In the evening of March 23, the Hong Kong Snakes Facebook group of 12 000-plus members saw a post from local police snake catcher William Sargent that a seven foot-long King Cobra was stuck inside a man-made drainage pipe. While human-snake encounters are far from uncommon, this raises the concern of whether- and how- similar conflicts could be navigated in the future to protect the wellbeing of the reptiles.

Despite his three decades of experience observing and interacting with snakes, this incident took the South Lantau-based snake catcher by surprise.

In a video footage that captured the attempted rescue, Sargent can be seen lubricating the snake in an attempt to set it free, but to no avail. “It is not even shifting a millimetre,” he is heard saying. “I don’t know what to do.” The snake catcher then dragged the live snake out of the weephole by force. It, however, did not survive after a hydration attempt, Sargent later announced on the social media group.

The body of the King Cobra snake has since been handed over to the Science Department of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, where the institution is reportedly building a database of the territory’s snake species for research purposes.

Sightings of snakes are far from uncommon in Hong Kong. In a recent interview with Earth.Org, the snake catcher of six years credited the development of Hong Kong’s wilderness for allowing snakes to thrive, calling their habitats the “number one most important part of the equation in biodiversity and wildlife.”

The King Cobra isn’t the only reptile that can be found in Hong Kong. The city of 1,1108 square kilometres is home to 42 other snake species, from the more frequently encountered Bamboo Pit Vipers and Common Rat Snakes to the less common Banded Kraits and Beauty Rat Snakes; its population of over 7 million enjoys biodiversity that benefits from designated country parks and areas that provide “statutory protection for the habitats of diverse flora and fauna,” according to the government’s website.

This has, in effect, meant that incidents of snake predations are plentiful. Whether it’s a Burmese Python preying on a wild boar, or a Redneck Keelback consuming a frog live, these fascinating animals show the food web in action while keeping the rodent population under control.

Speaking to Earth.Org, author of “A Field Guide to the Snakes of Hong Kong” and wildlife photographer Adam Francis described the role that snakes play in Hong Kong ’s wildlife as “constantly changing.”

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hong kong snakes

Indo-Chinese Rat Snake (Source: Flickr)

Using the rat snakes — which includes the Common Rat Snakes, the Indo-Chinese Rat Snakes, and to a certain extent, the Beauty Rat Snakes — as examples, Francis pointed out “mammals, rodents, birds, certain amphibians, and little lizards” as the species’ main food sources, calling their food consumption habits “diverse.”

“Different weather patterns, influence, success or failure of certain species in certain seasons” carry an effect on animal populations and spreads — when the population of one goes down; the predator adapts by consuming more of the others.”

He also warned that “rapidly and irrevocably” disrupting aspects of nature that pertain to the snake food chain will result in less breeding activities, or worse, endangering a species and possibly rendering it extinct. “There are observable effects when you rapidly change the environment,” he said.

The Burmese Python — Hong Kong’s largest remaining predator — is the only snake species protected by the territory’s Wild Animals Protection Ordinance dating back to 1974. The limitation on possession, consumption, hunting, selling and buying also applied to all protected animals, including the Leopard Cats and the Romer’s Tree Frogs.

Prosecutions are rare, as Sargent admitted- though not unheard of. In 2019, a man in Cheung Chau — one of Hong Kong’s many outlying islands — was filmed capturing a python. In a story published by local tabloid Dimsum Daily, the 53-year old was said to have been arrested after cooking and eating the snake. Speaking about the incident, Sargent pointed out that the SAR government has not done nearly enough. “When people get prosecuted,” he said, “it’s a small fine, a small penalty.”

For snakes that are caught by police snake catchers, they are transported to Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, where they undergo a series of checkups before being released back into the wild.

This practice, while “light years ahead“ of the old method that once involved “killing the snake in the not-so-distant past,” according to Francis, has room to improve — and there is work being done about it.

Because of the diverse local snake population, less common species reportedly spend more time at the farm than their more widespread counterparts, such as the Bamboo Pit Viper — also known as the bamboo snake — that has been responsible for the majority of snake bites in the city.

The risks come at their release. According to 2014 Hong Kong snake research by Elizabeth Anne Devan-Song of the University of Rhode Island, translocation — the assisted movement of conflict animals from their origin to another — of the study’s 90 Bamboo Pit Vipers concluded that the particular species was more prone to experience the negative impacts of such a relocation strategy.

In it, the researcher described the practice as “not a viable management or conservation option” and called for alternative management and conservation strategies to be made for the particular snake species, especially in the wake of more human-snake conflicts.

The study also found a nearly 20% spike in translocated snakes’ death rates under circumstances that were without a clear explanation. Compared to resident bamboo snakes, the survival rates of translocated snakes exhibited a 200-plus percent increase in mortality rate, going from as low as 0.063 up to 0.499 in 2013.

To correct this, Sargent is advocating for a snake catcher accreditation system that will be fully led and monitored by Kadoorie Farm, as Francis revealed. “The system will increase the removals that’s done in a professional way with the animal’s welfare as a top concern,” he said, adding that certain species tend to have limited survival abilities in environments different from where they are caught.

Through demonstrating an understanding of snakes, natural history, as well as habitats, removals would be conducted by snake catchers who release snakes in an area far away enough from the capture site, with little risk of the snake returning, and back in its natural environment over a shorter span of time.

“Some snakes are very habitat specific,” Sargent said. “More needs to be done to identify those areas and put the snakes back where they belong.”

More often than not, he said, using “a dozen police hours to transport a snake that is practically harmless” is at best, unnecessary. As human-snake conflicts become more common, its relocation system also needs to improve — by prioritising the animals’ welfare.

Featured image by: Adam Francis