Woman stumbles on 800 snakes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


Lantau resident Okka Scherer's nightly walk along the beach with her dogs took a venomous turn when she stumbled across almost 800 Chinese cobras.

When she unearthed the hoard, hidden in bushes behind Pui O beach at about 9pm last Sunday, she realised she had probably busted a huge snake smuggling operation.

'The dogs smelled something first, they were going crazy and wouldn't move away from this one spot in the bushes,' she said. 'I went to check out what was going on. There was a strong smell like chicken. I started moving through the bushes and there were the boxes full of snakes.'

Scherer said she saw two men in the vicinity, one with a motorcycle and a casually dressed Chinese man who spoke good English.

'He approached me and said 'hello, what are you doing here?' I asked him the same, and he said he was jogging. But it didn't seem that way because he just came out of nowhere,' said Scherer. 'I didn't want any trouble so I kept my head down like I was paying attention to my dogs.'

Afraid, Scherer called her friend Jacqui Green, whom she had already called when she discovered the boxes.

'I was on the phone with the police when she called me the second time,' said Green. 'I told them: 'look you can hear my friend on the other line and she says there's a man there, I need to head over there and I don't have any more time to explain, so please send someone'.'

The police arrived at about 9.30pm and stood guard until the next morning when the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department picked up the snakes.

According to the department, 789 Chinese cobras were packed into 181 plastic boxes. It was the biggest seizure of snakes in years. Last year the haul was only 10.

The department said the snakes were most likely bound for the dinner table, although police are yet to determine where they came from or to what country they might have been headed. Police have so far made no arrests.

The cobras were put down the same day by a snake handler and were disposed of in a landfill.

'Because it was such a large quantity of venomous snakes we discussed the best course of action with the vets and decided the humane way would be to euthanise them,' said Wong Chun-kwong senior field officer for endangered species protection within the department. With such a large number to care for and feed, he said Hong Kong did not have the manpower or facilities to keep them alive humanely.

He added that while Hong Kong was a native habitat for the Chinese cobra, the snakes could not be released here as they would pose a threat to people's safety and could damage the balance of the local ecosystem.

'Even though these snakes aren't endangered, people should be aware that taking them out of their native habitats in such large quantities damages the ecosystem,' said Michael Lau, Senior Head of Regional Wetlands and Local Biodiversity for WWF Hong Kong.

Chinese cobras are mostly found in southern provinces and Taiwan, as well as northern Vietnam and Laos. They are used to make snake wine, medicine and soup. Winter is a popular time for snake soup as it is considered to be a 'warming' food.

Hong Kong allows the import of snakes, but charges a lot to export them.