April has arrived so the snakes will be coming out, Snake Catcher Dave Willott says. Chinese cobras will be sun bathing, bamboo snakes will be slithering in stream beds and red-necked keelbacks will be hunting for prey.
Dave, who lives in Sai Kung Country Park with his partner and two children, says he likes being official snake catcher because “snakes fascinate me and I like the challenge. Certain types scare me, like king cobras. Most snakes I deal with I’m in control. I know what they will do. With most snakes if you back away two steps you are out of range.”
Not so with the king cobra. “They seem more intelligent and perceptive than other snakes. It’s strange. You feel they can outwit you. They are fast and furious and can cover distance quickly,” Dave said. What makes them so dangerous is that they can inject a large shot of venom into you.
Dave still has all his fingers and his hands are not deformed by bites — unlike those of the former Pest Control Officer, the late John Romer, who gave his name to Romer’s Tree Frog. But Dave has been bitten five times by venomous snakes. Four times by bamboo snakes and once by a Chinese cobra.
“I had captured the cobra and put it in my car. It escaped and was hiding under the spare wheel. I tried to pin it with a stick and then grab it behind the neck. It sank a fang into my thumb. It was a few seconds before I got it off.” Dave believes the bite was not serious because the snake had lost most of its venom striking the stick.
Bamboo snakes, almost fluorescent green, cause 90 per cent of the venomous bites in Hong Kong because they are slow moving and will not get out of your way. Hash House Harriers report seeing little green snakes sitting on rocks in stream beds and just watching as a dozen men go by a yard away. But go within a few inches and they will strike.
Bamboo snakes, however, are the least venomous out of the seven which are identified as most dangerous to humans in Hong Kong. The bite has been described as like a toothache, but you may get serious swelling and must go to hospital.
HOW TO KEEP SNAKES AWAY
Dave says sulphur powder won’t do it. “You just poison your environment and pets. Nothing works except a physical barrier like a high wall. But snakes can climb vertical surfaces.” To make sure snakes can’t get into your house remember the one-finger rule.
“If you’ve got a drain in your kitchen or bathroom that you can fit one finger in, that’s enough for a baby cobra to get in. A one-foot snake can kill you just as quick as a six-foot one.” Block the drain with wire mesh.
WARNINGS FOR GARDENERS
Weeding or pruning you could get bitten. Dave says wear gloves and think about your environment. Be careful picking up old logs or furniture. A snake could be hiding underneath anything left outside. Even when a snake is dead, you shouldn’t handle it. They have flexible bodies and with a reflex action may get venom into you.
WARNINGS FOR HIKERS
Stay on the paths and use a torch at night. “Sandals are a definite no no, always proper shoes. Most snakes are like almost any wild animal. If you show respect and keep your distance you will have no problem.”
Dave says, “If you do get bitten, keep calm. Don’t exert yourself. Remember no one has died of snake bite in Hong Kong for years. Just get to a hospital as fast as you can because they will be able to stabilise you. If you can, try to remember what the snake looks like, i.e, colour, length, distinguishing features, but if you can’t don’t waste time, get to the hospital. Never try to catch them.”