Massive python relocated from Ballito lodge, KZN
Nick Evans of KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, writes about the amazing experience of relocating a massive python on 7 March 2019. Evans explained, “Yesterday I had one of the most incredible, exciting yet emotional rescue calls ever. I wasn't going to post about it just yet, but word is creeping out, so I thought I best explain it. I was called by the management of Zimbali Coastal Resort and Estate in Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal, about a python that needed relocating. I work closely with management here and they take snake conservation seriously. But there was a twist; she was on eggs! I was practically jumping up and down with excitement, eager to see her. Always wanted to see a python guarding her eggs.
I promptly arrived at the eco-estate, meeting with management, the homeowner and Richard and Candice McKibbin of The LionHeart Experience. We were shown where the python was. Now, I was expecting her to be in some tunnel, the sort of place a mother python would use in a den. But no. There was a gap between the top of the garage wall and the adjoining embankment and this gap was covered by roofing. It created a neat tunnel-like hideout, although it was only about two metres deep (check it out in the last photo).
My first reaction when I looked in was, "WOW! That's a big python!" I was amazed at the sight in front of me. There was this giant snake, coiled firmly around her eggs. This was the stuff of dreams for me.
But now, we had to make the call: let her be or relocate her? Usually, it wouldn't be a problem removing any snake from her eggs. Mother snakes do not look after their eggs/young but the python is an exception. In fact, she's an exceptional mother. Not only do mother pythons protect the eggs from predators but she incubates them. She'll slither up onto the surface and bask, warming her body right up. She'll then return to her eggs, wrap around them and keep them at a temperature of around 30C. She stays with them for the three months or so that it takes for them to hatch. The babies will stay with her for a short period of time upon hatching (I'd imagine a week or so) and then they all go their separate ways.
Genius, isn't it? I think it's truly remarkable behaviour for a snake. However, this now caused us a dilemma: the eggs need her.
I'm sure you've looked at the pics above before reading, so you know the decision we made. Before anyone criticizes us, which some may, let me explain why:
- The homeowner was not keen on what looked like at least a 3,5m python hanging around his house, which will be followed by potentially 40 odd babies. Fair enough, although they are harmless.
- It was very exposed. She had laid her eggs right at the entrance of this unnatural tunnel and the eggs were actually on cement. Even the local troop of monkeys could see her and the eggs, not that they could do anything. It didn't seem ideal. Monitor Lizards and potentially mongoose or genets may be a threat to the eggs. However, this was not a major factor for us, as mother pythons are good parents.
- The main reason, the biggest factor, was their safety. Next to this particular house was a construction site. A new home was being built. Across the road, more development was due to take place, as well as on the other side of where she was. So basically, by the time these babies hatch, they'll be surrounded by construction sites, putting them at high risk.
- Pythons are heavily sought after in the illegal muthi (traditional medicine) trade. They are also often killed for people to eat. This is highly illegal, as this is a protected species. We couldn't bear the thought of these pythons ending up there and with loads of workers on site, that may well happen (Not saying it definitely will have).
- Also, the house was surrounded by roads and with construction taking place, they would be busier than usual. One night, when I visited Zimbali, I saw two young pythons that had been run over by cars. With the strict speeding restrictions there, I hope it was an accident but who knows with people. I've seen people swerve to hit snakes.
- Pythons instinctively guard their eggs but this does not mean they're emotionally attached. They may be, during the incubation stage, maybe but certainly not for too long. This is the case with some other reptiles, like crocodiles. They're not like mammals that care for their young emotionally. Very soon after hatching, the young pythons disperse and the mother goes in search of food. Her job is done. If some of her babies die, she won't know and it’s not something she'll worry about every day. Snakes care about one thing: surviving. They're not selfish; the world is a dangerous place for snakes. They just work differently to us. It doesn't make them evil animals at all.
Her focus is on guarding her eggs but it changes when they hatch. So it's not like we were ripping her heart out by doing this.
I posted pics of a python some policemen and I went to look for in the muthi market in Warwick Triangle (Durban). When I was called about it, it was alive. When we arrived, it was butchered, left on display. A site like that haunts you. If you don't understand why I was worried about these pythons, those pics may help you understand.
We spent what must have been half an hour to forty minutes trying to decide what to do. We weighed up all the options. This was an extremely difficult decision. My gut was saying move them for their safety, but my heart was saying leave them. Management were keen on it being relocated.
Seeking guidance, I phoned Professor Graham Alexander, an authority on this particular species and herpetology in general of course. He's the person I turn to a lot of the time for queries about pythons/herpetology. I explained the situation to him, and as soon as I mentioned the construction work going on, he agreed that moving them would be the right call.
I had the backing of the person's opinion which mattered most to me. That made up my mind.
One dilemma sorted, another one to deal with: the extraction. We couldn't simply pull this python out. By doing it like that, roughly, she could crush her eggs or roll them over and they'd likely not survive anything like that. We had to conduct this operation with the utmost care. Oh, I should add that we knew this big girl was going to put up a fight! We wanted to do this as least stressful as possible.
With mother python tightly wrapped around her eggs, we decided to try and prod her gently with tongs, just to see if she may loosen her grip a bit. As we did that, she hissed. Goodness me, it was like T-Rex was in the tunnel! The sound was immense and was more than enough to get the adrenaline pumping!
Our first plan was to see if we could 'push' her back and off her eggs. We did this slowly and carefully, dodging a couple of strikes from her. She would lunge out at us, mouth wide open. They may not be venomous but pythons have rows of needle-like teeth, which would inflict one heck of a painful, destructive bite. This plan was taking some time to work but eventually, it did. To a degree. We got to a point where half the clutch was exposed. Rich leaned in and pressed her head away with the tongs, not really grabbing her with them, as I crawled in and scooped up the eggs I could get. We put them in a big container. I used a travel cushion to keep the eggs safe in the container. This breakthrough was motivating!
There was no more space to push mother python any further back. Her massive body filled the space. We needed a new plan. It was decided we'd try and dig a hole almost above her, where the earth joined up against the gutter. We dug away, gently and slowly. The plan was to grab her head from there, while one of us could extract the eggs.
Rich reached inside with the tongs and closed very gently behind her head. He then gently pushed her towards the hole we had made. He didn't have to do much more, as she stuck her head out by herself. As soon as she did, I grabbed her head with my hand. "Got her!" I yelled, as Rich quickly went about moving her coils and collecting her eggs. He had to untangle her a bit, with help from one of Zimbali's security officers. They managed and now all of the eggs were safe. Now for the easy part!
I had the head on one end of this 'tunnel', while Rich and the officer had the tail on the other side. I let go and quickly crawled to the entrance of the tunnel. Rich and the officer pulled her out gently, by the tail. As soon as the head came out, I reached down and grabbed it. She pulled and I was losing balance. I decided to just slide down with her as she pulled her head back, mostly so my resistance wouldn't hurt her. She wrapped some of her body around my arm as I regained balance. Gee, it she wrapped it up tight! She momentarily cut off blood flow to my arm, well it felt like that. Rich helped get her off. I had one dangerous end, Rich had the other- the pooh end! He managed to avoid some of the dangerous substance but it got a little bit on his leg. It didn't smell great...but hey, we had her!
We hoisted her up onto the roof, a flat area. Our hearts were pounding, as we were all the bystanders (some residents had come to see the excitement!). She was the biggest python I've seen and we measured her out at 4m on the dot- the biggest python that I have rescued. By the end of it, I was pleased with the success of it.
This whole rescue was filled with emotions. It was exciting, yes but emotional. Throughout the rescue, we felt so bad to be doing this. But we had to, whether it was nice or not. It was for the safety of the future generation of pythons.
We released the mother in a beautiful forest patch on the estate, where she should resettle soon. The eggs were immediately transported to an incubator, where they will be kept at around 30C. This was all done by the books, I should add. The legal books.
Oh, we counted up to 40 eggs but there's more hidden among the football-shaped clump. I so hope most, if not all will hatch. I so, so hope to post baby pics soon! The eggs generally take three months to hatch, however, we are unsure of when they were laid.
This will be a rescue that forever stands out in my mind, as will that snake. I learnt just how protective pythons are, what brilliant mothers they are.”
To donate to this work, which is mostly run on a donation rather than charge system: https://www.kznamphibianreptileconservation.com/donate-tow…/
Nick Evans, 072 809 5806, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian and Reptile Conservation