It was a sweltering day in mid-September when a group of hikers in Sai Kung came across something remarkable: a Burmese python in the middle of devouring a whole boar. The hikers didn’t run. Instead, they took out their phones and filmed the scene, watching in fascination as the snake steadily devoured the lifeless pig. Eventually, belly full, the snake slithered away to digest.
The hikers make a fuss, because while pythons are by far the largest snakes in Hong Kong, they aren’t particularly fearsome. “The first thing to understand is it’s not a fatal encounter,” says William Sargent, a snake specialist who runs Hong Kong Snakes Safari, which offers nighttime tours of Hong Kong’s serpent-filled country parks. “99.9 percent of the time if you walk past a Burmese python, it will have no problem with you at all. You’re not its prey.”
That doesn’t make them any less impressive. There are 52 species of snakes in Hong Kong, from the common rat snake to king cobras. Eight are venomous—six particularly poisonous—but pythons are not among them. What they lack in danger, however, they make up for in sheer size. A typical python is around two metres in length, but they can grow up to five metres – about twice as wide as the footpaths on Queen’s Road.
Known scientifically as Python bivittatus, these reptiles are native to a large part of Southeast Asia, as well as the coastal regions of southern China. They breed in the spring, laying clutches of up to 36 eggs, which mother snakes keep warm until the hatchlings use their egg teeth to break out of their shells. After that, they’re on their own, waiting until they shed their first skin to slither away in hunt of their first meals.
In Hong Kong, that usually consists of birds, small mammals such as rats and—when pythons grow larger—medium-sized animals such as barking deer and boars. They also occasionally feed on pet cats and dogs. In 2014, a series of dog attacks made the news, including one dramatic instance when a couple managed to fight off a five-metre python when it grabbed hold of their 28-kilogram dog Charlie.
Burmese pythons have long been hunted for their skins, which has led them to be classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In Hong Kong, they are the only snake species protected by the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance. But they are far from uncommon. “I have seen six in one day,” says wildlife photographer Robert Ferguson.
Ferguson is a self-avowed snake enthusiast. “I think snakes are the large game of Hong Kong,” he says. “They’re a bit dangerous, very exciting and great fun to find and photograph. King cobras, Chinese cobras – I can go out of a night and find anywhere from five to 15 snakes on a walk. It’s a case of knowing where to go and what to look for.”
Ferguson’s website, Hong Kong Snake ID, is a good place to start. Although you probably won’t have any trouble recognising a python or a cobra, other snakes can be harder to identify, such as the greater green snake and white-lipped viper, both small and bright green – but the former is harmless while the latter is highly venomous and responsible for the vast majority of the roughly 30 people in Hong Kong who are poisoned by snake bites every year.
“A lot of people still have a fear of snakes,” says Ferguson. “And it’s always good to be cautious. Clearly some of them can be quite dangerous. But I suppose it’s more likely that you will get struck by lightning than have a fatal snake bite here. They’re far less dangerous than a lot of the things around us. And they’re part of our natural environment.”
William Sargent became fascinated by snakes when he was growing up on Lantau. Pythons were his first crush. “The first one I saw, I was so excited,” he says. “I was about 15 and I had spent about two or three years looking.” That led him into herpetology—the study of snakes—and eventually into a role as snake catcher. Every so often, a snake will make its way into someone’s home or business and the police will summon Sargent to help them wrangle it.
He says he deals with Burmese pythons around ten times a year. “One of the reasons I got into snake catching is because you walk into a situation and it’s always different,” he says. “That’s what makes it exciting. If you go into a tiny kitchen with a five-foot python behind the counters, how do you get it out?”
He makes it sound easy. “To be honest with you, if it’s less than 10 feet”—three metres—“it’s really not a big deal at all. If it’s more than 10 feet, it requires a bit more concentration and strength. It’s like going to the gym – it’s a bit of a workout. the summer before last at Tsui Hau it was 4.7 metres. I just did by myself.” He says the worst thing about it is the stench. “It’s smelly. They musk you and defecate and pee. The usual trick with the police is you ask them to hold the tail when you catch it.”
That’s the kind of situation that only happens in extraordinary circumstances. In most cases, there’s just one thing to do when you come across a python in a country park: walk away. And maybe feel lucky that you’ve had an encounter with Hong Kong’s most majestic snake.
Photos: courtesy of Robert Ferguson