invasive species and pose a threat to the ecosystem, akin to Cayman’s problem with non-native green iguanas.
Rare native swift parrot populations have been decimated, and environmental watchdogs in Tasmania are being forced to spend public money to protect the species from extinction.
Christine Rose-Smyth, chair of the National Conservation Council, said the crisis in Tasmania showed the importance of controlling the import of non-native species to the island. Exotic animals, even cute ones, are not welcome.
“In the case of the sugar glider that was smuggled into the Cayman Islands, that is a situation were no applications were made to the Conservation Council, the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Environment. If they had been, it is very unlikely that such applications would have been approved,” she said during a meeting of the council on Wednesday.
“In Tasmania right now, the environmental protection people are desperately trying to put up nest boxes for indigenous parrots that are under severe threat and are actually in danger from sugar gliders entering the nests and eating the chicks,” she added.
Researchers from the Australian National University are currently testing culling techniques to target sugar gliders, a non-native species believed to have been introduced to Tasmania as pets within the last 200 years.
Dr. Dejan Stojanovic told the Australian media that his team had discovered that sugar gliders were eating approximately half of the adult female swift parrots that nest in mainland Tasmania every year, as well as their eggs and chicks. He said the swift parrot population was in “free fall” and headed for extinction without intervention.
Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, Ms. Rose-Smyth said the situation flagged a potential risk to the Cayman Islands, where the indigenous Cayman parrot is the national bird.
“I just want to take the opportunity to make people aware of the dangers they can pose to our native flora and fauna when they think about bringing in a non native animal without proper certification,” she said.
The man and woman accused of smuggling the sugar glider into Cayman in June have been on bail since their arrest. Customs Collector Charles Clifford has said he expects the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide by Wednesday, Oct. 25, whether or not criminal charges will be pursued. The man who was arrested was identified in an earlier report as Jimel McLean, son of East End MLA Arden McLean.