Slinking around with Lantau’s resident snake whisperer William Sargent, Elizabeth Kerr comes close to losing her ophiophobia.
“It was a small one – only 6 or 7 foot,” says William Sargent, oh so casually, when telling the story of the time he was bitten by an anaconda in the Amazon. William gets noticeably excited when talking about dealing with slitherers, laughing and making jokes about how the aforementioned anaconda grabbed his arm – in its mouth.
“I did that week deep in the Amazon two years ago, with a bunch of snake experts from around the world,” he explains. “At the time, I was a bit of a Hong Kong snake snob. I didn’t want to go; I thought there were enough here. But it was one of the best trips I’ve ever done,” he says. “Loved it.”
The call of nature on that same trip brought William face-to-face with a Fer-de-Lance, South America’s deadliest viper. He nabbed it by hand, put it in his backpack and took it back to camp. As the outsider lacking a PhD, this earned him some serious props.
Lantau snake evangelist
That his vacation is the stuff of nightmares for many doesn’t escape William. However, as a volunteer with the police department’s snake removal crew and Lantau snake evangelist through his regular educational talks around the island, he has had the opportunity and privilege of changing many a mind. “Logic and statistics don’t come into fear,” he 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 tend to panic.”
Cultural negativity doesn’t help: Negative phrases common in the lexicon, like ‘snake in the grass’ and ‘snake oil salesmen’ don’t help. And then there’s the story of Adam and Eve. “Wasn’t there a bad snake in the grass” cracks William. For him, it’s about realistic fear. More people die each year of influenza and lightning strikes – lightning – than from snake bites in Australia, the reigning capital of deadly reptiles.
As many island residents are well aware, the jocular, almost lifelong Lantauer and current resident of Pui O — where he bought a home with his now-wife Karen — has spent the last 25 of his 40 years studying, photographing and reading about snakes, a habit he picked up on Lantau as a kid. He takes some local pride in comparing the 150 types of snakes in the Amazon, one of the most ecologically diverse spots in the world, to Hong Kong, which still manages to be home to one-third of that total. There are over 50 types of snakes in the SAR, and for a city known for its concrete and glass, that’s pretty impressive.
“My brother used to catch snakes with his mates and bring them home,” William says. “As a 10-year-old that’s dangerous and exciting.” These days, William will still cop to the danger factor as part of the charm of snakes. “Once every two years, I’ll see a banded Krait and think, ‘How am I going to catch it? What am I going to do?’ It’s a bit of an adrenalin rush. Everyone likes a little bit of risk I guess.”
That’s debatable but there is curiosity, something William has learnt as a result of his ongoing talks on snakes (the next one is on June 12 at the Garden Centre, Pui O, with funds raised going to the Living Islands Movement). He doesn’t expect anyone to magically get over their ophiophobia or join him in Sai Kung Country Park at night, watching Kraits in the mangroves, but he is pleased his talks have had an influence on reactions.
“I see the difference in people’s approaches after one talk,” William says. “They go in really ignorant but curious, and they come out champions. They contact me afterwards and tell me about how they convinced villagers not to kill a snake, how they told them what it was and how it moved and so on. When that happens it’s totally…” He pauses. Thinking. “How can I not do it? It would be a shame not to share that.”
Event planning and prison work
William is an event planner by profession, and has been busy with the recent rise in demand for organised corporate hikes; his latest clients have included Prudential Asia-Pacific and Bank of America. But he’s also event director for the big-ticket, 70-plus kilometre night treks that make up MoonTrekker, which supports The Nature Conservancy, and of the 8-kilometre, dog-friendly TrailWagger, which supports Animals Asia.
“The first TrailWagger, on April 16, was really, really fun,” William says. “We hiked from Mui Wo to DB, and it was so nice to be part of an event with such a friendly and enthusiastic group. We had about 100 humans and over 100 dogs take part. Some participants ran but for most it was a leisurely hike. The dogs were really well behaved, and I was really touched by the positive feedback. There is no way we can’t not do this again.”
Another addition to William’s portfolio is his volunteer work with the police department – an agreement that took a lot of negotiating. When locals find a snake in unexpected locations they’ll call the police (odd, as in most jurisdictions that’s a job for animal control), the police will check it out and then call William for tagging and removal. A recent highlight: a 10-foot python at a prison. “It was the middle of summer, in the middle of Tong Fuk Correctional Institute,” William recalls gleefully. “I had 10 jailers around me, and the snake was wedged in a drain. It took 45 minutes and I was covered in sweat. I looked like I’d been swimming. And one of the guys came up to me with a little tissue. ‘Here you go,’ he said. It touched my finger and it was soaked.”
The memory elicits a hearty chuckle. As it should. The python in his backpack at the time was really no more dangerous than a car – and truth be told probably far less deadly.
Image: Terry Chow