The scene that greeted nurse Anna Boon when she returned to her home on the outskirts of Sai Kung was like something from a movie. Under a bright midwinter sun, domestic helpers were running from house to house shrieking in alarm. One neighbour, a former police officer, had armed himself with a knife and a small crowd were aiming cameras at some bushes. Boon then spotted the cause of the chaos. Coiled beneath a fern and lying just a couple of metres from a girl's pink bicycle was a large Burmese python, its distinctive black and brown markings shining in the sunlight. 'Its head was big as my fist,' says Boon. 'It was curled up and very quiet. It was just watching us. I don't think I was scared. In fact, it was a real treat to see it. It was absolutely beautiful.' Impressive as it was, Boon's neighbours did not want it living in their garden. They called the police, who arrived at the scene with local snake catcher David Willott. The snake was strong and Willott, assisted by a policeman, spent several minutes wrestling with it. He held its head and steered it into a cloth sack while the other man hung on to the tail-end to prevent the snake wrapping itself around Willott. For one frightening moment, the snake appeared to have got the upper hand, knocking Willott to the ground as it attempted to free itself. As it lay uncoiled the full size of the snake became apparent. It was about 4 metres long, with a powerful jaw large enough to swallow a medium-sized dog. There was a collective sigh of relief when Willott finally bagged the snake. For the residents, it had been a reminder of the wilds beyond their doorstep and a fascinating encounter with Hong Kong's biggest predator. But for Willott it was the moment he decided his days of catching pythons were over. 'I'll catch other snakes but no more pythons. They've been picking on the python for too long,' he says. The 'they' he refers to are the officials of the government's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), who for years have been dealing with Hong Kong's pythons by 'translocating' them, capturing an animal and releasing it elsewhere. For a python captured in Hong Kong that 'elsewhere' is across the mainland border, where a large snake can fetch up to 10,000 yuan (HK$11,360) on the black market. They are used in food, medicines and the production of the erhu, a two-string musical instrument similar to the violin. According to the China Musical Instrument Association, almost 33,000 python skins were used to make about 400,000 erhus in 2003, with many of these being plucked from the wild rather than from farms. The sound of the instrument is said to resemble a melancholy voice, with experts attributing its distinctive tone to the quality of python skin. 'China is importing 30,000 skins a year just for the erhu industry,' says David Scott, who has spent the past 18 months trying to set up a python farm on Hainan Island. 'They are selling for a pretty penny right now and top clothing designers are starting to incorporate them.' It is the practice of translocation - and the secretive nature in which the AFCD carries it out - that lies behind Willott's decision to stop catching pythons. Translocation has also sparked criticism from animal experts and welfare groups, who fear the pythons are being kept in captivity for too long and without proper monitoring. They fear removing large numbers of pythons will damage Hong Kong's ecosystem. The AFCD denies these claims and asserts that the population of wild Burmese pythons in Hong Kong continues to thrive, resulting in 'their repeated intrusion into private premises in rural areas'. In each of the past three years, the AFCD has sent 100 pythons to the mainland. 'Being large and powerful, Burmese pythons could pose threats to humans and their pets or livestock,' an AFCD spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. 'To strike a balance between the conservation of the python and protection [of people], the captured pythons will periodically be relocated to mainland China for release [into] the wild.' Willott finds it astonishing that the AFCD says the python is a threat to humans. The snake he captured in Sai Kung was undoubtedly one of the biggest he had encountered in 12 years of serpent wrangling but it was far from being the most dangerous. Growing up to 6 metres in length and 90kg in weight, the python feeds on small mammals, often lying in wait near waterholes or hanging in trees to strike young calves, wild cats, monkeys and boar. On rare occasions, it has been known to attack pet dogs. A husky was killed by a 4 metre python in Sai Kung Country Park in 2006. In another incident close to same spot in September 2007, a 41-year-old woman wrestled her 20kg pet free from the grip of a 4.5 metre python. 'As far as I know, there are no cases of a Burmese python ever attacking a human in Hong Kong,' says Willott. 'They may bite but only as a defence mechanism and it is not poisonous.' The python is much less of a threat than other snake species in Hong Kong. The Chinese and king cobras have a killer bite. There is also the small many-banded krait and banded krait, which have a venom 16 times more poisonous than the cobra. Yet while these venomous snakes are all released back into the local wilderness when caught, pythons are not. Ironically, the reason the python is treated differently lies in the fact that it is a protected species under Hong Kong's Wild Animals Protection Ordinance. This means it is forbidden to capture, keep or relocate a python without a licence. It is also listed as a protected species under the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (Cites), an international agreement that controls the movement and trade of endangered animals. While other 'nuisance' snakes are captured and handed to experts at Kadoorie Farm, where they are identified, given a health check then released, pythons are placed in the care of the AFCD. They are taken to its New Territories North Animal Management Centre in Sheung Shui, a grim-looking facility encircled by high walls and barbed wire that is used to quarantine smuggled animals seized in customs raids and injured wild animals that have strayed into urban areas. Last year, the foul smell emanating from several hundred decomposing rat snakes held in Sheung Shui caused 21 children at the Fung Kai Innovative School next door to fall ill. At this centre, the pythons are kept in quarantine, the AFCD says, and subsequently moved over the border, where they are released in areas identified by the relevant mainland Cites authorities as being suitable habitats for the python. But the specifics of this process are not widely known and the AFCD seems happy to keep it that way. An AFCD spokeswoman refuses to answer almost all questions, except to say the snakes are examined by a vet on arrival at Sheung Shui and on release, and that they are kept in quarantine for some time in between. She declines to say what guarantees they have that the pythons are released safely, despite the fact that the Burmese python has been hunted to the brink of extinction in the southern mainland provinces. A request to see the captured python at the Sheung Shui centre and to accompany officers on the next translocation trip is refused. When our photographer takes the public entrance to the centre and asks to be shown any snakes kept in quarantine, he is ushered away by a member of staff wearing a mask, who says it is out of bounds because of the risk of disease. In response to a written request, the spokeswoman says they are unable to reveal the location of the release sites for conservation reasons and the management centre is off limits because it is 'an animal quarantine and observation centre. To reduce the risk of spreading diseases, it is generally not open to visitors'. Despite that, a sign on the door lists opening times for dog collection and licensing, a small calf wanders around and a cleaning lady is busy doing her job without a mask. The AFCD's reluctance to reveal details has long been a concern among wildlife and animal-welfare groups. One expert familiar with the translocation process, who asks not to be named, says there is little evidence of Hong Kong's pythons ever reaching mainland nature reserves. 'I have come across one or two nature reserves which have said they have received pythons from Hong Kong. But they say: 'We don't want these, they're not from here.'' The source says he believes the snakes are kept at the Sheung Shui centre for long periods, until there are enough to warrant the time and paperwork required to take a protected species over the border. 'The state of the population of Burmese pythons in China is appalling,' he says. 'There is a huge market for snakes as food. I have seen them in wet markets just over the border. I cannot imagine a poorly paid mainland official seeing a few pythons and not thinking: 'How much money can I make from that?'' The fate of the python has attracted the attention of the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). 'We are very concerned about any translocation of a wild animal,' says SPCA executive director Sandy Macalister. 'There needs to be a valid reason. We need to know how the pythons are handled, how long they are held, how they are released and how the whole procedure is monitored. At the moment, we don't know what is happening.' Dr Peter Daszak, executive director of the Wildlife Trusts Consortium for Conservation Medicine, has worked on the mainland on projects involving animals and diseases such as avian flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome. Asked about the AFCD's translocation policy, he says: 'It sounds to me like they are doing a whole series of things wrong. All animals carry parasites and pathogens naturally and when you move an animal from one region to the other, the chances are it will take a pathogen with it and sometimes that leads to problems and even extinction [of another species]. You could also be releasing them into an area where there is already a snake population, which would mean you are overcrowding that area.' Take, for example, the plight of the endangered desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert, in the United States. Last year, the US Army began a translocation programme, moving 770 turtles from an area where the army intended to expand its exercises. Within months, more than 10 per cent of the turtle population was dead and the programme was abandoned. 'Tinkering with the wildlife population can have dramatic effects both on them, other animals and the whole ecosystem,' says Daszak. 'The bottom line is that [if] you take a predator like a python out of an ecosystem, you end up with the animal it feeds on increasing in numbers.' This is a point raised by the SPCA, which claims to have witnessed an increase in the number of calls involving animals that are prey for the python, such as boar, cattle and deer. The population of another python food, the macaque monkey, is also on the rise, causing increasing nuisance in urban areas, so much so that the government has implemented a sterilisation programme. 'The tragedy is that the Burmese python is not dangerous,' says Daszak. 'They are not going to come and strangle you while you sleep. If we live on the edge of the city or in the countryside, we have to learn to live with them.' Living with them is not something the AFCD appears to view as a viable option. According to Willott, all pythons reported to the police are viewed as 'nuisances' and are removed regardless of where they are found. 'On one occasion, in Sai Kung Country Park, a man had somehow tied a big python that had swallowed a small calf to a tree,' he says. 'He was adamant I remove it, despite this snake being in the wild and in a country park.' So what happened to the snake that caused such a commotion in Sai Kung? It is a question Boon asked herself after it was taken away. 'There are mountains behind us and jungle,' she says. 'I'd probably have been happy for the snake catcher to have just taken it up the hill and released it there. There is so much foliage there.' Its fate was far worse: it was taken to the Sheung Shui centre to be prepared for translocation to the mainland according to AFCD policy but never made it across the border. Inquiries by Post Magazine reveal that, a few days after being admitted to the centre, it died. The AFCD will only say it was in bad health and died in early January. Willott greets the news with resignation. 'It seemed healthy and it acted as I would expect a healthy python to act. It certainly didn't appear injured,' he says. 'That snake was a protected species but was it really protected? We don't know and I suppose we will never really know why it died. Perhaps it just lost the will to live.'