Snakes alive, a U-turn on freeing pythons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am


Captured Burmese pythons are being released back into the Hong Kong countryside rather than being deported to the mainland in a policy U-turn that has delighted animal-welfare groups but worried some pet owners.

For years, the pythons - Hong Kong's biggest natural predator, which can grow up to six metres long - were sent across the border and handed to nature reserves after they strayed into residential areas or attacked household pets.

The practice was fiercely opposed by animal-welfare groups, who said it upset Hong Kong's ecosystem and warned that the endangered snakes might end up being killed or traded in a market where a large python can fetch up to 10,000 yuan (HK$12,300).

Since the beginning of last year, however, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has quietly changed its policy and has been releasing the pythons back into remote areas of Hong Kong countryside at the rate of about eight a month in a trial project. With the help of conservationists from Kadoorie Farm, each captured snake has a microchip inserted before being released back into the wild as part of a study to monitor their little-known habits and movements.

Insiders say the policy change was not publicly announced because of concerns about objections.

When its previous policy of sending the snakes to the mainland was challenged, the department said it was sending them over the border because they were so large and powerful they could pose threats to humans and their pets and livestock.

Explaining the change of policy, a spokeswoman said the department 'has initiated a trial to release the captured pythons to remote countryside areas well away from human settlement and property and where habitats suitable for pythons are found'.

'Prior to return to the wild, the pythons are sexed, measured, and microchipped for identification and future monitoring. The data collected will be used for determination of the distribution and population status of Burmese pythons in Hong Kong and would be useful in formulating a long-term management plan for the species.'

A total of 116 were captured last year and about 100 of those were released back into the Hong Kong countryside. Some died while in the department's custody, often as a result of the trauma of being taken out of their natural environment.

Snake catcher Dave Willott, who spoke out against the practice of sending captured snakes across the border, said: 'I've got a feeling they [the department] are going to come under a lot of pressure from pet owners and people with small children who think there is a danger the snake will come into their houses.

'People have got to learn to live in harmony with these animals. The python is a protected species and it has a right to be here ... Some cats and dogs will probably go missing, but it's just one of those things.'

News of the U-turn has triggered concern on some internet forums.

'Pythons are part of the ecosystem and I agree they should be returned to the countryside,' one pet lover wrote.

'However, very large five-to-six-metre pythons should not be released near populated areas. These big snakes would not attack an adult but might see a child as fair game.'

Sandy Macalister, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which campaigned against pythons being sent to the mainland, described the policy change as 'fantastic news'.

'We applaud this progressive move ... which is the best for animal welfare and the best for our environment,' he said. 'We are very fortunate to have these important animals in Hong Kong and they deserve our fullest respect and protection.'

A spokeswoman for the Fauna Conservation Department of the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden said the data collected from the trial project so far suggested there was 'a healthy population' of pythons in Hong Kong.

'Pythons that are returned to the wild are not adding specimens or risks to the ecosystem but are restoring a balance to the natural environment that was disrupted by their removal following an unfortunate encounter with human activities.'

Dr William Karesh of the US-based EcoHealth Alliance, who was consulted about the project, said: 'It is very impressive they are trying to do this and reaching out around the world for advice.'