The Serpents of Sakaerat

Thailand is a herper’s paradise. Herpetologists and amateur reptile enthusiasts alike flock (or slither) here to observe some of the world’s most fascinating and unique reptiles and amphibians. Thailand is home to over 200 species of snake, many of which are found at Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve. Now that I have finished my six month internship on the king cobra team, I would like to share a little bit about the research that goes on at this amazing research station.

It is quite rare to find extensive research projects focusing exclusively on snake ecology but here at Sakaerat, in close collaboration with Suranaree University of Technology, there are multiple projects studying different species of snake. The king cobra project, which was founded by Dr. Colin Strine and his students, studies the spatial ecology of the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) with the goal to not only conserve the species, but to preserve the integrity of the entire ecosystem. King Cobras are apex predators and they feed almost entirely on other snakes and monitor lizards. Virtually no other animals predate on adult king cobras, besides humans who commonly capture and kill them for food, traditional medicine, and snake wine. By studying the king cobra’s movements, we get an idea of which habitats they prefer and which areas should be protected to have the greatest impact for conservation. Interestingly there are individual snakes that prefer different kinds of habitat, with some kings moving almost exclusively through dense evergreen forest (making our lives as trackers very difficult), and others who live in rice paddies, drainage ditches, and other agricultural areas.

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OPHA007, the largest king cobra currently being tracked at Sakaerat. Here he is after his biannual check up.

One thing that surprised me most about studying king cobras is the fact that they are so incredibly secretive. It is possible to literally be standing on top of a rock, with a 4 meter king cobra sheltering directly under your feet, and you would never even know it unless you were tracking the signal with a radio antenna. That being said, they are very quick to get out of people’s way when out in the open and they are rarely seen even by villagers. In my entire six months of tracking, I only got a visual on our animals two different times, one of which occurred when we captured and brought in our large 3.8 meter long male. The other instance occurred in the agricultural fields and it was quite the experience.

Our second male had recently gone missing and it was my job to try and track down his signal. I spent two hours under the hot tropical sun searching through an overgrown cassava field before I obtained a faint signal and determined he was almost another kilometer away from me. I honed in on his signal and tracked him to a small copse of trees growing in a tangled bunch on the field margin between two rice paddies. Since his location had been unknown for the last couple of days due to his sudden large movement, I decided to get a little closer than usual to make sure my pinpoint was as precise as possible. He was in an area of high visibility with no tripping hazards so I knew it was safe to get a little closer. As I slowly approached, I looked to the ground about four meters away and saw a single slender, slate-gray loop of scaly coils peaking out from underneath a tangle of vines and dead leaves. I quickly pulled out my GPS unit to mark the location, and before I could finish and back away, I caught a tremendous blur of motion out of the corner of my eye. I saw a flash of yellow as the king hooded up at me, accompanied by a bone-chilling hiss and then an eruption of dead leaves as he dove into the bushes away from me. The commotion was unexpectedly massive for a snake, more like that of a deer or boar. Once the warmth returned to my blood I backed up over 50 meters and finished taking my datapoint. These animals are almost never encountered but in the off-chance that you startle one, it’s an encounter you never forget. Thankfully they have no inclination to attack, and when left alone they are very quick to flee.

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A king cobra released after removal from my supervisor’s house

As part of the wider Sakaerat Conservation and Snake Education Team, the king team  is responsible for conducting and assisting with snake removal calls from villagers. During my time on the team, I got to watch and assist with a few different snake removal incidents. On Christmas Day while cooking dinner for a festive party, we got a call from a villager down the road reporting a python outside his house. My crew leader, Jack and I hopped on our motorbikes and drove down to capture it. We arrived at the house where the owner pointed out a pile of old flowerpots and paving stones. Jack poked around with a snake hook and I looked for movement. Sure enough, there emerged a serpentine face… but it was not that of a python. “We got a king cobra!”, I shouted. It bolted towards the house, causing an elderly woman to drop the blanket she was knitting and scramble for cover. Jack tailed it and I quickly grabbed the bag. I was a little nervous, as I had never myself bagged a king before. Jack instructed me on what to do as the local villagers screamed around us. I held the pole with the mouth of the bag wide open as Jack expertly maneuvered the angry snake’s head into the bag. As the snake slithered into the bag, I brought it upwards in one sweeping motion, causing the snake to move to the bottom, and then I quickly twisted the top to close off the opening. Once the cobra was secure the villagers thanked us, and we went on to finish cooking our Christmas dinner. The snake was released in a safe place away from people the next day.

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Can you spot the snake? I tracked this large female Burmese python to her shelter site in the middle of a cornfield

Although king cobras are the top predators among snakes here, they are not the only species that are studied. I had the privilege to assist the constrictor crew which studies the ecology of both Burmese and reticulated pythons. The main study focuses on the spatial ecology of Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) using almost the same methods as that of the king cobra project. This project is so interesting because it is the first long-term spatial ecology study on the species in its native range. Ironically most of what we know about this species comes from studies conducted in Florida, where they have become a huge ecological problem as invasive species. Preliminary studies suggest their behavior and movement patterns are quite different in Thailand compared to Florida. Some days I would take a break from the cobra tracking to track Burmese pythons instead. Of course pythons are not venomous like cobras so I was able to get much closer to them and even had multiple sightings. Still, for such huge snakes it truly is unbelievable how well they hide and how often you can be within a meter of them and not see them at all.

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A large reticulated python found sprawled out on the road while herping at night

Unlike the “burms” who prefer agricultural land, the reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus) is most commonly found in the forest. Many nights while driving through the forests, we would encounter “retics” crossing the dirt roads. When possible, we would capture them and bring them back to the station to take morphometric measurements. These are the longest snakes in the world, though the largest recorded individuals are from Indonesia.

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The tell-tale marking on the back of the hood of a monocled cobra. This individual is captive and used for educational presentations

In addition to the king team and constrictor crew, there are several other researchers here who study other species of snake. The Najas team tracks the movements of the two native species of cobra in the “Naja” genus: the monocled cobra (N. kaouthia) and the Indochinese spitting cobra (N. siamensis). These two species are much smaller than the king cobra and thus have smaller home ranges, but their spatial ecology and hunting behavior is a little different, as they are not active snake hunters like the kings. Another project studies a different venomous snake called a krait, of which there are two species in the genus, Bungarus. These snakes are almost exclusively nocturnal, so all radio telemetry must be done at night to get an idea of their natural behavior. Kraits have the most toxic venom of any snake in Thailand and they commonly seek shelter in people’s homes, so snakebite statistics are unfortunately quite high for these two species. Therefore it is very important to understand their movements especially in suburban areas to help mitigate human-snake conflict.

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The beautiful but deadly banded krait

The research done at Sakaerat is incredibly important for understanding the natural ecology of snakes. Across Southeast Asia, and indeed much of the tropics, snakes come into regular contact with people, often with very negative consequences for both. By studying these animals, we not only improve our scientific understanding but we find better ways of managing the broader ecosystems and perhaps most importantly, seek to reduce the risk of snakebite. The Sakaerat Conservation and Snake Education Team is at the forefront of reducing human-wildlife conflict by conducting scientific studies on how to preserve important habitat for snakes and other wildlife, as well as educating local people on how to live more safely alongside these animals. I feel very lucky to have been a small part of this unique project, and I hope that the research continues to yield exciting new findings that benefit both people and snakes.

For more information about the research conducted at Sakaerat, as well as a list of publications, click here.

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