Archive for the ‘Reptiles’ Category

Trials to start for home-grown anti-venom

October 10, 2016

Drug will for the first time counter kunakatuwa bites : Published on SundayTimes on 09.10.2016

Researchers at the University of Peradeniya will next week begin clinical trials for new snake anti-venom that experts

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

hope preclude the high rate of allergic reactions from imported medication.

Indian-manufactured anti-venom serum is the main weapon used against the 50,000-plus snake bites recorded annually in Sri Lanka but as venom varies in snakes of different countries the Indian anti-venom has limitations here.

As this paper reported recently, Indian anti-venom could cause adverse allergic reactions in 50-80 per cent of patients, with nearly half of these reactions life-threatening. Most Sri Lankan doctors see the solution (anti-venom) as a bigger challenge than snakebite itself.

“All laboratory tests have now been completed and the results show that the new anti-venom is far superior in terms of neutralising venom compared to the Indian anti-venom,” the team’s chief scientist, Professor Indika Gawarammana, said.

“After the safety and effectiveness of the new anti-venom is established following clinical trials, commercial manufacturing can be started.”

The research team received the first batch of the anti-venom processed by its collaborator, the Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) of the University of Costa Rica a few weeks ago and are now ready to begin clinical trials, said Prof.Gawarammana, who is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at Peradeniya.

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

The anti-venom is active against number of venomous snakes. The first test batch will be effective against venom from the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and the hump-nosed viper (kunakatuwa). Anti-venom properties for the krait will, in time, be included in this serum.

The hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale) is responsible for the highest number of snake bites in Sri Lanka and these can sometimes be fatal. Currently, there is no venom to treat kunakatuwa bites and victims are only treated with symptomatic treatment such as painkillers. Records show an unfortunate proportion of patients develop chronic kidney failure due to lack of an anti-venom.

The process of anti-venom development is complex. First, tiny amounts of venom are injected periodically into horses. Horses subsequently develop antibodies – a process similar to immunisation of children for various infections (polio, measles etc.) – in their blood.

These antibodies, the anti-venom, are then extracted, purified and freeze-dried for human use. If the purification is faulty the resulting substance could contain other serum proteins that could cause the problematic reactions coming from Indian anti-venom, Prof. Gawarammana explained.

The researcher recalls how the project began: “In October 2013, Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka invited Sri Lankan scientists, including myself, to produce safe and specific anti-venom for Sri Lanka.

“At our request, one of the best anti-venom producers in the world, Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) in Costa Rica, agreed to produce a test batch of Sri Lankan species-specific anti-venom at almost no cost,” Prof. Gawarammana  said.

The ICP produces anti-venom for many South America and African countries and Papua New Guinea and these countries do not experience the problems seen in Sri Lanka from anti-venom. Recognising the value of the Peradeniya team’s work, the National Research Council of Sri Lanka provided part of the funding for the project. The rest of the funding came from Animal Venom Research International, a non-profit organisation based in USA.

The necessary permission to collect snakes and house them in a serpentarium, milk venom and export venom to Costa Rica was given by the Department of Wildlife of Sri Lanka.

The project was not without challenges. The team faced unnecessary delays due to adverse media publicity at the inception of the project. As well, researchers only received permission to collect snakes from home gardens to extract venom.

Prof. Gawarammana said ICP was ready to transfer the technology for making the anti-venom to Sri Lanka. He said the researchers do not mind who manufactures it as long as they realise their dream of seeing it save lives.

Milking a Russsell's Viper to extract venom to be used for research

Milking a Russsell’s Viper to extract venom to be used for research

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well


Customs seize large haul of live tortoises at airport

July 31, 2015

For the second time  this month, the customs Biodiversity Protection Unit has seized a consignment of live tortoises attempted to be smuggled out to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia through Katunayake International Air Port yesterday. The little tortoises were concealed with live crabs in 07 packages exported by a company in Yakkala. There were 448 tortoises weighing 200kg and valued at Rs.405,879 according to Leslie Gamini, Customs Spokesperson . The Customs Biodiversity Unit made a similar discovery earlier in the month recovering 124 live tortoises valued at Rs.930,000 on July 3. The little tortoises were concealed in the suspect’s ‘checked’ baggage and the arrest was made at the departure lounge at Katunayake airport. These tortoises too were bound to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Raising tortoises as pets is a popular pastime in many countries and it is believed these tortoises too were smuggled to be sold as pets.

tortoises rescued on 03rd of July by Customs

Tortoises rescued on 03rd of July (c) Photo courtesy – Sri Lanka Customs

By Malaka Rodrigo. Read this Sunday’s The Sunday Times for a detailed report.

Published on TimesOnline on 29th of July – 

Wildlife enthusiasts become foster parents to 20 crocs

November 6, 2013

Many are the negative stories reported regarding conservation of animals, especially that of reptiles.  But proving this trend wrong, a group of wildlife enthusiasts hatched a clutch of crocodile eggs and they are now the proud foster parents of baby crocs.

Making an entry to the world: An egg hatches under the protective care of WCSG members

The group is none other than the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG).The happy ending had its beginnings about two months ago when a group of villagers who stumbled across a nest of crocodile eggs in the Kaluwamodara swamp in Beruwala handed over the eggs to the police who in turn handed them over to the Hikkaduwa range office of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The eggs eventually found a resting place at the WCSG centre in Hiyare, Galle, that runs a wildlife rescue programme. Next, followed plans to set up the ideal conditions necessary for the eggs to hatch. A female crocodile usually builds a nest, a mound consisting of vegetation, on the bank of any water hole.

The WCSG team wasted no time in building a similar safe environment. The decaying vegetation usually generates the heat required for the eggs to hatch. WCSG’s president, Madura de Silva said crocodile eggs required 80% moisture and a temperature of about 30 – 35 degrees Celsius and the temperature was constantly monitored.

Keeping a close eye on the eggs in the absence of motherly love (above) and (below) noting the temperature ideal for the eggs

He said unlike mammals, the sex of a crocodile is not determined by sex chromosomes but by the difference in temperature, with relatively low temperatures producing mainly females and high temperatures mainly males.

Crocodile mothers are known to be very protective of their eggs and it emerges out of the water often to keep an eye on the nest. At the slightest sound from the eggs the mother croc digs open the mound of vegetation so that the young ones have easy access once the eggs hatch.

In this instance, however, it was not the mother but the group of WCSG members who kept constant vigil and kept their ears open for the slightest sound from the nest. The baby crocs have an egg-tooth at the tip of their snouts that helps them to crack open the shells.

Most people are under the misconception that crocodile mothers eat their young.  But what they do is take the young ones in their mouth while they are in the water to protect them from predators. The family remains in a group for several months under the close eye of the mother.

In this instance, WCSG members will take care of the 20 baby crocs, which are being fed live mangrove crab, fish and shrimp, for about three months before they are handed over to the Wildlife Dept. to be released to the wild,” Mr. de Silva said.

A handful: 20 baby crocs check out their environs

Published on SndayTimes on 20.10.2013 

Confiscated tortoises were ‘pets’, says Chinese restaurant owner

February 2, 2013

The 14 tortoises seized during a Police raid on a Chinese restaurant in Thimbirigasyaya, Colombo, have been handed over to the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens until the investigation is completed. The raid followed a complaint that cooked tortoise flesh was being served to diners.�

Shells of soft-shelled Terrapin: Considered a delicacy

Hard-shelled Black Terrapin – Gal Ibba (Melanochelys trijuga). Pic by Sameera Karunaratne

Soft-shelled Terrapin – Kiri Ibba (Lissemys ceylonensis)

Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans)

The restaurant owner, a Chinese national, was arrested and released on bail. He told the Police that the tortoises were being kept as pets. The tortoises were found in the vicinity of the restaurant kitchen.

Killing a tortoise or possessing tortoise flesh is an offence under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance of Sri Lanka.

The tortoises are Black Tortoises or Black Hard-Shelled Terrapins, also known as “gal ibba”in Sinhala, according to Sameera Suranjan Karunarathne of the Dehiwala Zoo-based Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA). The tortoises are also referred to as Black Turtle. The gal ibba can grow to more than one foot in length. Mr. Karunarathne said the seized tortoises were full-grown animals and could be up to 10 years old. Tortoises are famous for their longevity, a fact that is of little consequence to those who regard tortoise flesh as a culinary delicacy.

There are also two subspecies of the Black Tortoise, one being endemic to Sri Lanka, said Mr. Karunarathne, who is a reptile expert. The endemic subspecies is rare and found only in parts of the North Western Province. The 14 seized Black Tortoises included the endemic subspecies.

Animal welfare groups and the Police believe that tortoise flesh is in demand in Colombo and towns outside Colombo. They say the growing numbers of Chinese nationals visiting Sri Lanka for work and travel have given rise to an illegal trade in tortoise flesh.

Sri Lanka is home to three varieties of native tortoise. Besides the Black Tortoise, we have the Soft-shelled Terrapin and the Star Tortoise. The soft-shelled terrapin, known as “kiri ibba”, is also a targeted species.�

The Star Tortoise, or “tharu ibba”, is popular as a pet. The tortoise is also a favourite among racketeers who smuggle animals out of the country. The Custom’s Biodiversity Protection Unit has thwarted several attempts to secretly export Star Tortoises.

Sri Lanka’s tortoises are doubly threatened, says animal lover and herpetologist Dr. Anslem de Silva.

They are threatened by greedy diners and profiteers, as well as by natural threats such as climate change. The mud holes that are natural tortoise habitats are drying out.

The Star Tortoise is a “near threatened” animal species, according to the National Red List.

Meanwhile, the Red-eared Terrapin, imported for aquariums, has started spreading in the country’s waterways. A native of North and South America, the Red-eared Terrapin is regarded here as an “invasive” species.

Published on SundayTimes on

A croc comes to town

March 12, 2012

(A croc has been spotted in sea around Dehiwala/wellawatte which could be the crocodile recorded in Wellawatte canal since 2007. This croc has appeared 3 months again in same spot, so this adds up the possibilities that sea going croc could be the same fellow. So this article article written on 30.12.2012 and published as the leading feature story of the SundayTimes is republished here at Window2Nature for your reference.

~ If you happen to see ‘Bertram’ the crocodile strolling along the Wellawatte canal bank, do not attempt to feed it or harm it and it will not harm you, say wildlife experts

By Malaka Rodrigo, Pic by Mike Anthonisz

Where does one expect to find a crocodile basking in the sun or slowly gliding into the water? Many would assume it will be some place down south like Bundala or in the marshes of Negombo. But there is news for those living in Colombo, for a crocodile has been sighted close to the canal in Wellawatte. While experts assured people that there was nothing to fear they also urged them not to feed it or harm it as it goes about its routine of catching prey, eating and sleeping.

“It is a Salt-water Crocodile (Gata kimbula),” confirms Dr. Anslem de Silva, a renowned herpetologist and member of the IUCN’s Crocodile Study Group, explaining that fewer than 300 Salt-water Crocodiles are surviving in natural environments in Sri Lanka. These crocodiles are also heavily threatened and it is surprising to see a healthy animal in a polluted waterway like the Wellawatte canal, he said, stressing that crocodiles are an important link in the eco-system as they clean up the waterways by feeding on sick fish or scavenging on rotten carcasses.

Like elephants, only one or two crocodiles are “notorious”. Fish is their main diet and humans are not among their natural prey, he reassured. When contacted, Dr. Tharaka Prasad of the Department of Wildlife Conservation said that a decision on the capture and relocation of a crocodile would be taken only after evaluating the potential danger not only to the people but also to the animal. They will observe the crocodile at Wellawatte before any decision is taken.

“In many places crocodiles live in harmony with people and are not aggressive. But if the need arises, we use several methods to capture troublesome crocs. Baiting and setting up cages to capture them are some methods. Nets are used if the reptile can be cornered easily. We never set nets in water to trap a crocodile in the night, as a delay in taking it out will result in the entangled crocodile drowning,” said Dr. Prasad who is Acting Deputy Director, Wildlife Health Management.

Once captured, they are released to sanctuaries or national parks depending on the crocodile population already living there. It is a tedious, time consuming and dangerous job, he explained, emphasizing that it is extremely dangerous to feed crocodiles. “Feeding the crocodile in Wellawatte should be stopped immediately,” he urged. Down the years from the colonial era, there has been evidence that crocodiles have lived in the canals built by the Dutch. The Kayman Gate in Pettah (Kaiman Dorakada in Sinhala) means ‘Crocodile Gate’, with Kayman being the corrupt form of the Caribbean word for crocodile, and had been in use among the Dutch in the East.

Crocodiles may have been introduced into the moats around the forts to protect the gates, The Sunday Times learns and the crocodile in Wellawatte may very well be a descendant of one of them. An atlas drawn in the 12th century, which Dr. de Silva saw in a Cathedral in England had, interestingly, indicated two crocodiles on Sri Lanka.

There are two species of crocodiles living in Sri Lanka — the Salt-water or Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) which prefers brackish water and the Mugger Crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) known in Sinhala as Hala Kimbula, estimated to number around 1200 which lives in fresh water habitats. Bolgoda, Bentota, Negombo, Muthurajawela, Trincomalee and Matara are some of the hideouts of the ‘Saltie’ while water bodies across the country are home to the Mugger.

Crocodile attacks

The Salt-water Crocodile is deemed responsible for most attacks as it grows larger than its cousin, usually up to about 6m and the worst battles between crocs and humans occur along the Nilwala river in Matara. It is believed that butcheries in some parts of Matara used to dump cattle carcasses into the river, which made crocodiles acquire a taste for such flesh resulting in them hunting not only cattle but also humans.

The common theory, however, is that some aging crocodiles are suspects in such attacks as they are slower and find it difficult to hunt for fish and other natural prey. Another school of thought is that the fish population in the river is also diminishing compelling crocodiles to seek alternative food.

Killing a crocodile, having their skins or teeth in one’s possession or raising crocodiles in captivity is prohibited, under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. However, killing of crocodiles due to fear or to take their meat or skin takes place, while natural threats to these creatures come in the form of habitat loss and fragmentation.

The Salt-water Crocodile builds its nest using flag-plants (ketala) and loss of nesting material disturbs the breeding cycle. The nests are also often destroyed by fishermen, while in some waterways, an imbalance in the water monitor population poses a threat to crocodiles, as they destroy crocodile eggs and feed on the young.

A croc in the fishing net

The croc which got entangled in a fishing net

The possibility that the Wellawatte canal may be a hideout for crocs came to light some years ago. In 1999, some fishermen from Moratuwa found a 12ft crocodile entangled in their net, which even amazed wildlife officials as it was found in the sea. This crocodile had been spotted in the sea near Kollupitiya, Moratuwa and Wellawatte before it got netted accidentally. It is believed that the heavy rain experienced at that time enabled the crocodile to enter the sea. This crocodile was later released at the Bundala National Park.

For human and crocodile to live in harmony, a few precautions will ensure safety from potential attack. In some rivers like the Nilwala, safe areas for bathing have been demarcated using wooden panels. Rivers and waterholes in remote areas are the lifeline of many villages and men, women and children use them for their basic needs.

But a garbage-strewn and polluted waterway like the Wellawatte canal can very well be avoided. It will be best to keep away from the banks to ensure that a man-crocodile conflict does not take place there.

Meet the 7-foot neighbour

By Mike Anthonisz

It’s not some idyllic jungle hideaway in the vastness of a wilderness, but in the heart of the metropolis that Christopher Anthonisz, retired banker and octogenarian, has the dubious pleasure of sharing his neighbourhood with a seven-foot crocodile. Christo’s home borders the Wellawatte canal and this Salt-water Crocodile has been seen lazing away the forenoons on his canal bank walkway. Luckily for Christo, because of his advancing age he has given up his regular visits to the canal bank and has therefore avoided inadvertently stepping on the motionless croc.

The croc was first spotted about two months back in the water outside the fenced off garden of a playschool. The children in the Montessori next door have named it Bertram. Like all pets, Bertram was soon the happy recipient of tasty morsels being thrown to it by the curious children.

There have been reported sightings from as far back as 10–15 years ago of a crocodile down the Wellawatte canal, but such sightings have been few and far between and have for the most part been scoffed at as products of a fertile imagination or the mistaken identity of a large kabaragoya (Water Monitor). The kabaragoya was a frequent sight down the canal, but, come to think of it, I have not seen one for some months now along the stretch where the croc has been spotted.

What brought Bertram out of its hiding is not clear. Whether it was simply wanderlust or whether the recent dredging of the canal had anything to do with it, no one will know. It is possible that the dredging had opened up a hitherto blocked off canal pathway through which the crocodile was able to slip through. As to why it has taken lease of Christo’s canal bank however could be because this is perhaps the only bit of land that shelves down naturally to the water’s edge, without a concrete barrier being erected to hold the landfill in. Perhaps it also finds the salinity of the water just right to its taste – there is about a foot and a half rise in water levels with the changes in tides and there have even been some larger species of fish sometimes swimming up the canal.

The fact remains, however, that the croc is not easily fazed. The first photos of the croc were taken by Dickie Delpechitra while the dredger was doing its work in the same area. Dickie himself has been observing the behaviour of these species of crocodiles for some years now. An avid fisherman, Dickie’s holiday home on the Bolgoda Lake is a frequent haunt of the Anglers’ Club to which he belongs and on many a journey in his boat, Dickie has encountered the crocodiles that inhabit this body of water. On a recent excursion he reports having come across what he estimates to be an extremely large 15-footer –- leaving allowance for fisherman’s tales et al, suffice it to say that it was so large that he was duly impressed with the size of the monster.

Could the Wellawatte specimen be a member of this same family? It is well known that the canal system in Colombo has a network that connects up marshes like Muthurajawela, Diyawanna Oya and reaches as far south as the Bolgoda Lake. All it needs is a young croc with a sense of adventure to decide to set off one day to do a little exploring and see the world.

Read the related article published on 11.03.2012 on SundayTimes 

Crocodile in Dehiwala sea does not spoil fun of two-mile swim

March 12, 2012

Croc in Wellawatte Canal photographed in 2007 December while basking at Canal Bank (c) Mike Anthonisz

Villagers have spotted a crocodile in the sea along the Wellawatte-Dehiwala coastline. The animal has been seen on several occasions, but animal activists say there is no cause for concern – this is no invasion by a swarm of crocs but a case of a lone reptile drifting harmlessly in the water.

Philip Weinman has seen the crocodile on two occasions, in the sea around Dehiwala. The first time was in mid-February, around six in the morning, when he was out at sea in his boat fishing. The second sighting was a week later, in the evening. He tried to take a photograph, but the croc disappeared when the boat approached it. Mr. Weinman estimates the reptile at between 6 and 8 feet in length.

The crocodile photographed in Colombo Dockyard

Canal system in Colombo where crocs get access to sea

Mr. Weinman is a member of the Anglers Club, and deep sea fishing is a pastime. “I have been fishing for more than 25 years, and this was the first time I saw a crocodile in the sea.”

The Dehiwala fishing community has reported several sightings. Late last month, a swimmer entered the Dehiwala sea only to race back to shore on seeing a crocodile in the water. Eyewitnesses agree the crocodile has been a passive, non-aggressive visitor, drifting about peacefully in the sea beyond the line of breaking waves.

Meanwhile, a crocodile was seen over several days in the Colombo Dockyard. The animal was first spotted on February 20. Dockyard employee Rohithe Amarasinghe took photographs and a video. The animal was seen paddling passively around the same spot for three consecutive days. Mr. Amarasinghe, who has worked at the dockyard for many years, said this was the first time he had seen a crocodile in the vicinity.

Animal experts say it is not unusual to see crocodiles in the sea. Most likely, these are salt water crocodiles, known as gata kimbula in Sinhala. Their habitat covers estuaries and lagoons, but they are occasionally found in the sea. The salt water crocodile excretes excess salt from its body. Dr. Anslem de Silva, an authority on crocodiles, says crocodiles would rather avoid than confront humans encountered in the sea.

Dr. de Silva, who is vice-chairman of the Crocodile Specialist Group IUCN/SSC for South Asia and Iran, believes the sea-going crocodile might have come along a canal and ended up on the Colombo shoreline. Colombo has a good canal network system, originally built for transportation during the Dutch occupation. The canals are interlinked and connect different parts of the city and suburbs. The marshes in the western province – Muturajawela and Bolgoda – are among the last hideouts of the salt water crocodile.

A crocodile was spotted in the Wellawatte canal a few years ago. The Sunday Times reported on the crocodile in December 2007 in an article by Mike Anthonisz. Mr. Anthonisz said he saw a crocodile basking in the same spot three months ago. It is possible that the crocodile seen recently off Dehiwala is the same animal, probably disturbed by human activity along the Wellawatte canal or flushed into the sea by heavy rains filling the canals. Crocodiles need time in the sun.

Experts say the presence of a crocodile in the sea around a highly commercialized city suggests urban biodiversity. They hoped the animal would not suffer the fate of the Ragama crocodile, which died after being captured.

Participants in the annual two-mile swim were naturally concerned. The event attracts hundreds of swimmers, who swim from Mt. Lavinia to Wellawatte, a stretch that covers the area where the crocodile has been spotted. The 75th two-mile swim was held last Sunday, March 4 without incident.

Dr. Anslem de Silva said it was unlikely that a crocodile would want to be near a noisy event such as a swimming competition, which involves hundreds of people, as well as boats that ride close to the swimmers. All that activity would scare a crocodile away.

Published on SundayTimes on 11.03.2012 

Two new endemic snakes slither into Lanka’s unique biodiversity list

May 22, 2011

As the world marks International Day of Biological Diversity today –May 22, two new endemic snakes have been added to Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity list – by Malaka Rodrigo 

New burrowing snake – Rhinophis lineatus 
Rhinophis zigzag 

Both snakes are non-venomous primitive burrowing snakes that live underground in loose soil and are commonly referred to as Shield-tailed snakes because of the keratinous shield at the end of their tail which helps them to burrow in loose soil.

The new snakes are classified as Rhinophis lineatus and Rhinophis zigzag. Dr. Maduwage first spotted the differences in these Uropetid or shield-tail snakes from similar breeds during a stint at the world Heritage Trust (WHT) a few years ago as a researcher.

Having carefully examined the specimens, he discovered three specimens from one species and two from another. Dr. Maduwage then compared scale characteristics with published evidence of other snakes of this genus and found that the two snakes did not match any other shield-tail snake.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage – a medical officer who has been studying snakes for over 10 years specially the Hump-nosed pit viper. In addition he also discovered 10 varieties of fish and discovered another species of Sri Lankan snake previously.

The numerous distinguished scale characters, the presence of multiple, narrow longitudinal stripes around and along most of the body helped distinguished Rhinophis lineatus from all other members of this genus.

Dr. Maduwage said the Rhinophis zigzag also had a distinctive and consistent colour pattern of a dark meandering/zigzag stripe which was absent in all other species of the group.

After initial observations in 2007, Dr.Maduwage contacted Dr David Gower –a leading expert on Shield-tail snakes. The experts then worked together on a research paper, which were published last week.
These unique variety of snakes are found only in Western Ghats of India & in Sri Lanka –both of which are hotspots in the world of biodiversity.

Prior to the latest discovery, only 13 species of the Uropetid snakes were known to exist. The 12 Sri Lankan species are endemic to the country. This means they are found only here.

In 2009, another species of the shield-tail snake was discovered at Rakwana by herpetologist Mendis Wickremasinghe and was categorized Rhinophis erangaviraji. The two new species were discovered at a single locality.

The Rhinophis lineatus is found only at Harasbedda near Ragala while Rhinophis zigzag was discovered at “Bibilegema Rd.” near Passara, in the Uva Province.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.05.2011 

Python Visits

March 10, 2011
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

quite A handful

June 14, 2009

The Dehiwela Zoo was presented with three dwarf crocodiles from Germany last Wednesday.  The Zoo received the baby crocs from the Leipzig Zoo in Germany under the Animal Exchange Program.  The crocs were exchanged for a pair of giant squirrels. The Zoo expects to get down a few more of the species in the near future. (this was published on 14.06.2009 on SundayTimes –