This City Safari in Hong Kong Comes With a Snake Warning

HONG KONG – The snake didn’t see the catcher coming, at least not in time to avoid getting caught.

“This is the fourth most poisonous land snake in the world and by far the most poisonous snake in Asia,” said catcher William Sargent to a group of hikers one night in Hong Kong. He calmly delivered the message, the way you declare dinner is ready.

Which of us, he asked, wanted to touch it first?

Mr Sargent, 44, conducts the Hong Kong Snakes Safari, an outfit that residents take on night walks through the territory’s wooded hinterland. Some are more concerned than others as they learn firsthand what he calls a chronically misunderstood reptile.

The walks highlight the extent of biodiversity in Hong Kong, a 7.5 million financial center better known for its skyscrapers than its sprawling protected areas. It’s also a way for city slickers with snake phobias to face their fears in the wild.

Hong Kong is almost the size of Los Angeles, but around 40 percent of its land area is made up of parks created in the 1970s when Chinese territory was still a British colony. Human-animal conflicts are inevitable with so much protected land within walking distance of dense urban areas.

Wild boars in particular often cause a stir when they wander into busy streets or subway stations. Last month a family of wild boars made the local newspapers by strolling through Hong Kong’s central business district and swimming in the fountain in front of the Bank of China’s 72-story office tower.

Snakes generally have a lower profile in Hong Kong. However, since eight native species can cause fatal bites, the health risks can be severe if they end up in close proximity to humans.

Hong Kong police said in a statement that if a snake threatens the public, it will be “securely wrapped and packaged” by approved captors and then sent to Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Gardens, a local nonprofit that also rescued bats and protects birds, crocodiles, monkeys, psoriasis and turtles. Most snakes are later released into the wild.

Mr. Sargent, who kept snakes as pets when he was raised on one of Hong Kong’s outer islands, has been a police-approved expert since 2015. He said his snake trapping duties had taken him to prisons, schools, supermarkets and an airport hangar and a construction site for a coronavirus station from which he extracted a 10-foot python.

Last month he was called to a fishing village at 3 a.m. to remove a Chinese cobra from under the bed of a 90-year-old woman. He said a group of elderly people in the village formed some sort of reception line around him as he walked by and yelled “their five cents about this foreign snake catcher.”

“Even the police laughed,” said Mr Sargent, who is British-Swiss and works in event planning during the day.

Separately, he runs the hiking business and a Facebook educational group on local queues with more than 10,000 members. It was set up in part to correct viral misinformation, such as the suggestion that snake bites are common in the city.

The World Health Organization estimates that around 81,000 to 138,000 people die from snakebites around the world each year, mostly in developing countries, and that around three times as many people have permanent disabilities.

Most of the estimated 1.8 to 2.7 million annual “poisonings” or snake poisoning worldwide occur in Asia, many in countries with weak health systems and scarce medical resources. The countries that lack the ability to manufacture antidotes are most at risk.

In Hong Kong, which has a world-class medical system, no poisonous snake has killed anyone since at least 2005, according to a spokesman for the city’s hospital authority. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, authorities recorded only 73 snake bites, increasing the chances of one in 100,000 being bitten.

“It’s not mystical,” said Mr. Sargent during the night hike. “The risk is very clear. But there is such a huge void of misunderstanding. “

I was one of several hikers who met Mr. Sargent on a hot weekday evening in a village near the Hong Kong-Chinese mainland border. Before entering an adjacent country park, he explained that the best way to avoid a snakebite is to watch our feet and walk with a good quality headlamp.

Check. And check. As we set out on a specific path, our carefully monitored steps were bathed in a reassuringly bright LED glow.

But the ambient light seemed to fade with every step, and sections of the path looked worryingly overgrown – at least to my serpentine eyes.

“Look everywhere you can,” said James Kwok, a nature lover who signed up for the safari and gave advice on how to find snakes.

The group challenged a thigh-high creek and crossed slippery rocks in the dark. Some hikers lost their footing and fell into the water.

Mr. Sargent discovered our first quarry – a mountain water snake – and plucked it with his bare hands from a rock by the stream.

When he showed us the snake, it nibbled his hand and drew a drop of blood. He shrugged: it was non-toxic and therefore harmless.

But it didn’t look happy in Mr. Sargent’s confident grip.

“No,” he said. “I mean, I’m a predator, right?”

That seemed like more than enough drama for the night. A few minutes later, a longer, thicker, black-and-white striped snake slid into the group’s headlights.

“Fast fast fast!” Mr. Sargent shouted in a stage whisper as the group crawled in formation behind him, headlights like spotlights bouncing across the subtropical foliage at a rock concert.

In one smooth movement he sprinted ahead, slipped his hand into a puncture-proof glove, and picked up the snake.

As it wriggled in the damp air, he said it was a multi-volume krait, a nocturnal species whose highly toxic venom targets the nervous system. We all trembled with fear.

But Mr Sargent, still looking calm, said reassuringly that he hadn’t seen a hit in three decades of handling wild kraits. The animal’s main instinct was to flee, not to bite.

So we gathered to touch the krait’s belly – which was surprisingly smooth and delicate like a baby’s cheeks – and to marvel at how beautiful its scales looked up close.

“It’s not what you expect,” said Ruth Stather, a fellow hiker who works in marketing.

The krait wasn’t exactly pleased, but it seemed ready to put up with the curious people for a few minutes. As we stood there and touched it in the silent darkness, I felt my snake phobia subside.

“You are not interested in fighting,” said Mr. Sargent.

I worried that he would tempt fate. But when he released the snake into the brush, it slipped safely away.

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