By Dr. Gary Ades, Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden
We understand that HKFP columnist Tim Hamlett, had a very close and distressing encounter with a Burmese Python when it attacked his pet dog, Lemon. This situation can be scary and unexpected; it is totally understandable that Mr Hamlett’s instincts were to protect his pet dog. However, we would like to express our concerns regarding his attitude toward an endangered native animal species which is also the last remaining top predator in Hong Kong. We are concerned about how the encounter is presented in this article and how this may be interpreted by readers, in particular in relation to the suggested violent actions against the snake and the invitation to “collectors” to remove the snake. We would also like to provide some further details about Burmese Pythons and other snakes in Hong Kong, as snakes often and wrongly receive a rough deal and there are many misconceptions associated with human versus snake interactions.
It is worth noting that the globally endangered Burmese Pythons receive international protection and are also a locally protected species under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170). This legislation means that intentionally harming the snake (as suggested by the fact that the author “garrotted it” and recommended to “grab the snake’s tail and crack it like a whip”) or removing the snake (“if any collectors are listening, go up the path from Wong Chuk Yeung Village, turn right and you may find a somewhat chastened python”) are each an offence. The somewhat violent tones of this article towards snakes could encourage others to commit unnecessary cruel acts towards wildlife and ultimately contravene the law. There is also a safety risk with such a “hands-on” approach to snakes; incorrect and inexperienced handling not only risks injury to the snake but also puts you at risk of a bite, which could be life-threatening in the case of venomous species.
The best way to avoid this type of conflict is to keep close control of your dog when walking in the countryside – especially as it is common knowledge that pythons are part of our natural biodiversity and venomous snakes could also be encountered by pet dogs during their countryside outings. Snakes are a natural part of Hong Kong and there is always the chance of an encounter, particularly when out in the wilder areas such as a Country Park. There are no reports of anyone being killed or seriously injured by a Burmese Python in Hong Kong ever, and the facts below help to illustrate that pythons are not so indiscriminate when it comes to choosing their prey.
Burmese Pythons are ambush predators: they will identify a location where there is regular wild boar or red muntjac traffic and lie in wait for the prey to use the track. In the present case Mr Hamlett’s dog unfortunately walked past the ambush point and the python mistook the dog for the wild animal it was waiting for. Burmese Pythons are actually masters of their predatory trade and they are not indiscriminate hunters. Also when they plan to strike at prey they have a clear picture of the animal in terms of its head location and back end, and strike just below the head if possible in order to prevent the animal from taking a further breath as the constricting coils are thrown around the victim’s body. A clean kill is quick and the python manages this accuracy because it has a row of heat-seeking pits on the upper lip which helps provide a heat map picture of the prey, something we would normally associate with an infra-red camera. The snake’s image highlights the major hot spots in the body (brain, heart). Grabbing the leg of potential prey suggests that the python approached this particular ambush half-heartedly and prey such as wild boar would probably have escaped or had the opportunity to inflict severe injury to the python. The point I am making is that the python may have realised its mistake at the last moment. Of course a dog could also be a meal for the python but most likely it was waiting for a wild boar that frequented the area.
All the above will not make Mr Hamlett feel any better but in trying to balance his response and comments regarding the incident I feel it is important to share some facts about the snake.
Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden have been rescuing snakes and dealing with snake conflict cases for over 20 years as part of our Wild Snake Rescue Project. We also have several staff on a 24-hour list with the Hospital Authority to help medical staff identify snakes before the bite victims undergo anti-venom treatments at local hospitals. Our snake project is a collaboration with the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department and the police and provides a mitigatory process for many human-snake conflicts in Hong Kong and sees many snakes of diverse species re-released in the countryside. The project provides an end point/solution for snakes captured following police callouts in Hong Kong and we also educate many visitors through the project and provide some of the stories on our Facebook blogs. Our snake rescue team are experienced at working with snakes and we promote safe and correct handling of them, with human safety and snake welfare given high priority.
Hong Kong’s native snake species form an important role in the ecosystems. They perform important predatory functions as mentioned above in the complex web of nature, controlling pest rodents and even eating other snakes. They themselves are predated by birds of prey and other carnivores, thus providing those animals with food.
We hope to have balanced the anti-snake vibes that Mr Hamlett has sent out and hope he and Lemon have recovered from their unfortunate encounter. We are always happy to provide further snake advice if required.
Dr Gary Ades, in the head of the Fauna Conservation Department at Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden.
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