Constricted thinking about snakes is irresponsible

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am

Snakes are not, to many people, one of nature's more endearing creatures. Giant pythons appear to be particularly threatening. When they occasionally show up on our country park trails, they understandably cause alarm. This is what happened a fortnight ago when a hiker had to wrestle her pet dog from the grip of such a snake. There is, as a result, a tendency among some to instinctively think that the response should be to either kill or otherwise remove the problem pythons. Such a reaction, however, is unwarranted. The threat posed by the snakes is more imaginary than real.

As we report today, about 100 pythons are captured and dumped on the mainland each year as a matter of government policy. Yet this policy does not appear to be based on sound science. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which carries out the removals, professes ignorance of even the most basic information about Burmese pythons - the dominant type in Hong Kong - such as the size of their population. A department spokesman gave the absurd answer that very little is known about local snakes 'because of their secretive nature'. In other words, no one has bothered to study them. According to professional snake catchers and Kadoorie Farm researchers, we have no idea whether the local python population is growing or decreasing, whether it is young or old, or what role the pythons play in the ecology of our country parks. Suppose the population is declining? Is it wise to remove them from Hong Kong? What impact does their relocation have on biodiversity? What do mainland authorities think about their countryside being used as a dumping ground for the snakes? Do they know or care what impact this might have on wildlife?

Aside from such basic questions, to which answers are required in order to manage the local snake population soundly and based on scientific understanding, it is also inhumane to take stressed and malnourished snakes away from their habitats. In some cases, this amounts to killing them slowly. It is time department officials and local experts work together to learn more about these creatures and formulate a more responsible policy.