Python Visits

The recent discovery of seven pythons in a village in the South, highlights the problems associated with the increasing incidents of human-python encounters – By Malaka Rodrigo
The python is the largest snake in Sri Lanka and villagers in the remote hamlet of Elpitiya were stunned to find seven large pythons recently. The Wildlife Conservation Department’s Hikkaduwa office called in to handle these snakes said the villagers of Gulanawatta had captured these pythons on January 5. A villager had first spotted a large python on his estate and minutes later another one close by.“If you find more than one snake, there should be seven of them in the vicinity,” another villager had told them. This spurred a full search operation and to their surprise, the villagers found a total of seven pythons in the vicinity. The Hikkaduwa Wildlife office believed it could be a few young pythons hatched from a single clutch of eggs, but they too were surprised to find adult pythons – some measuring as long as 10ft and 8ft among them.

Sri Lanka has two python species – the Indian Rock Python and the Sand Python, the former being the largest Sri Lankan snake. Herpetologist Dr. Anslem De Silva, explaining the possible reason for this python gathering says it could be for mating. The female snake when ready to mate emits a strong pheromone that attracts other male snakes in the area. Dr. Anslem says this is what prompts the common belief that if one snake is killed, there can be seven more snakes as the killing also results in releasing this same pheromone. “I have even observed few males trying to copulate with a dead ‘road kill’ female Buff-striped keelback snake (ahara kukka) as the urge generated by these pheromones is quite intuitive,” said Dr. Anslem. The python has a very strong pheromone compared to other snakes.

Increase of Pythons near human habitats

The seven pythons captured were later released to the nearby Kanneliya Forest. However, there are more such records of python encounters in nearby villages. The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) which operates an Animal Rescue programme in Galle gets frequent calls about pythons found in villages. According to statistics, over 30 Indian pythons were found during 2009 and 2010 alone. Some of them were rescued from populated areas very close to Galle town such as Richmond Hill, Beakke forest, Bataganwila, Unawatuna and Rumassala. Most were found in secluded places like abandoned toilet pits, under banana plants etc. One python believed to have been washed up along the canal that leads to the sea was found in the heart of the Galle city near Galle Fort.

Welcome to the world: A baby python hatches out

“Our data indicates about a 30% increase of pythons found in human settlements,” said Madhura De Silva, President of the WCSG. The society keeps a record of the animals they rescue and Madhura points out that this trend has increased over the past four years, possibly due the degradation of the python’s natural habitats. Pythons in the wet zone prefer marshy habitats and forest edges instead of thicker jungles. But the wetlands are rapidly being filled and pythons lose their natural range.

The decrease in the python’s natural prey can also push the hungry snakes to invade human settlements. The python’s diet consists mostly of live prey- large rodents like bandicoots and other mammals such as mouse deer, the civet cat etc. A small portion of its natural diet consists of birds, amphibians and reptiles. These snakes have very poor eyesight, but to compensate have a highly developed sense of smell, and heat pits within each scale along the upper lip, which sense the warmth of nearby prey. They generally move when food is scarce and their keen senses lead them to the edges of the villages and poultry farms. WCSG members say pythons are often found trapped in poultry coops looking for an easy chicken meal.

Domestic animals, dogs and cats are also easy prey. However, when they swallow a large prey, the python can hardly move, so risks being easily spotted by the villagers. “Luckily, villagers usually spare a python without killing it as they now know the snake is not poisonous. Villagers usually catch the snake or put it into a large gunny bag and inform the Wildlife officers to come and collect it,” said Madhura. However, having been disturbed, the python tries to regurgitate its meal quickly to escape which can sometimes results in internal tissue damages. So the best thing is not to disturb the snake, say WCSG members.

Rescuing the unborn

Last year, the society together with Hikkaduwa Wildlife Officers was tipped off about a python under a banana bush. Closer inspection revealed a clutch of python eggs. Even though the new born babies were independent, the female stayed coiled on top of the eggs. The experts tried to explain that the snake was harmless but villagers fearing for their children’s safety, wanted it relocated. The Galle Wildlife Society had taken the challenge of trying to artificially hatch these eggs.

Members first measured the temperature and humidity of the nest before removing the eggs. Then the incubators at Hiyare Research Centre were set up accordingly. After safely depositing the eggs in the incubator, the team had to wait and see how long it would take to hatch the eggs. Usually python eggs take about two to three months to hatch.

During this time, the WCSG team was constantly monitoring the temperature and the moisture inside the glass tanks. To their joy after about one and half months, the baby pythons hatched, 26 of the 28 eggs. A second clutch of eggs found in a toilet pit at Hikkaduwa by the Wildlife officers was also hatched- 29 of 34 eggs successfully hatched and these baby snakes were later released to natural habitats in the Wakwella marshland.

Rescuing wild life

The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle continues its unique animal rescue programme, begun in 2006 with the support of Nations Trust Bank at Hiyare, Galle where injured wild animals are treated, rehabilitated and released to the wilds, preferably closer to the same habitats they were found.

Animals injured in road accidents, by poachers, attacked by other animals and electrocuted are regular patients.

Madhura de Silva says that last year they managed to rehabilitate six juvenile Hog Deer and release them to the wild. Serpent eagles and owls that have been electrocuted are also found frequently. The rescue programme also gives refuge to some animals that cannot be released to the wild due to their disabilities.

Published on SundayTimes on 06.03.2011

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