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Hong Kong snake encounters

How Hongkongers can lose their fear of snakes, one selfie at a time

Organised safaris allow people to see and handle Hong Kong’s snakes, helping them overcome their fear and dispelling many long-held myths about the animals and their behaviour

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 October, 2017, 10:39am

It took about two hours of scrambling around in the undergrowth late one evening on a moonlit hillside in Hong Kong for mother-of-two Tara Smyth to overcome her phobia of snakes and make her a goodwill ambassador for the reptiles.

“I’m certainly not as scared of them as I was,” says the 46-year-old Scout leader, after joining a “snake safari” organised by long-time snake catchers William Sargent and Dave Willott.

“I do a lot of hiking, and on some of my hikes I would see three or four snakes, and I would go home a gibbering wreck thinking, ‘Oh my God that was awful’,” Smyth says. “They never stopped me going out, but when I saw them in the bush they would make me leap a mile, and the rest of my hike would be ruined because I’d be petrified of coming across another one.”

“Now, having done the snake safari and held a non-venomous one, I really quite like them.”

Sargent and Willott organised three HK$250-a-head safaris between June and September in the countryside around Tai Mo Shan, to promote knowledge of snakes and help people conquer their innate repulsion of the reptiles.

The response was immediate, with all 12 places on each trip snapped up within hours of them being announced. Participants saw 10, seven, and 15 snakes, respectively on the trips, where the organisers catch mostly non-venomous snakes and safely pass them around the group – even allowing them to take snake selfies.

“We’ve found cobras, kraits, bamboo snakes, and all kinds,” Sargent says. “People who come have seen more snakes in one night than they have done in their whole time in Hong Kong.”

The organisers say that due to their popularity, the snake safaris will resume in the spring. Details will be posted on the Hong Kong Snakes Facebook page.

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“I’ve done snake talks and snake displays at schools, and even at companies, but I really like going out in the field looking for snakes. That’s much more fun,” says Sargent, an events organiser. “So I wanted to get people out in the field to see snakes in their natural environment.”

The gap between perception and reality is huge when it comes to snakes, he says. “The average person has a very distorted sense of the risk of a snake bite in Hong Kong. No one has died in Hong Kong from a snake bite for more than 20 years, and we have some of the most venomous snakes in the world, and there are snakes everywhere. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they are not there.”

The safaris have helped to dispel a lot of nonsense, he says. For example, the false assumption that snakes chase people. “When I go out on these safaris and say, ‘Look there’s a snake’, people say ‘Wow, it’s just sitting there’. And I reply ‘Yes, what do you expect it to do?’”

There is also a belief that cobras are aggressive, but safari participants have witnessed how the snakes, once handled by the catchers, are quick to dart away into the bushes once released.

People who come have seen more snakes in one night than they have done in their whole time in Hong Kong
William Sargent

“The reason people get bitten is usually because they are trying to kill it or they step on it. That’s the only time it happens. They are not aggressive creatures, they are defensive,” Sargent says.

He says those signing up for the safaris ranged from schoolchildren to finance executives. “We’ve had a director from the Peninsula Group, university students, and a woman who happened to be in Hong Kong who was the head of the equivalent of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department in a US state. There are people with a general interest in snakes and people who are scared of snakes.”

Sargent puts their success in finding many snakes on the safaris down to that he and Willott know from experience where to look, when to look and what to look for – plus a dose of good luck.

“Ninety per cent of the snakes will be spotted by the guides, but on the last safari we did we had a 13-year-old girl with us who had never seen a wild snake in her life,” he says.

The Belgian youngster, living on Lantau, was encouraged to go on the safari by her parents, to learn about snakes for safety reasons.

“Everyone else walked past it, but she spotted a tiny snake in the bushes. She didn’t want to go on the hike at first, but by the end of it she wanted to come again, and that’s so typical,” Sargent says.

Sargent insists there was minimal danger involved in the snake safaris. “There’s very little risk of snake issues – no more so than anyone walking in the country park and less so because we’re looking out for them,” he says. “What I worry about more is people falling over or slipping in a stream. That’s more of a risk.”

The idea for the snake safaris grew out of the Hong Kong Snakes Facebook page, which was set up by Sargent and has boomed in popularity over the past year. It now has nearly 4,000 followers, posting pictures and discussions about snakes spotted around the territory.

From a quirky niche site, it has blossomed into a source of information about Hong Kong’s more than 50 species of snake. “Before, there was very little data available,” he says. “Now we can start to see patterns – when a certain snake starts appearing, where it is appearing, when and how many babies are appearing.”

The most positive impact of the Facebook page and the snake safaris, as far as Sargent and Willott are concerned, has been changing people’s attitudes towards snakes.

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“Sometimes mums will post pictures of snakes from Discovery Bay and says things like, ‘Lock your children away’. Then people from my group will join in and say, ‘If you leave it alone it will leave you alone’. They are doing my job for me, it’s really good to see that.

“We are creating ambassadors. There are only 24 hours in a day. I have my job, and I don’t want to spend my whole time talking about snakes to people and why they’re an important part of our ecology. If I have more Taras in this world, it’s a kind of evangelism to let people know the importance of snakes to our ecosystem.”

Since conquering her phobia on the snake safari, Smyth has become an enthusiastic member of the Facebook group, and recently posted video of a red-necked keelback eating a frog taken on one of her hikes.

“Ordinarily I would have run a mile, but this time I thought, ‘He’s not going to do anything to me – he’s more interested in his dinner’,” she says. “I really enjoyed watching him, although it was sad for the frog, obviously. I wouldn’t have done that before. I felt very calm watching him, in his environment, just doing his thing.”

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“The group size was excellent and the whole evening was really well organised, great fun and very educational. I think one of the key issues is having confidence in the snake catcher, and William is clearly professional, experienced and very safe in his handling of snakes and the organisation of the group. I am hoping to organise a private event for one of my company teams with William to try and spread the word about the beauty of snakes and the incredible number of different species in Hong Kong.”

Martyn Sawyer, group director of properties, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels

(Handled one greater green snake and one blind snake.)

“Now I know how to look for snakes and it has become a passion of mine. I was with my 18-year-old daughter, Jessica, who has just started her zoology master’s degree in the UK. The snake safaris are also great for bonding and educating our kids.”

Paul Dickson, senior manager, Beas River Country Club, The Hong Kong Jockey Club

(Handled one Anderson’s stream snake, one greater green snake, one blind snake and one Chinese cobra.)

“I’ve joined three different hosted snake safaris, or herp hikes, this summer and absolutely loved the experience each time. These events are ideal, as they bring together like-minded folk under the supervision of a couple of skilled guides, who are not only able to find snakes for us to see up close, but to teach us about them as well.”

Melissa O, communications executive

(Handled one Indo-Chinese rat snake, one greater green snake and one blind snake)