Expert's guide to Lantau snakes

William Sargent first spent time on Lantau when his parents bought a share of a small holiday flat in Ham Tin in the late seventies and by 1990 were living full time in Chi Ma Wan. He has had a fascination with snakes since he was 12 years and has captured, relocated and photographed thousands of snakes over the past 25 years.

"When we think of Lantau, one imagines stray cows, frolicking buffalos, pink dolphins, beaches, beautiful trails, irritating spiders and of course, dreaded snakes. Unlike our bovine or our 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.

READ MORE: Lantau's snakes having last feed before hibernation

My fascination with snakes started a long time ago. My older brother and his class mate, Dave Willott (a local snake catcher to this day), used to bring home a variety of snakes and when my brother gave me a Greater Green snake to look after when I was 12 – I was hooked. My first ‘solo’ encounter with a snake was when we were staying at a weekend holiday place in Ham Tin back in the late 80’s when I found a tiny brown snake (no idea what it was) behind the house and swiftly grabbed it and put it in a shoe box. I didn’t want to tell my parents so I hid it in the shoe cupboard on top of the heater that was too hot to even touch (snakes like to keep warm right?). This was all good until my mum quizzed me the next day on what the smell was as the poor creature had perished and was making that known.

Education, not fear

Instead of fearing snakes, try to see that they are a part of the ecosystem just like any creatures. Lean more about them through online research and books and speaking to people who know about them. Take your children to Botanical Gardens or Kadoorie Farm (has a great display). This will make your Lantau life far more relaxing the next time you stumble across that unwanted visitor. Hong Kong is a herpetologist’s paradise. Researchers from around the world frequently come to Hong Kong on field trips to explore our amazing diversity. Why? Within Hong Kong’s modest but very diverse 1000 square km, we are proudly home to a rich biodiversity of wildlife including more than 100 species of reptiles and amphibians (lizards, snakes, chelonians (turtles/terrapins), newts, frogs and toads). There are about 55 snake species including 6 sea snakes (but are never seen), including the tiny 10cm Blind snake, thegiant Burmese Python (up to 8 metres) and the world’s largest venomous snake species – the King Cobra (up to 6 metres).

Habitat

Many species are adapted to particular types of habitats; some snakes are nearly only found on peaks of Tai Mo Shan and Lantau Peak (Mountain Pit Viper), or prefer forests (Greeter Green) or farmland. Some can be found in marshes (Checkered Keelback) or streams (Anderson’s Stream snake). Rufous Burrowing snakes burrow and Catsnakes can be found high up on trees. The most commonly seen—like our Ratsnakes (we have 4 types) and Cobras—have been found in most natural habitats. Snakes in the SAR are generally left unmolested (no commercial harvesting), with the biggest threat they face isthe destruction of habitat. If you want to lessen the chances of an encounter in your garden, clear away debris, or areas for them to hide. Cut back undergrowth and trim tree branches away from the roof or windows. Streams and water attract snake food (frogs) and rubbish attracts rats (more snake food).

Deadly half dozen (or so)

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A King Cobra. Picture: Wikimedia Images

No snake piece would complete without going over some of the potential nasties … Hong Kong has about 55 snakes (not conclusive) and the following land snakes have the potential to cause serious medical issues from a successful envenomation (bite with venom injected); White Lipped Pit Viper (Bamboo snake), Mountain Pit Viper, Chinese Cobra, King Cobra, Many Banded Krait, Banded Krait, Macclelland’sCoral snake and Red Neck Keelback.
The vast majority of recorded venomous snake bites in Hong Kong come from Bamboo snakes (pictured top). These are beautiful bright green ambush huntersthat rely on their camouflage and remain motionless for hours. Their bite can be very painful and cause localised tissue damage, but never fatal. I have been on the receiving end of a dry bite (approximately 50% of the bites from this snake do not inject venom). By far the most common ‘dangerous’ snake in Hong Kong is the Chinese Cobra which can be found in most habitats during the day or night. They get to about 4-5ft fully grown. On a good night out, we have spotted over half a dozen of these — so Lantau folks are never far away from the nearest one (sorry but just reporting the facts!). 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 with a very distinguishable white marking behind its head (sometimes like a batman logo or smiley face). This is the easiest way to identify a Cobra.
Contrary to common belief, there are no ‘certain death’ species in Hong Kong. Fatalities are almost non-existent; each year, dozens of people are bitten by venomous snakes in Hong Kong with the last recorded snake bite death taking place over 20 years ago. Why do people in Hong Kong get bitten if snakes are not aggressive? Walking through long grass or overgrown trails could easily put you in the reach of a hidden Bamboo snake waiting for prey – their camouflage is spectacular. Picking up a pile of wood in the garden where a startled Cobra is digesting food. Walking on a dimly lit trail and stepping on an unseen Krait. Finding a snake and trying to kill it or pick it up. These are common reasons for snake bite incidents. I’ve heard a story recently of someone picking up a Many Banded Krait thinking it was a Wolf snake (he was bitten but survived).

Bites

Snake bites can be very serious and inflict permanent injuries; but if you can get to a hospital quickly (under an hour is quickly) it will dramatically reduce the chances of major complications. In the very unlikely chance of having an encounter with a venomous snake bite, remain calm and get yourself to hospital straight away. For Bamboo snake bites (by far the most commonly reported snake bite), do not wrap the bite site as this will only concentrate the venom. Bamboo snakes have hemotoxic venom (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 (neurotoxic); and therefore slowing the spread of the venom through light bandages over the bite site is recommended (similar to wrapping a twisted ankle). Hong Kong has world class treatment facilities with anti-venom stocked in major hospitals.

Fear

Earlier this month, I was called to the house of a very frightened resident, petrified as a snake had been spotted in the doorway, she had been outside for over an hour, and was waiting for the snake to leave. After receiving a few panicked phone calls, I decided to help by removing the threat. Upon arrival, the offending creature was quickly identified as a six inch baby Kukri snake that is non-venomous that eats insect and gecko eggs. I was happy to be called and to help, as this is always a better solution than grabbing the nearest stick, but it illustrates just how deep the fear of snakes goes. I explained more about the snake, where it lives and the person concerned relaxed. It’s all about knowing more about snakes. I have taken visitors out in the field to photograph snakes, and very quickly the reaction goes from ‘yuk’ or ‘OMG’ to ‘wow, that’s a fascinating creature, I didn’t know that…’ ‘can I go with you again’.
So next time you see a snake, remain calm, give it space, grab your camera out and feel privileged that you have witnessed a fascinating creature that’s just getting on with its day."

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William Sargent with a King Cobra. Picture: Hong Kong Snakes Facebook page

People needing snake removal should text William on 9470 8442 and include an image of the snake if possible.

 

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