Lost in the urban jungle

The inevitable conflict between humans and the natural environment could spell the end for Hong Kong’s endemic pythons and their fragile ecosystem

Hazel Parry
September 10, 2009
Lost in the urban jungle
Photo by Brent Lewin

The 4-metre Burmese python with its distinctive black and brown markings clearly visible in the bright sunlight, lay coiled beneath the shade of a plant within striking distance of a girl’s pink bicycle. It was a sight that horrified Anna Boon, a British nurse, when she returned home to her quiet hillside village in Hong Kong’s New Territories one afternoon early this year.

“It was huge. Its head was as big as my fist,” said Boon. “It was curled up and very quiet, just watching. It was a treat to see it. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Impressive, yes, but her neighbours were not keen on the python taking up residence in their gardens and perhaps eating their pets. So they did what most people would do in the same situation: they called the police, who brought with them David Willott, a local snake catcher.

He and a policeman spent several minutes wrestling with the huge snake before finally bagging it and heaving it into a van to be taken away. For Boon it was an exciting distraction – a reminder of the wilds just beyond her doorstep and a fascinating close encounter with Hong Kong’s biggest predator.

For Willott it was a turning point; his days of catching pythons in Hong Kong are over. “I’m not doing this anymore. I’ll catch other snakes, but no more pythons. They’ve been picking on them for too long,” he said.

“They” are the people at Hong Kong’s agriculture, fisheries and conservation department (AFCD) who for years have been dealing with pythons in a way that experts fear is at the very least inappropriate for a protected species. At worst, it is damaging Hong Kong’s entire ecosystem.

The policy they adopt is translocation, taking an animal from one location and releasing it somewhere else. For the python captured in Hong Kong that is southern China, an area considered to be the snake-eating capital of China and where a large python can fetch as much as 10,000 yuan ($1,500) on the black market.

Its meat and eggs find their way into markets and restaurants while the skin is used in the manufacture of fashion accessories and in the erhu, a Chinese musical instrument, says Traffic East Asia, a group that monitors endangered species. As a result the python population has declined dramatically, earning it a place in the China Red Data Book of Endangered Animals.

The python pulled from the shade of the fern was just one of hundreds of snakes captured over the past 12 years by the 42-year-old Briton. It was undoubtedly one of the biggest he had ever caught, but it was far from being the most dangerous.

Growing up to 6 metres and 90kg, the snake feeds on small mammals. On rare occasions it has been known to eat small dogs and in 2006 a husky was crushed to death by a 4-metre python in a country park. But there are no recorded cases of them attacking humans which, says Willott, makes it less of a threat than several other snakes such as the king cobra and krait.

Yet while the cobras he catches for the police are released, the pythons are not. Ironically, the reason they’re treated differently lies in the fact that it is a protected species under a city ordinance. It is also listed under the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (Cites), an international agreement that puts strict controls on the movement and trade of endangered animals.

As a consequence, a captured python has to be put under the protection of government conservation officials. It is then kept in quarantine until its released in Chinese areas identified by the local Cites authority as being suitable for the snake.

“It is a case of dumping your problem in someone else’s backyard,” said one wildlife expert. “These are native snakes – they are supposed to be here. We should be teaching people how to live with them, not moving them. The state of the population of Burmese pythons in China is appalling.

“There is a huge market for snakes as food. I am sure a healthy python would be in demand in a local restaurant and I cannot imagine a poorly paid official seeing a few pythons and not thinking: ‘How much money can I make from that?’ So the bulk of pythons taken from Hong Kong are probably not going to a safe environment at all.”

The fate of the python has also attracted the attention of the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which recently submitted a request to the AFCD to explain the translocation procedure and why it takes place. One of the main concerns, says Sandy Macalister, its executive director, is the fact that the programme takes place in the absence of any scientific studies on the possible effects movement could have on the ecosystem.

It’s a fear shared by Dr Peter Daszak, president of the Wildlife Trust. “If an animal is a protected species, it is protected for a reason, usually because it has the potential to become endangered. Taking it out of Hong Kong is against the legislation that gives it that protection,” he said.

“It sounds to me like they are doing a whole series of things wrong. For example, the Hong Kong python could be different genetically to the mainland Chinese python and so what they are doing is introducing a non-native population into China. There is also the potential for disease transmission. Both of those things are generally not good practice for either conservation of wildlife or health.”

Experts have learnt from experience that moving a species can have disastrous results. In 2008, in a well-meaning attempt, the US army at Fort Irwin in California moved 770 turtles from an area chosen for military exercises. Within months more than 10% of the turtles were dead. Some were eaten by coyotes, but it also transpired that the army had moved the creatures into turtle populations known to have a potentially deadly, upper-respiratory tract disease.

“Tinkering with the wildlife population can have dramatic effects on them, other animals and the ecosystem,” said Daszak. “The bottom line is that you take a predator like a python out of an ecosystem and you end up with the animal it feeds on increasing in numbers. When cities move out into the countryside, the top predators are always the first to go. Either because they are sensitive to human movement or because people move them. The tragedy here is that the Burmese python is not a dangerous snake, it’s the victim here.”

In its defence, the AFCD says there is no scientific evidence to show relocating local pythons is affecting the ecosystem and claims

the population of wild Burmese pythons is fertile and healthy, so much so that it continues to intrude “into private premises in rural areas”.

So what happened to the 4-metre snake in Boon’s village? Like hundreds, possibly thousands of pythons before, it was taken to the government animal management centre to be prepared for translocation to China. Before that could happen, it died in captivity. The AFCD claim that it was in bad health.

Willott greeted the news with a mixture of sadness and resignation. “It seemed healthy and it acted as I would expect a healthy python to act,” he said. “That snake was a protected species, but was it really protected? We don’t know and I suppose we will never really know why it died. Perhaps it just lost the will to live.”

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