Python paranoia
2014-05-23, Hazel Knowles

A deadly attack on a pet dog by a five-meter-long snake in front of two children has raised fears about Hong Kong’s python population. It calls into question a government policy of freeing captured pythons back into the wild. But an expert says people need to stay calm and live alongside the city’s biggest natural predator. Hazel Knowles reports.

One chilling thought has been running through Katie Heyring’s mind since she saw her pet dog Charlie crushed to death by a Burmese python in front of her screaming son and daughter on Saturday — what if it had been one of her children?

Heyring had been out walking with seven-year-old Kaia and five-year-old Kaspar and their five dogs on a walking trail near the entrance of Sai Kung Country Park when 18-month-old Charlie, which weighed around 28 kg, ran ahead of them and into an ambush by the python.

The 41-year-old mother-of-four bravely tried to fight off the reptile by hitting it with a walking stick but when she realized her dog was dead, she had no choice but to escape with her children and her surviving pets.

“It was terrifying,” she recalled. “The kids were screaming and the other dogs were barking. After about a minute of me hitting it, Charlie stopped squealing and I knew that was it. There was nothing I could do and I just had to get the kids and the other dogs away.

“The snake was colossal and I was so scared it would turn on the kids. My youngest son, Kaspar, is about the same size as Charlie. Since it happened, I keep thinking ‘What if Kaspar had been in front? What would the snake have done to him?’ It is too horrible to contemplate.”

Saturday’s fatal attack came just a fortnight after businesswoman Courtney Link and her husband Pete managed to rescue their 24-kg dog Dexter from the grip of another five-meter-long python which struck as they walked along a coastal peninsula in the same country park.

Different snakes are believed to be responsible for the two attacks, which were five miles apart, but Saturday’s attack was in the same area where there have been three other python attacks on dogs in recent years, one of them fatal.


Swift, widespread fallout

The fallout from the latest attack has been swift and widespread. A kindergarten that does an annual charity walk close to the area where the python attack took place was considering canceling tomorrow’s event before concluding it was safe to go ahead.

On news sites and blogs across the city, advice and warnings are being exchanged. “This snake has developed a taste for small dogs,” one person warns. “It’s a very short step for the snake to develop a taste for small children. This snake needs to be captured and destroyed.”

Another resident posts ominously: “Pythons may slither into a house at night. Toddlers may be killed while parents are sleeping.”

The paranoia about pythons comes at an uncomfortable time for the government’s countryside authorities who only four years ago, under pressure from animal welfare groups, halted a policy of sending captured pythons over the border to the mainland.

Instead, they began releasing them in remote areas and subsequently began a program to microchip pythons to find out how easy they are to relocate and whether they return to the area where they are captured.

The microchip and release policy was introduced by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in 2010 as a pilot project following criticism of the old practice which involved moving pythons straying too close to humans to a “suitable nature reserve” on the mainland.

Animal welfare groups and ecologists had claimed removing Hong Kong’s biggest natural predator in this way risked upsetting the balance of the city’s ecosystem and put the snakes at risk to hunters who could sell a large python skin for about 10,000 yuan on the mainland.

It was hoped the pilot project, believed to be the first of its kind in the world, would offer an insight into the movement patterns and behavior of the pythons, while also helping the department manage the snakes in a way which maintains the balance of the ecosystem.

AFCD figures obtained by China Daily show that around 430 pythons ranging between 0.5 and 4.2 meters in length were captured in the first three years of the project. Of these, some 380 have been released back into Hong Kong after health and weight checks and being implanted with microchips by experts at Kadoorie Farm and the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. The remaining 50 either died or were euthanized because of ill health.

A more detailed breakdown shows the number of captured pythons increasing steadily over the three years, with 116 pythons captured in 2011, 147 in 2012 and 169 in 2013.

An AFCD spokesperson said all the healthy captured pythons were released in “remote countryside away from human settlement and with suitable habitats for pythons”.

However, at least seven have made their way back to human habitations to be captured a second time, while one has been captured three times.

Snake catcher and python expert Dave Willott, who is currently tracking three captured and released pythons implanted with GPS chips in a separate study for the AFCD, said he believed people needed to learn to live with pythons.

Saturday’s attack took place in an area where there are signs warning of a python and dog walkers should keep their dog on leads in that area, he said.


Need to change thinking

“I’m not blaming the python and I’m not blaming the people with dogs but seriously if you don’t want your dog to get taken by a python, you have got to keep it on a lead,” he said.

“If you are going to a place where you know there are pythons, you shouldn’t go around with your dog off a lead. The problem is that snakes hadn’t been seen for quite a long time so people get a bit blasé and think maybe they’re gone.”

Willott said he did not agree with removing “problem” pythons from their habitat and said that if the one at the entrance to the country park was removed, another python would most likely claim its territory.

“When there’s a conflict between people and animals, it’s always the animals that come off worse,” he said. “We need to change that way of thinking. People are going to have to understand that in some places the animals rule. We have to learn to live with them.”

The AFCD urged people not to be alarmed should they encounter a python in the countryside, saying that most snakes, including Burmese pythons, were timid creatures and would generally flee when they sensed the presence of humans.

“In general, snakes are unlikely to attack unless provoked. As snakes tend to linger in vegetation for food and shelter, both people and pets should avoid staying around dense vegetation to minimize the chance of a snake encounter,” it said.

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