How snake safaris help Hongkongers lose their fear of the reptiles by getting up close with them
William Sargent is on a mission to change Hong Kong people’s perceptions of the much-maligned reptiles
“Snake! Snake! Snake!” is, believe it or not, what you want to hear when on safari with William Sargent.
It’s around 7.30pm on a hot Saturday in May and a group of eight snake seekers, wielding torches and wearing headlamps, have spent the past 30 minutes traipsing through the countryside around Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak in the city’s New Territories. Reptiles are on the radar.
Sargent spots the first snake, about one metre long and shiny black, slithering in a grassy ditch behind an abandoned village house. In a blur he dives in, grabs it, and with only a large glove between him and the snake, casually holds it up to group members that include a Dutch couple, a British couple and three Hong Kong residents.
“OK, this is a highly toxic Chinese cobra and its venom can cause all sorts of issues, including extensive tissue damage and nerve damage,” says Sargent, Its distinctive monocled hood is down. “Feel the scales, it’s quite soft – not slimy but smooth.” He’s right.
Seeing the snake was a good thing. Earlier, during a group briefing, Sargent said the long spell of dry weather – it was day nine of a record heatwave – reduced the chance of spotting one (Sargent even had a couple of “emergency” snakes for SCMP video and picture purposes but luckily we spotted some in the wild).
“Rain brings out frogs and other potential prey, and that attracts the snakes, but it’s been very dry, the water level is low.”
“Searching for snakes isn’t an easy affair – weather and luck play big roles. If we find one snake, that’s a success, if we see more, it’s a bonus. So far we’ve always seen something on these snake safaris, but we can’t guarantee it. At worst you’ll have a night of slowly wandering [in] a lush part of Hong Kong jungle and a few [mosquito] bites, and meeting a few new interesting people.”
Sargent talks passionately about snakes, and it soon becomes clear that he’s one of those people who is as comfortable around the reptiles as others are around fluffy rabbits.
“As a kid growing up in Hong Kong we had a red neck keelback as a pet – it wasn’t known to science as venomous back then. We would free handle it all the time. I was about six years old.
“I was 14 when I brought home my first cobra. I put it in a fish tank – no water, obviously – and put a bit of Styrofoam on top and a book on top of that. In the morning there was no snake. Mum rang the helper and said don’t come to work today – or the following week. We left all our doors and window open but we never found it.
“I had a lot of pythons when I was younger. I got them from Temple Street in Mong Kok – in those days you could buy them there.”
Co-hosting the safari is Tommy Faunce. Now working for WWF-Hong Kong, Faunce once worked at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, a haven for injured and captured snakes not far from where the safari is taking place. In 1999, Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden established a wild snake rescue project with the Hong Kong government and police (stray or nuisance snakes captured by a “snake catcher” are sent to the rescue centre). Instead of being killed or dumped across the border, where they die, unable to survive in an alien environment, native snakes are now released into the countryside after a general health assessment.
Soon after Sargent’s find, Faunce plucks a brown diamondback water snake from a nearby stream. It’s tiny, about 20cm long, and non-lethal, which is good to hear as it casually curls around my hand.
Hong Kong has 55 species of snakes, with seven commonly seen land species that could potentially cause serious health issues if bitten: the bamboo snake, banded krait, the many-banded krait, Chinese cobra, king cobra, coral snake and the red necked keelback. There are two more rarely seen species that can cause a nasty bite – the mountain pit viper and pointed-scale viper.
Unless you’re an expert, it’s hard to tell whether the one slithering next to you on a hike, or curled up on your terrace, is venomous or not. In the very unlikely event you get bitten, Sargent says to remain calm, step away from the snake and make a note of its appearance, ideally by taking a photo. Then call an ambulance and get to the nearest hospital for treatment. All major hospitals have antivenom.
Sargent says the best advice is “leave them alone, and they will leave you alone” – ironic, seeing as we are doing the opposite.
But his main motivation for setting up his HK$250-a-head safaris is to change the perception of snakes from one from fear to respect. The last fatality in Hong Kong from a snake bite was more than 20 years ago, and he says snakes deserve a reputation overhaul.
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He also says a growing number of Hongkongers are swapping city life for a rural one, as they seek to get closer to nature. And that means getting closer to snakes.
Hong Kong’s snake season starts in May and already the Hong Kong Snake Facebook page, set up by Sargent in 2016 with a growing following of more than 5,300, is teeming with pictures and videos of snakes, most posted by people seeking help to identify a species. And with good reason.
He wants people to understand that the reptiles fill vital roles in the ecosystem, and that killing one species can affect others. In China, nearly all of the larger snake species are classed as vulnerable, threaten or endangered on the IUCN list, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species.
In Hong Kong, the only protected snake is the Burmese python.
Sargent’s desire to change opinion about snakes bears fruit with self-confessed “city girl” Rowena So, who is on her first safari. She’s joined by her partner Tony Tse.
“In Chinese culture, snakes are either eaten in a soup or used in traditional Chinese medicine,” she says.
Snake soup is a popular Cantonese delicacy, considered a warming food, good for balancing the cooling “ying” during winter. According to traditional Chinese medicine, snake soup has a number of benefits, from nourishing the blood to improving the skin.
“I’m scared of snakes but already feel less threatened by them,” So says.
By the end of the night, So had stroked two snakes, including a deadly cobra.
Briton Paul Dickson is also taking part, but don’t ask him how many safaris he’s signed up for – he’s lost count.
After hours in the wild the safari comes to a sweaty end.
We’ve seen three snakes – a Chinese cobra, a many-banded krait and a diamondback water snake. “Pretty good considering the dry weather - last week we saw nine,” says Sargent.
Despite the low number of sightings it was worth it, just for the immersive natural experience. During the four-plus hour, 4km trek through undulating bush and into riverbeds, other creatures were spotted, including cascade frogs, a protected species endemic to Hong Kong, a few common skinks, and insects including cicadas and false tiger moths. Another highlight was seeing a civet cat make its way down a tree trunk – a rare sighting, says Sargent.