Coexistence of the Scaly Kind
Updated: 16 hours ago
Jointly written by Kannan R., President of HSS, and A. Sankar, co-Founder of HSS
Mention ‘snake’ to a group of people, and you will get many reactions ranging from indifference to fear, disgust, and even malicious hatred. Depending on the culture, snakes have long been a source of awe, respect, fear, and root for many myths and legends; the Nagas in Hindu mythology, Jörmungandr of Nordic folklore, and Quetzalcoatl from the Aztec culture. However, such an influence does not stop the vilifying of snakes and reacting to them out of misinformed fear and anger. To combat this fear and negativity, 16th July was picked to be World Snake Day. On this day, snake conservationists and herp lovers aim to reach out and educate people on these strange creatures’ ecological importance and beauty!
Narrowing down from worldly myths and tales, it may surprise some that Singapore is home to almost 70 species of snakes, some of which have adapted and done well in our urban areas. Snakes were historically widespread over the island. However, with rapid development and habitat fragmentation, some of the more adventurous and tolerant herpetofauna started visiting built-up areas to seek food, mates, or even new territories. Some, like the reticulated pythons, have even adapted to our infrastructure and use the storm drains and canals to move about. Unlike massive pythons in documentaries, news, and B-grade movies, most of ours stay under 5 metres in length and feed predominantly on rats, acting as a natural form of population control for the rodents.
It was such an urban python that it met its brutal end in the Boon Lay market, where it was attacked and then killed with a blow from a meat cleaver to its head amidst cheers and laughter by the attackers. The snake, probably on the prowl for rats in the market, met its end there. Such a cruel and unnecessary act of violence may stem from various causes, but fear, aversion, and disgust towards snakes are significant factors.
A 2019 YouGov survey featuring 1,033 Singaporeans found that “reptiles” was the third most reported fear; only drowning and fire are considered scarier. However, snakes and other reptiles are pretty timid. They would rather move away than try to attack us. In rare cases, such strikes happen because the animals are injured or cornered with no way to escape.
Many of these fears come from stories and media portrayals of these animals, which can be fanciful and far from the truth. Let us break down the top 3 local myths/fears about snakes.
1. Pythons will eat me/my child/my pet.
Our pythons are too small to consider human beings in their diet. However, some small dogs and cats might fit a larger python’s diet range. So, if you know of pythons in your area or see one on a walk, secure your pets and do not let them wander freely near the python. Furthermore, those with free-roaming cats might want to consider keeping their cats indoors.
2. All the snakes are poisonous and will kill us.
Out of our 60-odd species of snakes, only a handful are highly venomous (Yes, the term is venomous, not poisonous), and they would not envenomate us unless we threaten them. Instead, they would try to move away rather than spend their venom on us.
3. Talking about snakes will invite them to our house.
If this were true, herpers around the world would rejoice! Imagine herping from the comfort of your home! However, that is not the case. While they are not deaf as previously thought, their hearing frequency is pretty low; they might hear you stomping around or even your panicked screams, but not when you are chanting “King Cobra!” six times in front of the toilet mirror at midnight.
Snakes have spent a long time, evolutionarily, to get here. However, despite their unique physiologies, fascinating mythological tales, and massive ecological importance, these creatures are still victims of negative portrayals, superstitions, and prejudice! While the Boon Lay python was one case that garnered much attention, there have been countless other cases of unwanted abuse and killing of snakes here in Singapore.
While we would not need you to love snakes as some of the reptile-centric members of our communities do, you should still celebrate their existence, learn about the benefits they might bring to their ecosystems and spread awareness on this sssspecial day! Remember, it is always better to be aware of snakes than beware of snakes.
Moreover, should you come across a snake in an urban green area like a park, or a canal, it can be left alone, especially if it is in a natural habitat. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to contact NParks’ Animal Response Centre (1800-476-1600) or ACRES (9783-7782), who will gladly advise and render assistance. Please do not attempt to handle it for your safety and the snake’s.
Now that you are more aware of snakes in Singapore, do one more thing today for World Snake Day and help to pass this information on to at least one other person. Education and outreach are vital in changing how people react and feel towards wildlife.
Thank you, and happy herping, all of you!
Follow Herpetological Society Singapore (HSS) to learn more about our scaly neighbours:
Visit our snakes information page and download our advisory to get tips on what you can do when you encounter one: