Experiencing the Hong Kong Snake Safari

Editor’s note: The Monthly Ticket is a CNN travel series highlighting some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In October, we shift our focus to the unusual, highlighting everything from haunted spaces to abandoned places.
Hong Kong (CNN) – A split second after William Sargent’s torchlight catches the unmistakable sheen of snakeskin, he roars into action, slips on a protective glove and launches himself into the dense green jungle of northern Hong Kong.

The 46-year-old re-emerges on the paved trail moments later with a many-banded krait, also known as Bungarus multicinctus, a species covered in zebra-like black and white stripes that is one of the world’s most venomous snakes. world .

“This is a real beauty, it’s breathtaking,” Sargent says, sweat pooling on his forehead as he struggles to keep the lively reptile from slipping out of his hand. “If there was an elite model for snakes, this would be up there. But this is the one you really don’t want to get bitten. If left untreated, you could go into respiratory failure and die.”

Since 2017, Sargent, a police-approved snake expert, has been conducting so-called nocturnal “snake safaris” through Hong Kong’s green and biodiverse terrain, such as Tai Mo Shan Country Park, home to the highest peak in the city in the north. Region of the New Territories: every year it accompanies hundreds of daring visitors.

The Briton moved to the city at the age of two, honing a passion for herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles, while exploring Hong Kong’s lush subtropical landscapes as a teenager. In addition to satisfying his own interest, the guided tours are a way for Sargent to combat stigma, improve awareness and increase appreciation for snakes.

“The vast majority of snakes that show up in your house don’t want to live there. It’s just out of circumstance, like a fish jumping into your boat,” he says. “If you’re sensible, there’s nothing to be afraid of. But unfortunately, many snakes kill themselves out of fear.”

While Hong Kong is a global metropolis almost as large as Los Angeles, containing some of the most densely populated districts in the world, about 40% of its land area is protected country parks, meaning that its 7.3 millions of residents often come into contact with wildlife, including more than 50 species of snakes in the city, from the potentially deadly King Cobra to the Burmese python, which can grow to over 26 feet.

One of the non-snakes you may encounter on a safari is a brown tree frog.

One of the non-snakes you may encounter on a safari is a brown tree frog.

Dale de la Rey/South China Morning Post/Getty Images

“Given its size, Hong Kong has a disproportionate number of snakes,” says Dr. Sung Yik-hei, a professor at Lingnan University and one of the city’s leading reptile experts. “This is due to the city’s wide variety of habitats: mountains, coastal areas, lowlands, wetlands and freshwater streams.”

Despite these reptilian riches, there are just over 100 snakebites in Hong Kong each year, the equivalent odds of one in 50,000, and the latest death was of a shopkeeper defending a non-native snake for the which there was no antivenom. in 1988.

“The probability of encountering a snake is not low,” adds Sung. “But the chances of being bitten are very low. Even if you are, Hong Kong is one of the safest places in the world for snakebites because of the quality and proximity of hospitals.”

For his part, Sargent gets calls every week to catch snakes everywhere from schools to prisons to homes, and once, a beach on Lantau Island to catch a 15-foot python. As of August, he is the first expert to participate in a “Quick Release Program,” meaning that instead of having to go through a days-long bureaucratic procedure of sending a captured snake to a police station in police and other facilities, can release. to the nearest country park, reducing the workload and keeping the snakes much healthier.

This policy shift has proven to be an uphill struggle amid a complex cultural context.

In Hong Kong, snakes are eaten in a soup, used in traditional Chinese medicine, or simply seen as a threat. The result is that in China almost all of the larger snake species are classified as vulnerable, threatened or endangered on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which makes a monitoring the state of conservation of the world’s plant and animal species.

But thanks to Sargent, who has given talks at local schools and started a Facebook group, Hong Kong Snakes (whose 15,000 members share photos, information and tips on snake encounters) the snakes are shedding that fearsome reputation.

Tour attendee and Facebook group member Michelle Yu, who moved to Hong Kong from Washington DC nine years ago, says her perception of snakes has been completely transformed by the community. “You go from being rejected to actively seeking out these beautiful creatures,” he explains.

For others, the experience underscores the unique contrasts available in Hong Kong: tall skyscrapers alongside exotic nature. “You have this great feeling that you can escape the city,” says Loïc Sorgho, a 42-year-old French banker. “Where else can you go from a 50-story building to a tropical jungle so quickly?”

Over the course of a couple of hours, the group encounters nine different snakes: three bamboo vipers; two diamond water snakes; a bicolor brook snake; a mock viper; a larger green; and the many-banded krait, whose diaphanously soft underbelly Sargent makes sure attendees pet. “Please don’t touch more than half of her body, please,” she teases. “It won’t help my insurance.”

And there’s plenty of other wildlife to see on the trail: barking deer, leopard cats, porcupines, marsh eels, birds of prey, all manner of frogs and fire-bellied newts, whose dark undersides are dotted with orange spots and bright reds. .

Towards the end of the route winding along rocky, bamboo-lined paths and through babbling streams, Sargent spots a small diamondback water snake coiled in a plant and picks it up. “It’s trying to get its back fangs into me,” he says, moments before being bitten on the tip of a finger. “Ouch! It’s pretty toxic to geckos, but I’ll be fine.”

Once released, the snake, which has whitish-yellow diamond markings along its scaly body, slithers across the surface of the moonlit water amid a chorus of cicadas and into the night perfectly Hong Kong quiet.

Photo: William Sargent handles a snake. Image by Adam Francis.

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