Government snake catcher William Sargent provides Beverly Au with the lowdown on Hong Kong’s snake population, and in so doing reveals that there’s really very little for us to fear
Hong Kong is home to some 50 species of snake, including the tiny 10-centimetre Common Blind Snake, the giant Burmese Python (up to 8 metres) and the world’s largest venomous snake, the King Cobra (up to 5 metres). You could live in town without ever seeing one but here in Lantau we live in very close proximity to them. For local ophiophilists, like government snake catcher William Sargent, who has captured, relocated and photographed thousands of snakes over the past 25 years, this is one of the main draws of island life.
Fear of snakes is widespread, and some researchers believe phobias related to reptiles (and snakes specifically) are evolutionary, developed by our ancestors as a survival mechanism. But, having grown up around Lantau snakes and developed a real passion for them, William believes their bad reputation is hugely exaggerated, especially in developed countries where snake bites are far less of a healthcare issue.
“Hiking through long grass or overgrown trails, you’ve a fair chance of encountering a White- Lipped Pit Viper (Bamboo Snake) waiting for his prey,” William opens. “Walking in rural areas at night, you could well spot a Banded Krait. I am not called out to DB that often, to be honest, but when I am it’s been for a real mixvof snakes – Pythons, Rat Snakes, Red Neck Keelbacks…
“If you spot a snake, your best bet is to take a photo (if it’s safe to do so) and get it identified correctly (I recommend the Hong Kong Snake Facebook page for this), and if it needs moving, then dial 999,” William adds. “It’s worth noting that the police are an emergency service and should not be called out for non-threatening situations. Most of the call-outs I get don’t fit that bill. In my experience, the majority of stories about Cobra sightings in DB have to be taken with a large pinch of salt.”
It sounds obvious, but if you do happen upon a snake, don’t be tempted to pick it up or try to kill it. “Snakes will only bite defensively, so if you don’t bother them, they’re unlikely to bother you,” says William. “Most hide in the bushes, in the hope that you won’t come near them.”
“Snakes are so understudied and misunderstood, and there’s so much myth around them. Logic and statistics don’t come into fear,” William reasons when trying to explain the often-misplaced fear of snakes. “As with anything, if you don’t understand it and there is potential danger, people often panic or think the worst.
“Unlike our bovine or aquatic mammal friends, reptiles – particularly snakes – have very little in the way of community understanding or support. The general lack of knowledge of these fascinating creatures has led to hysteria in some cases, and encounters that often don’t end well for our scaly wildlife.”
William believes that the best way to overcome ophidiophobia is to educate yourself about snakes and observe them at first hand. He advises we attend one of his snake talks or safaris, talk to other experts or do some basic online research at home. A visit to Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Tai Po, a haven for injured and captured snakes, can also be helpful.
Instead of fearing snakes, William wants people to understand that they fill a vital role in the ecosystem, and that killing one species can affect others. In China, nearly all of the larger snake species are classed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered. In Hong Kong, the only protected snake is the Burmese Python.
“It’s all about getting educated and knowing more about snakes,” William says. “When you see a snake in the wild, in its natural habitat, it’s a fascinating and beautiful creature. I have taken people out in the field to photograph snakes, and very quickly their reaction goes from ‘Yuk!’ or ‘OMG!’ to ‘Wow, that’s a fascinating creature!’”
Toxic but not dangerous
Hong Kong has some very toxic snakes, however it’s important to bear in mind that there is a difference between danger and toxicity. Contrary to common belief, there are no ‘certain death’ species in Hong Kong and fatalities are almost non-existent. The last recorded snake-bite death in Hong Kong occurred over 20 years ago.
“There used to be around 300 bites a year in the ’90s,” William explains. “That number has come down to less than 150 now, as Hong Kong’s economy has become less agriculture based. The majority happen at night, in rural areas or on trails, when people don’t see them and end up stepping on them.”
There are seven commonly found land snakes that can cause serious medical issues if they bite you and inject venom: White- Lipped Pit Viper, Chinese Cobra, King Cobra, Many Banded Krait, Banded Krait, Red Neck Keelback and MacClelland’s Coral Snake. In addition, there are two other species that are rarely seen, but can cause toxic bites – the Mountain Pit Viper and Pointed-Scale Viper.
“By far the most common extremely toxic snake in Hong Kong is the Chinese Cobra, which grows to about 1.5 metres and can be found in most habitats during the day or night,” says William. “They are prolific on account of their less specific food and habitat requirements, in other words, they eat nearly anything including other reptiles, frogs and mammals. They have a sleek, stocky black or tan body, and an easily recognisable white marking behind their head (like a batman logo or smiley face).”
The vast majority of recorded venomous snake bites in Hong Kong come from the White-Lipped Pit Viper. These beautiful bright-green ambush hunters rely on their camouflage to disguise them from their prey and they can remain motionless for hours. Their bite can be very painful and cause localised tissue damage.
What to do if you get bitten
In the very unlikely chance that you get bitten by a snake, remain calm and get yourself to the nearest accident and emergency department straight away. In order to administer the appropriate treatment, it’s useful for the hospital staff to know which type of snake you’ve been bitten by. So, while you should calmly move away from the snake, if you are able to get a good look at it, or take a quick photo, that will help.
“Venomous snake bites can be extremely serious and can inflict permanent injuries, but if you get to a hospital quickly (in under an hour) it will dramatically reduce the chances of major complications,” William says. “Hong Kong has world-class treatment for bites; even in the case of highly toxic snakes, treatment is extremely effective.”
Photo courtesy of Adam Francis (www.hongkongsnakeid.com)
William has some first-aid tips for anyone who’s been bitten and is on their way to hospital. “If you are bitten by a White-Lipped Pit Viper, elevate the bite and do not wrap the bite site as this will concentrate the venom,” he advises. “White-Lipped Pit Vipers have hemotoxic venom, which attacks blood and tissue, so it’s preferable to allow it to dilute in your body to reduce tissue damage. Cobras, Kraits and Coral Snakes are part of a family of snakes with potent venom which attacks the nervous system, therefore slowing the spread of the venom through light bandages over the bite site is recommended.”
If you would like to learn more about Hong Kong’s snakes, the Hong Kong Snake Facebook page, set up by William in 2016, is a good resource, filled with pictures and videos of snakes, most posted by people seeking help to identify a species. William also runs occasional snake safaris and talks, and you can contact him at [email protected] For urgent snake removal call emergency services on 999, or text William on 9470 8442 and include an image of the snake, if possible.