Snakes caught in the SAR are sent to animal centres or zoos or released in the wild in China

Vanessa Li

From time to time we come across newspaper reports about stray wild animals, like deer and pythons, being caught by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD).

The question is, where do these animals then go? The AFCD has an 'emigration policy' for stray pythons.

One 'emigrants' is a four- metre python caught on Lamma Island last month. It was sent to the AFCD's New Territories North Animal Management Centre in Sheung Shui, but that was not its final destination. It will be sent to its new home in the mainland in two months.

'We're trying to regulate the number of stray pythons here,' said Cheung Chi-sun, endangered species protection officer of the AFCD. 'Hong Kong is too small for releasing them.'

Rapid urbanisation has upset the natural regulation of the number of pythons because the number of animals that prey on them has declined, he said.

According to AFCD figures, the number of stray pythons caught has been on the rise. About 95 were caught last year, compared to 54 in 1996. In the first six months of this year, 22 have been caught, with an expected increase in summer.

'After we have caught a python, we'll first check if the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden or the Zoological and Botanical Garden wants to take it. If not, we'll send it to the mainland,' Mr Cheung said. Once the python is sent to China, it will be kept under observation. Its next destination will either be a zoo, animal management centre or a natural habitat, depending on the species. For instance, a Burmese python will be released into the wild since the climate and environment in southern China is suitable for it, while other species such as the American python will be kept in the animal centres or zoos.

Among some 150 species of pythons, only one - the Burmese python - is native to Hong Kong. Its length ranges from 0.5 metre to 4.5 metres. Other species are usually imported legally or illegally.

'The AFCD will find out about the health status of the python from the Beijing Forestry Bureau during the initial period, but we can't do follow-ups on every python we send,' Mr Cheung said.

The policy of relocating pythons caught in Hong Kong to the mainland started in the early 1990s.

Lau Wai-neng, senior conservation officer of Kadoorie Farm, has reservations about the policy. 'There has not been any formal survey of the number of pythons in Hong Kong, so we are not sure if the city is really too small to accommodate them,' he said.

He said it would be better if the department could monitor the pythons' health and how they have adapted to their new environment.

Alex Yau Shuk-kau, conservation manager of Worldwide Fund (WWF) Hong Kong, said: 'Pythons are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). They should be returned to their natural habitat.'

Mr Yau said WWF was worried that the relocated pythons may end up as food for villagers in China. He said it would be better if the AFCD did more elaborate follow-ups and monitoring.

'Forty per cent of Hong Kong's land is country parks, so there is enough space for releasing the pythons.'

Ka-ki is a University of Hong Kong summer intern at the South China Morning Post