A few months ago someone got word that I’d be in Manila for a conference and asked if I’d be willing to lead a community snake workshop. The people extending the invitation were a small network of Christian organic farms and training centers for inner-city workers and displaced slum residents. One of the founders told me there had been a number of snake-human conflicts (workers killing snakes, pythons eating chickens, people getting bit by snakes), and wanted someone to come in and share a broader knowledge and appreciation for the snakes, for everyone’s benefit.
15 participants (13 men and 2 women) showed up, along with a number of children. All of them either worked on the organic farms or were pastors in management roles. Here’s a partial photo I took of the group.
To introduce myself I shared a bit of my own history and experience with snakes.
I then showed collages of different snake species found in the area. (Huge hat tip to Luke Welton of Kansas University, who provided me with a species list for the region.) I asked the participants to point out which species they had seen before.
A large number of species, including Ahaetulla prasina, Boiga cynodon, Elaphe erythrura, Gonyosoma oxycephalum, Hemibungarus calligaster, Indotyphlops braminus, Malayopython reticulatus, Naja philippinensis, Ptyas luzonensis, Rhabdophis spilogaster, Trimeresusus flavomaculatus, and Tropidonophis dendrophiops were identified as species they had observed themselves. I then had them try to discern which of those snakes were venomous and which were not – other than thinking that all of the green snakes were venomous, they did quite a good job of IDing the venomous species.
In order to make it a bit exciting, I then pulled out a juvenile Philippines Water Monitor (Varanus marmoratus) that I had hunted down the night before.
I chose not to tell the participants that the monitor had taken a chunk out of my knuckle when I caught it. Nice reminder that monitors are dangerous! Some may have noticed the wound, they didn’t say anything. 🙂
I described how the monitor was both similar to and different from snakes, and allowed any participants who wanted to to touch it. The little guy was behaving well during the presentation, but I didn’t trust him enough to let anyone else hold it. I also talked about correct snake handling technique, with a strong emphasis on the fact that you NEVER handle a snake unless you are absolutely certain of the ID.
From there we moved into a discussion of my work on the Bangladesh Python Project, which had some goals similar to the goals for this community. My emphasis was on the balance of nature when it is allowed to work naturally, how God has each animal fulfilling a particular role in the ecosystem, the concept of predator and prey and ecological cycles, and some specific ways in which snakes keep these things in balance and help the farmer. We discussed various ways that nature gets out of balance, such as the destruction of different environments or the extirpation of various predator or food species.
To put meat on the issue, I got into the specifics of snake predator-prey relationships, with various slides of snakes feeding (emphasizing the ones that feed on rats) and snakes being preyed upon. There was already some great knowledge within the group of snake behavior, and I felt like that base of knowledge was spread throughout the group and expanded upon well.
Next we dealt specifically with venomous snakes, again identifying which local species were venomous, then talking about how to avoid snakebite and what to do in the case that snakebite does happen. The participants really appreciated this part, and quizzed me in detail on what to do in various situations, giving examples that had the side effect of doing a great job of elucidating my points.
Finally, we dealt with the issue of the pythons that were taking chickens and the question of people in the region eating snakes. I asked them whether they thought the pythons preferred the forests or the farms, and what various factors would lead the pythons to move into the farms. With their previous information they had some insight on this question, and again were able to see how disruptions in the balance of the ecosystem have repercussions that affect everything. In terms of eating snakes (not an easy issue in a place where protein is hard to come by), we talked about how to deal with snakes in a manner that is sustainable to the ecosystem while also affirming of the people. I gave examples from other communities from my experience, both good and bad.
Overall, I think it was a fantastic time together. The participants gave me a t-shirt and a thank you letter afterwards.
I also got to spend a couple of days on the farms and in the surrounding area, getting some herping in in beautiful habitat. It was a great place. They plan to use some of the photos I got to produce postcards from the farm as another income-generation project.
Here are some scenes from one of the farms (I’ll post the nature and herping pictures in a later entry):
organic veggie garden
some of the chickens, with a turkey
A reticulated python caught while hunting for chickens (photo a few months before I came).
Rat snake eating rats on the farm
dorms and other sustainably built structures on the farm
The view from the presentation hall
Several months after my presentation, I got an email from the farm director:
Hey, very very much overdue is this little HUGE Thank you! for the workshop on snakes you did with our crew in February. You are in best (and most memorable!) memory to them. “Jon approaches the forest differently”, they told me. “He is not scared of anything and he finds amazing stuff!” 😀
Well, this does not surprise me and I am glad you had some fun while here. The attitude towards wildlife has clearly changed for our guys. They now understand more about ecosystems and the role that any animal always has, whether we know about it or not. This is a great gift Jon! Thanks a lot.
It makes me happy. 🙂