Life on Lantau island means sometimes getting in touch with nature, whether you like it or not
You don’t have to be an ornithologist or a herpetologist (more on that later) or any kind of ologist or naturalist to appreciate the nature that lives on Lantau. Walkers, mountain bikers, campers and even just people who value the occasional lung full of clean air can all appreciate that you can’t really get that (or maintain it) without nature. Lantau, and plenty of the other 200 or so islands that are part of the SAR, is awash with nature and is a natural remedy to big city living. But there are things to be aware of while traipsing across the island. There are things lurking in the undergrowth, under the ground and in the trees that may give you even more of an appreciation for the island if not a little shock.
It should come as no real shock, given the geographic location and climate of Hong Kong, that there are snakes here and some poisonous ones at that. But it seems that the city - the smog, buses, trams, skyscrapers and the general detachment from nature that is the strip from Causeway Bay to Wan Chai - leads people to forget that there are islands, greenery, national parks, bays, inlets, beaches, headways and peninsulas that are home to an incredible array of wildlife.
But of all the wildlife, the beasts that crawl, scurry, dig and weave their way around the SAR (perhaps in the world), the snake is quite possibly the most feared, yet like sharks and spiders (probably the three most nightmare-inducing creatures), they are just misunderstood. Distrusted by Christians as the agent of downfall in the Garden of Eden, snakes are firmly in the category with the nightmare beasts. Slimy (even though they aren’t really), creepy, poisonous, fang-bearing creatures of horror movies they are, along with spiders, bats and all kinds of creepy crawlies, are vilified and derided by everyone aside from herpetologists (that’s people who study snakes to me and you).
Not helped by movies like Anaconda, Snakes on a Plane or cameo roles in movies like Indiana Jones, scaremongering videos on youtube of snakes with animal - or even scarier - human shaped bulges they are associated with poison, danger, fear and death. Do an internet image search for snake and you will be presented with a page of scary gaping-mouthed serpents bearing fangs that make people think they are out to get us (aside from the cartoon snake wearing a top hat and playing a guitar) and videos that scare us into thinking man-eating snakes are in the undergrowth. Well, actually they are in the undergrowth, lots of them and lots of different ones but they aren't out to get you. In fact they will avoid you at all costs.
From February 10th, however, you may see more snakes than other years. While the Gregorian calendar is used for day-to-day activities throughout the world, the lunisolar calendar is used to mark traditional holidays in East Asia. The holiday is celebrated all over the world by Asians and is called Seollal in Korea, Shōgatsu in Japan and Tet in Vietnam.
For Western expats in Hong Kong it can be a bit disconcerting to see Hongkongers going about their business as normal on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but that they don’t, for the most part, participate in our revelry is of course a cultural thing and this lunar New Year will offer those of us who have not experienced it before to see how Hongkongers spend their New Year. And this New Year is the year of the aforementioned snake, in particular the year of the water snake and so maybe sightings of the Plumbeous Water Snake, the Mangrove Water Snake, the Chinese Water Snake and, the most feared of the water snakes, and rightly so, the Banded Sea Snake, or to give it is scientific, and infinitely cooler name Hydrophis cyanocinctus, may increase, although probably not!
But snakes are not, in mythology and historical contexts, anything to be scared of. In fact many ancient civilisations revered and even worshipped the snake.
The 12 Earthly Branches have been used to record the time of day. However, for the sake of entertainment and convenience, they have been replaced by the 12 animals.
Snakes in mythology
In Egyptian myth a many-coiled serpent gave rise to Ra the Sun God and all of creation as a result. The snake is also said to have healing properties in Egypt and in Greek mythology, the Rod of Asclepius is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine (which goes someway to explaining why ancient Greeks believed that people could acquire second hearing and second sight if their ears or eyes were licked by a snake!)
Hymns and offerings were made to snakes since it was believed that the goddess Mertseger could manifest herself through the snake. In the Sumerian culture snakes were also very important as a healing symbol and their god Ninazu is identified as the patron of healing, and his son, Ningishzida, is depicted with a serpent and staff symbol.
Snakes have been a common feature of creation myths long before the Garden of Eden. In ancient Indian myth, there is the drought-serpent Ahi, Chinese mythology has the woman-headed snake Nuw (女娲), who made the first humans. Greek myths tell of how Ophion the snake incubated the primordial egg from which all created things were born. The snake is also linked to rebirth and is some myths is likened to the umbilical cord, connecting us to mother and mother earth. Snakes were thought in many cultures to assist mother earth. The Hopi, a native American tribe, worshipped the snake and have a 16-day dance about it.
Of course there is a reason snakes are associated with nightmares and horror, and a lot of this arises from myth too.
Medusa, perhaps the most recognisable of the Greek mythological characters has snakes for hair. In Egyptian myth, every morning the serpent Aapep attacked the Sunship and tried to engulf the ship and the sky was drenched red at dawn and dusk with its blood as the Sun defeated it. In Nordic myth, evil was symbolised by the serpent or dragon called Nidhogg who coiled around one of the three roots of Yggdrasil the Tree of Life, and tried to choke or gnaw the life from it. In ancient Slavic paganism a deity by the name of Veles presided over the underworld. He is almost always portrayed as a serpent or dragon depending on the particular myth. The underworld was part of a mythical world tree. The roots of this tree (usually growing in water) were guarded by Volos the serpent god.
The idea of snake-people living below the Earth was prominent in American myth. The Aztec underworld, Mictlan was protected by python-trees, a gigantic alligator and a snake, all of which spirits had to evade by physical ducking and weaving or cunning, before they could start the journey towards immortality. In North America, the Brule Sioux people told of three brothers transformed into rattlesnakes which permanently helped and guided their human relatives.
As with the Indian drought serpent and the ringed serpent of Egypt representing the oceans, there have been found carved stones depicting a seven-headed cobra are commonly found near the sluices of the ancient irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka; these are believed to have been placed as guardians of the water. Making this year, the year of the water snake, more auspicious.
In the state of Kerala, India, snake shrines occupy most households. Snakes were called upon by the creator of Kerala, Parasurama, to make the saline land fertile. The Mannarasala Shri Nagaraja Temple is one of the main centres of worship. The presiding deity here is Nagaraja - a five-headed snake god born to human parents as a blessing for their caretaking of snakes during a fire. It is believed that Nagaraja left his earthly life and took Samadhi but still resides in a chamber of the temple.
In Australia one of the most prominent Aboriginal stories is the one about the Rainbow Serpent. Many Dreamtime tales tell about the first child of the great creator and the guardian of Australia. The rainbows you see in the bush are said to be the Rainbow Serpent travelling from one water hole to another. If he is happy he will go back into his hole and there will be a beautiful day, if he isn’t happy there will be a terrible storm.
Snakes in the grass
So snakes are both revered and reviled and that is perhaps best reflected in the fact that some snakes are harmless (if you call a nasty bite but ultimately just a bite) and some are very venomous indeed and Hong Kong is no exception.
According to the AFCD “ There are 52 native species of snakes recorded in Hong Kong. The most common snake found on Lantau Island is the Common Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus) which is a small non-venomous snake. Out of the 52 native species recorded, 14 terrestrial snakes and six sea snakes are venomous. Eight of the terrestrial snakes can inflict fatal bites, including the lately discovered Pointed-scale Pit Viper (Protobothrops mucrosquamatus). All of the sea snakes found in Hong Kong are highly venomous but they are rarely seen. Their venom potency ranges from causing severe pain and swelling to human death."
When it comes to identifying venomous snakes a lot of people stick with the idea that a triangular shaped head is a good indicator. The AFCD had this to say: “No single characteristic can distinguish a venomous snake from a non-venomous one. The common perception that all venomous snakes have triangular-shaped heads is unreliable. A study from a major hospital in the New Territories indicated that over 95 per cent of venomous snake bites recorded in the study were related to Bamboo Snake. Cobra bites occurred much less frequently and bites from Kraits were rarely reported.”
But before you cancel your camping trip and vow to never to ramble the lush hills of Lantau again think about Australia. It is well reported that Australia has the most deadly concoction of snakes and spiders in the world and it is true that snakes do bite and kill people there, and according to the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) the top 11 most poisonous snakes in the world are all in Australia. But even considering that scary fact there were only fifty-eight deaths (41 males and 17 females) reported in relation to venomous snakebites between January 1979 and December 2000, according to the University of Melbourne who got their info from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In fact you are much more likely to choke and die eating snake soup than you are from a snake bite.
The AVRU, who know their snakes, offer these mostly common sense tips to avoid becoming a very, very rare statistic:
- Leave snakes alone.
- Do not attempt to catch or handle snakes.
- Wear stout shoes and adequate clothing, including long trousers, in 'snake country'. Do not wear sandals or thongs.
- Never put hands in hollow logs or thick grass or under woodpiles, building material etc without prior inspection.
- When stepping over logs, carefully inspect the ground on the other side.
- Keep barns and sheds free of mice and rats as they may attract snakes.
- Keep grass well cut - particularly in playgrounds, around houses etc.
- Take care around houses, barns etc on warm nights, as snakes may be active at this time. Use a torch and wear adequate footwear.
- Educate children in the above precautions.
- Do not handle snakes whilst intoxicated.
- Do not rely on visual identification of snakes as non-venomous, as appearances and colouration may vary considerably within species.
Conversely the AFCD offers this list of dos and don'ts for reptile watching:
- When searching for hiding reptiles, turn over rocks or logs lightly. Replace them to their original positions
- Use a torch to look inside holes and crevices carefully
- Do not attempt to handle any snakes and lizards as they may bite and some snakes are venomous. Always keep a distance from any snake
- Do not destroy vegetation, wildlife and their living environment
- Do not pollute water
- Do not litter
"Herpers" on forums like Asia Expat and Geo Expat are more than willing to give advice on snakes and regularly go out looking for them.
The times of the year when snakes are most active does vary but according to a local snake enthusiast May is the best time, but you will see them up till October/November depending on the weather.
More information on snakes of Hong Kong is available on AFCD’s website and their publication “A Field Guide to the Venomous Land Snakes of Hong Kong”.
This is a great article about snakes, and this is good too. For help identifying snakes there is a great Flickr page here