Here’s a fact that illuminates many of the realities of global conservation: we know more about Burmese pythons in Florida – where they are a destructive invader – than about their lives in their natural range in Southeast Asia, where their numbers are plummeting and their very long-term survival may be up in the air.
Armed with a shoestring budget and a love for mega-snakes, Shariar Caesar Rahman is trying to rectify this incongruent reality by doing something no one has done in Bangladesh before. He’s attaching radio transmitters to snakes – really, really big snakes.
Brilliantly-patterned, Burmese pythons can grow as long as 5.5 metres, making them one of the largest snakes on the planet. Scientists have only recently deemed them a species in their own right, after long being considered a subspecies of the Indian rock python.
“Burmese pythons are either seen by most people as inhabitants of glass cages or as ecological villains in Florida,” Rahman said. “As a result, there is not an appreciation for this snake in its native wild range.”
The CEO of the Creative Conservation Alliance, Rahman and his team kickstarted their python project in 2013 in a small park, Lawachara National Park. Just half the size of Epping Forest, Lawachara covers 1,250 hectares in northeastern Bangladesh. The protected area is surrounded on all side by villages and tea plantations, making conflict between humans and the big serpents inevitable.
Rahman says the main problem is that Burmese pythons have an affinity for domestic ducks – perhaps finding them easy to catch or especially delicious. But this duck devouring puts them at odds with the local people.
“Losing a few ducks is huge economic loss for them,” Rahman said, noting that most of the villagers, who work in tea plantations, are “extremely poor.”
By studying how Burmese pythons use their habitat, Rahman hopes to better mitigate such conflict. But before he can do this, he has to locate them. You’d think finding a five-metre, 90 kilogram snake would be pretty straightforward, but their camouflage and cryptic ways makes them almost invisible.
“We have spent hundreds of hours doing transect surveys in the forests of Bangladesh and have rarely seen pythons in the wild,” Rahman said. So, his team turned to the villagers who were finding them with disturbing regularity.
Rahman and his team hired some villagers and trained them as “parabiologists.” ‘Para’ is a Greek prefix meaning ‘alongside’. Much like a paramedic has the skills to save a life but is not a full doctor, parabiologists have the basic tools and skills to do conservation work without the years of study and advanced training.
“Over time, our parabiologists built rapport and gained trust with the villagers and villagers would call them if they encounter pythons in their villages,” Rahman said. “Our parabiologists would immediately respond to their calls and rescue the pythons and bring it back to our field station.”
All ten of the snakes involved in the study were found via parabiologists helping villagers get rid of unwanted guests.
Next, Rahman had to solve was how to fit a radio transmitter on the pythons. Other researchers have done this by fully anesthetizing the animal and then surgically inserting the transmitter under the skin. However, Rahman did not have the equipment necessary put the snake fully under. So he and his team tried something a little bit different.
They placed captured snakes placed into a large plastic pipe to restrict their movements and then applied localized anesthetic. Once that took effect, they operated on the snake to fix the radio transmitter.
“This method was frowned upon by experts, but we have got very positive results,” Rahman said.
His team has not lost a single snake or seen any signs of infection from the localized surgeries.
“The transmitter stayed inside the snakes, and after one year we would capture the snake again and surgically removed the surgery following the same procedure,” he added, noting that they plan to publish a paper on the “more efficient” process soon.
The radio transmitters in the snakes allowed Rahman and his team to gather the first data on Burmese pythons in its home: including its range, movements and habitat use.
Worryingly, Rahman discovered that the snakes have become attached to village life. Every time the team caught a snake in the villages, they would take it several kilometres away and drop it off in the forest park, far from the villagers and their ducks. But inevitably the snake would make its way back to the village – every time.
“One particular python with transmitter, a thirteen foot female [4 metres], was captured by the villagers eight times in a year and half. And every time the snake was relocated back to the forest it would eventually return to the village where it was captured. [She] lost weight during the process.”
This raises the question of why the snakes keep moving out of the protected area: is the forest already at maximum giant snake capacity? Has the prey population plunged, forcing the snakes out of the forest due to hunger? Rahman said he doesn’t know and it would require good research on Burmese pythons – who are considered generalist carnivores – to find out. From a conservation perspective, Rahman wonders if it’s even worthwhile moving the snakes. But the villagers, of course, want the snakes taken away.
At the same time, the Burmese python’s ecological role has never been more important. As big cats – such as tigers and leopards – have vanished across many parts of Asia, pythons have become the new king in town, the top predator of big prey.
Rahman’s research is also helping those trying to get rid of pythons in the Florida, according to Bryan Falk, a Research Fellow at the Everglades National Park.
“[It] can help us predict and understand how Burmese pythons might interact with their environment in Florida. It’s information that adds another piece to the puzzle, and every piece helps.”
The biggest conundrum wildlife managers in Florida face is simply finding the big snakes, who have an uncanny ability to disappear in a landscape like the Everglades.
“The probability of finding a python is somewhere abound 1 in 100, meaning that for every python that a python-searcher finds, they missed 99 that were hiding nearby. Along with our partners, we are working to solve this problem…because right now it confounds nearly every possible solution,” Falk said.
The Burmese python is currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List yet the snake – and its relatives – are still widely and often legally trafficked as pets and sometimes for their parts.
“Many of the most popular reptiles in the pet trade are of tropical origin, and can be exported in large numbers…This creates a situation in which species that are actually declining may be heavily exploited for commercial purposes, but yet may receive little conservation attention because of a perception that the species are quite common due to their ubiquity in captive situations,” said Rahman.
Reptiles are almost always at the bottom of the heap when it comes to conservation of vertebrates (though they still fare better arguably than most invertebrate species, which, of course, make up the bulk of life). For example, while the IUCN has evaluated 100 percent of birds and mammals, and 86 percent of amphibians, it has only evaluated 56 percent of the world’s reptiles. The reticulated python, another python species from Asia, has never been evaluated.
And when’s the last time anyone can remember any of the big conservation groups running a campaign to save a snake?
“If someone were to hold a wild Burmese python and took a close look at it they would realize how beautiful they are,” Rahman said. “I don’t want to imagine a world without giant snakes in it.”
To keep pythons – and other snakes from extinction – the first thing to do is change attitudes. The government of Bangladesh’s Forestry Department has partnered with Rahman’s organization to raise awareness.
Mihir Doe, a forest officer, said the programme is working to do just that. He said that in the part year the government has rescued 15 pythons and released them back in forest areas.
“In these cases, local people informed us and they did not kill those python,” Doe said. “It makes us optimistic to conserve the species.”
But the government also needs to make sure the pythons have a home to go to. Deforestation and fragmentation is rampant across South and Central Asia, leaving tens of thousands – maybe more – species with fewer homes every year.
“I think developed nations should invest more on protection and restoration of tropical forests. We can only ensure the long term survival of this magnificent species by safeguarding their habitat-tropical forests and wetlands,” Rahman said, who noted that it was “ironic” that millions are spent trying to kill off the pythons in the Everglades, while next to nothing is spent trying to protect them in their home range.
And in forests that are still standing, more law enforcement is needed to protect species like pythons from poaching and trafficking, whether it be for body parts, traditional medicine, bushmeat or the pet trade.
Scientists believe that Burmese python populations have plunged at least 30 percent of over just the last decade. A stunning figure that highlights just how bad the global biodiversity crisis has become: a well-known species can drop nearly a third in ten years yet little is being done directly for the species and almost no one is raising the alarm.
It also shows that humankind’s long ambivalence towards snakes may in the end be their doom – as our myopia may be the doom of many wild things that scuttle underneath. Yet even as many of us may feel a certain fear and loathing toward our serpentine kin – and some researchers believe that its inborn – it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a place on our planet, like all creatures great and small, loved and, yes, even by some (but not all), loathed.