Why you won’t die from snakebite and other advice from snake whisperer William Sargent

If you’re a Lantau resident, you’re bound to have come across the odd snake. If it’s a little too close for comfort the chances are you’ve also met our resident snake whisperer, William Sargent.

William’s fascination with snakes began as a boy during family holidays in Chi Ma Wan. Today he lives with in South Lantau and in recent years has become our local snake catcher.

As well as helping police retrieve and return snakes to the wild, William is a conservationist who proselytises for the care and protection of all animals in the wild.  He won worldwide fame recently when he posted a HK$10,000 reward for the return of baby owls snatched from their nest.

Speaking at a recent Living Islands Movement event, he shared the most common questions he is asked about snakes.

Why does Hong Kong have so many snakes?

Primarily because of habitat. With its large country parks, the city is a sanctuary for diverse species – barking deer, wild boar, sea turtle, civet cat, porcupine and pangolin – probably the most hunted creature in the world. The city is like a big wildlife reserve. By contrast, across the border, 12 of China’s 200 snake species are threatened.

How dangerous are Hong Kong’s snakes?

Hong Kong has more than 50 species. Take away the sea snakes, the rare, the non-venomous and the mildly venomous, there are about eight snakes that can potentially hurt you.

How many people die from snakebites?

Worldwide, tens of thousands of people die each year. In Hong Kong the annual death toll from various kinds of misadventure is:

Workplace falls – 33
Road accidents – 117
Snakebites (past 20 years) – 0

About 150 people here are bitten each year, but no deaths occur because of the ready access to quality medical care. Snakebite is not dangerous if you are a healthy adult and you have modern medical care.

Unless you have a pre-existing condition or an allergy, you’re not going to drop dead. If bitten you may have issues with nerve damage, but you’re not going to die.

Photo: Hamish Low

Why are snakes important?

Nature is all interconnected. You don’t have to love snakes. But I can’t understand people who say they like nature but hate snakes. Birds eat snakes, snakes eat a lot of pests.T he ironic thing – whatever they’ve killed or moved was probably doing them a big favour (eg, eating rats).

Hong Kong is like a sanctuary. Chinese Cobras are so common here but are listed as threatened species in China. They’re on the UN Red List – their population has dropped 50% in the last 20 years.

Last year in Shenzhen 68,000 wild python skins were confiscated in one bust. That’s just a single day. To put it into perspective, on this mountain [Chi Ma Wan] there’s one or possibly two Burmese Pythons. The scale of the snake trade in China is not sustainable.

Do snakes threaten humans?

Snakes can defend themselves pretty boldly but they do not chase you. There is no reason. In the animal kingdom, if something’s not attacking you, it puts itself at risk. From an evolutionary point of view, snakes have no ecological reason to chase prey it’s not going to eat.

The only time snakes chase someone is you suddenly come across one inside your house and it doesn’t know where to go.

What are the biggest threats to snake populations?

The No 1 enemy is deforestation. A big problem in Asia – in Indonesia it is terrible.

Human attitudes are also a problem. Three weeks ago I was called to a Cheung Fu home. There was a Rednecked Keelback in someone’s garden. And the woman got to him with a shovel.

I’m getting used to it but I think, what is the point? The police were on their way. They’ve called me in, the snake-catcher. If it’s any other animal would you come out of your house and bash it with a shovel? This attitude is very, very common.

(The text has been edited for space and clarity.)

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