HONG KONG — The snake didn’t see the catcher coming, no less than not in time to keep away from being caught.
“That is the fourth-most-toxic land snake on this planet, and probably the most poisonous snake in Asia by far,” the catcher, William Sargent, advised a gaggle of hikers on a latest night time in Hong Kong. He delivered the information calmly, in the best way one explains that dinner is prepared.
Which of us, he requested, wished to the touch it first?
Mr. Sargent, 44, runs Hong Kong Snakes Safari, an outfit that takes residents on night time hikes by way of the territory’s wooded hinterlands. Some are extra apprehensive than others as they study firsthand about what he says is a chronically misunderstood reptile.
The hikes spotlight the size of biodiversity in Hong Kong, a monetary hub of seven.5 million folks that’s higher identified for its high-rises than its sprawling protected areas. It’s additionally a method for metropolis slickers with snake phobias to confront their fears within the wild.
Hong Kong is sort of the dimensions of Los Angeles, however about 40 p.c of its land space consists of parks that had been created within the Nineteen Seventies when the Chinese language territory was nonetheless a British colony. Human-animal conflicts are inevitable as a result of a lot of the protected land lies inside strolling distance of dense city areas.
Wild boars, specifically, typically trigger a stir once they wander into busy streets or subway stations. Final month, a household of boars made the native papers by sauntering by way of Hong Kong’s central enterprise district and taking a swim within the fountain outdoors the Financial institution of China’s 72-story workplace tower.
Snakes typically maintain a decrease profile in Hong Kong, however as a result of eight native species are able to inflicting deadly bites, the well being dangers might be critical in the event that they find yourself in shut quarters with people.
The Hong Kong Police Drive mentioned in a press release that each time a snake endangers the general public, it’s “safely boxed and bagged” by authorised catchers, then despatched to stay at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Backyard, a neighborhood nonprofit that additionally shelters rescued bats, birds, crocodiles, monkeys, pangolins and turtles. A lot of the snakes are later launched into the wild.
Mr. Sargent, who saved snakes as pets whereas rising up on certainly one of Hong Kong’s outer islands, has been a police-approved skilled since 2015. He mentioned his snake-catching assignments had taken him to prisons, faculties, supermarkets, an airport hangar and a development web site for a coronavirus ward, from which he extracted a 10-foot python.
Final month, he was summoned to a fishing village at 3 a.m. to take away a Chinese language cobra — from beneath the mattress of a 90-year-old lady. He mentioned a gaggle of the village’s aged residents fashioned a sort of receiving line round him as he walked by, “yelling their 5 cents’ value about this overseas snake catcher.”
“Even the police had been laughing,” mentioned Mr. Sargent, who’s British-Swiss and works in occasion planning by day.
Individually, he runs the mountaineering enterprise and an academic Fb group about native snakes that has greater than 10,000 members. It was arrange partly to assist right viral misinformation, just like the suggestion that snakebites are widespread within the metropolis.
The World Well being Group estimates that about 81,000 to 138,000 folks across the globe die annually from snakebites, largely in creating international locations, and that about thrice as many undergo everlasting disabilities.
A lot of the world’s estimated 1.8 million to 2.7 million annual “envenomings,” or snake poisonings, happen in Asia, many in international locations with weak well being methods and sparse medical assets. The international locations that lack the capability to fabricate antivenom are probably the most in danger.
However in Hong Kong, which has a first-rate medical system, nobody has been killed by a venomous snake since no less than 2005, based on a spokesman for town’s Hospital Authority. In 2018, the final 12 months for which information is on the market, the authorities recorded simply 73 snakebites, making the possibilities of being bitten about one in 100,000.
“It’s not mystical,” mentioned Mr. Sargent in the course of the night time hike. “It’s very clear-cut what the danger is. However there’s such an enormous hole of false impression.”
I used to be certainly one of a number of hikers who met Mr. Sargent at a village close to Hong Kong’s border with mainland China on a sweltering weekday night. Earlier than we entered an adjoining nation park, he defined that one of the simplest ways to keep away from a snakebite was merely to observe our toes and stroll with a high-quality headlamp.
Examine. And examine. As we set out on a concrete path, our rigorously monitored footsteps had been bathed in a reassuringly vivid LED halo.
However the ambient gentle appeared to fade with each step, and sections of the trail had been beginning to look worryingly overgrown — no less than to my snake-fearing eyes.
“Look all over the place you possibly can look,” mentioned James Kwok, a wildlife fanatic who had tagged alongside for the safari and supplied snake-spotting recommendation.
The group forded a thigh-high stream and traversed slippery rocks in the dead of night. A couple of hikers misplaced their footing and tumbled into the water.
Mr. Sargent noticed our first quarry — a mountain water snake — and plucked it off a stream-side rock along with his naked arms.
As he confirmed us the snake, it nibbled at his hand, drawing a trickle of blood. He shrugged: It was nonvenomous, and due to this fact innocent.
However it didn’t look comfortable in Mr. Sargent’s assured grip.
“No,” he mentioned. “I imply, I’m a predator, proper?”
That appeared like greater than sufficient drama for the night time. However a couple of minutes later, an extended, thicker, black-and-white-striped snake slithered into the sunshine of the group’s headlamps.
“Fast, fast, fast!” Mr. Sargent yelled in a stage whisper, because the group scrambled into formation behind him, headlamp beams bouncing throughout the subtropical foliage like spotlights at a rock live performance.
In a fluid movement, he sprinted forward, slipped his hand right into a puncture-resistant glove and scooped up the snake.
Because it writhed round within the humid air, he mentioned it was a many-banded krait, a nocturnal species whose extremely poisonous venom targets the nervous system. All of us tittered with nervousness.
However Mr. Sargent, who nonetheless seemed serenely calm, reassuringly mentioned that in three a long time of dealing with wild kraits, he had but to see one strike. The animal’s main intuition was to flee, not chunk.
So we gathered round to the touch the krait’s stomach — which was surprisingly easy and delicate, like a child’s cheeks — and to marvel at how stunning its scales seemed up shut.
“It’s not what you count on,” mentioned Ruth Stather, a fellow hiker, who works in advertising and marketing.
The krait was not precisely happy, but it surely appeared prepared to tolerate the curious people for a couple of minutes. As we stood there touching it within the silent darkness, I felt my snake phobia easing.
“They’re not fascinated by combating,” Mr. Sargent mentioned.
I nervous that he was tempting destiny. However, certain sufficient, when he launched the snake into the undergrowth, it slithered away.