How I Fell in Love With a Non-Charismatic Megafauna, the Python
February 7, 2023
Growing up, my earliest understandings of large snakes were heavily influenced by the Anaconda series. The movies showed the sinister side of something long and large that developed a taste for humans.
Another source of information was from my Chinese-educated dad, who taught me many idioms and proverbs. I couldn’t help but notice proverbs suggesting the evilness of snakes:
1. 蛇鼠一窩 shé shǔ yī wō
- Literally: ‘Snakes and rats in one nest’
- Meaning: Basically that evil attracts evil, to describe the collusion of wicked people
2. 一朝被蛇咬，十年怕井繩 yī zhāo bèi shé yǎo，shí nián pà jǐng shéng
- Literally: One snakebite can lead to 10 years of fearing ropes
- Meaning: Once bitten, twice shy
3. 人心不足蛇吞象 rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng
- Literally: A man who is content with nothing is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant
- Meaning: A greedy person who is never content
4. 蛇蝎为心 shé xiē wéi xīn
- Literally: Snakes and scorpions for a heart
- Meaning: Someone with a vicious heart and cruel nature
When I started herping, it was like falling into a manhole I didn’t even know was there. “Herping” is the act of going out into the field to sight some amphibians or reptiles, including frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, and — in other parts of the world — salamanders, newts and so on. “Herpetology” is the branch of zoology concerned with the study of these creatures. The Greek root is herpet-, meaning “creeping”, which is a fascinating word to describe how this activity creeped into my life.
I started out just wanting to explore green spaces beyond Singapore’s famous nature reserves. As dusk falls, time melts away. Any moment, a pattern or a movement could suggest an instinct within: an inkling that that is not a vine, not a blade of grass, not part of the asphalt road. That is a snake, an Asian palm civet, a brown hawk-owl, a lesser mouse deer. I was fascinated, speechless, awed, disgusted, and excited in turn by snakes and the prospects of finding snakes late into the night while the rest of the city slept.
My first large snake — a female wagler’s pit viper — was really scary to encounter. Standing a good four metres away, I felt her immense presence and she undoubtedly, keenly felt mine (through her heat sensing pits). She was muscular. Thoughts of large snakes strangling livestock and humans flashed across my mind. But as I stood there for nearly an hour while Dennis photographed the Mama Wagler, I observed how calm and poised she could be. Vipers would not move if unprovoked and undisturbed. These snakes have positioned themselves intentionally and are either resting from a heavy meal, or still lying in ambush for passing prey. When Dennis passed me the camera and guided me to inch forward, I took a deep breath and a step, and snapped the shot. It was only later did I realise I had held my breath.
A part of me softened after that initial exposure. Of the 67 species of snakes one could find in Singapore, only seven species were venomous. It felt like I had encountered the most threatening of them all. I felt my fears dissipate.
Following several months of seeing smaller snakes, I started secretly wishing for something larger. With each trip, it felt like it was time for me to sight my first reticulated python. I heard stories of how they thrive in drains, I saw photos posted by joggers, and I waited patiently to see the largest snake in the world. For me, this is what it means to herp. Sometimes we land find after find. Other times, droughts for weeks on end. Losing momentum as work and life commitments take over. But never really losing the hope of re-sighting a certain species again. And then finding it right when one does not expect it.
Late one night, I got a text. I rushed down. The python’s enormous girth was poised and it was downslope, her neck in a signature strike pose, ready to launch. The immense proportion was dizzying. It must have been about 3 metres. As I later learnt, in the first few years of a reticulated python‘s life, they can grow more than 5 feet (or 1.5 metres) each year, and after about the first 3 years their growth rate tapers off.
What was striking was the way the reticulated patterned serpent camouflaged into the bush. Reticulated means “network-like”, but really it’s like a complex, diamond-shaped pattern reminiscent of batik. Under our torches, it was iridescent and so beautiful. I couldn’t help but think, “this why they are killed for designer bags”, and kicked myself immediately.
Positioned right under a reflexive convex mirror, at a bend in the road, I shuddered to think what could happen to it if it decided to cross the road. Since then, the number of crushed pythons I have encountered almost equals the number of live ones I have found. Adaptable as pythons are, they have yet to evolve to recognise the dangers of motorcars, a phenomenon that arose in Singapore around a hundred years ago.
Tak kenal maka tak cinta. This Malay peribahasa speaks about how one cannot love what one does not know. In the conservation ethic, nonhuman beings gain a sense of animacy when we are able to acknowledge their aliveness and accord them moral and ethical consideration. That night, I went home thinking about how nonhuman creatures in Singapore have to be resilient against heavy environmental pressures, on a daily basis.
This somber thought made the fact that we could find large snakes in Singapore even more amazing, and the resilience and fragility of the ecosystem that we were exploring very real and apparent.