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Floods Keep Bangkok Snake Hunters Busy

A man shows a snake he caught on a flooded highway on the outskirts of Bangkok on 12 November, 2011. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

 

Bangkok’s most famous snake hunter piles the huge writhing python into a sack and bundles it into the boot of a taxi, before rushing across the flood-hit city to deal with another serpentine intruder.

Sompop Sridaranop has been busier than ever since Thailand’s devastating floods reached the capital and sent snakes — as well as people — fleeing their usual habitat to seek out drier ground.

“The snakes live in drain pipes and in empty grassy areas, and when these are flooded, they travel through the pipes to houses to find new places to stay,” the 57-year-old.

As a result, snakes are popping up where they are not welcome and Sompop is being bombarded with panicked calls from frightened residents.

The python — three metres (10 feet) long — was caught by workers at a factory in Nonthaburi province just north of the capital, much to the relief of one frightened employee.

“I was very scared. I didn’t dare to watch while they were catching the snake,” Pattaya Tasua told AFP as Sompop whisked the creature away.

When his “Jingle Bells” mobile ringtone alerts him to another roaming reptile, Sompop swings into action, throwing on his “Snake Hunter” jacket and racing to the rescue.

It’s a voluntary role he has done for more than 20 years alongside his paid job as a messenger for the Thai marine department. He says he was inspired as a young man by a speech by the queen urging Thais to help one another.

A stint volunteering with local police led to his calling as a snake catcher — along with other adventurous sidelines including destroying wasps’ nests.

The various bite scars on his arms testify to his long service. “My wife has seen my snake bites so often, it’s normal for her. She worries but she understands,” he said.

The Thai floods have left more than 560 people dead and damaged millions of homes and livelihoods, sparking fears of drowning, disease, electrocution and even marauding crocodiles on the loose from flooded farms.

Pythons like the one at the factory are not venomous, but other poisonous species, particularly cobras, have been cropping up more frequently since the floods began — usually at night and in outlying areas of the city, according to Sompop.

And it’s not just snakes that are causing a stir.

The snake hunter has been called out to catch water monitors, fearsome-looking lizards that are a common sight near the lakes and canals of Bangkok but have also started to creep a little too close to home for some.

He recently nabbed a monitor that measured two metres from nose to tail in a family’s front yard in western Bangkok.

After a brief struggle, this too was bundled into a bag and dropped by Sompop into the swollen Chao Phraya river.

“They are not really dangerous, but if you don’t know how to catch them properly then they can bite and their saliva is dirty,” he said, pointing out that the lizards were fond of eating pets.

Rumours have circulated on social networking websites that 15 deadly African green mambas have escaped from a flooded house in Nonthaburi.

The snakes’ escape has not been confirmed, but a public health official said 50 doses of serum have arrived in Thailand from South Africa to treat possible mamba bites.

And while most people would run a mile from the deadly reptiles, Sompop can’t wait to get his hands on one.

“I would love to catch one and see how exciting it would be,” he said.

Sompop takes most of his captives to his own home and asks friends travelling outside Bangkok to release them into the wild, or he awaits collection by government wildlife officials.

A few of his finds end up at the Thai Red Cross Society snake farm, where staff make serums to treat the bites of Thailand’s venomous species — numbering 61 out of more than 190 snake varieties in the kingdom.

Lawan Chanhome, a senior veterinarian at the farm in Bangkok, warned the public to be extra vigilant during the floods.

“Mainly we advise people not to go wandering in the flood waters at night unless it is essential,” she said.

A global zoo organisation said it had sent two vets from Singapore to Bangkok this week to help capture snakes and other reptiles, bringing with them “urgently needed” medical supplies and hunting equipment such as hooks and nets.

But in spite of the threats they pose, Sompop believes Thailand’s snakes get a bad press, given that they carry out a vital task in keeping down the rat population.

“Snakes existed before people. They have always been in Thailand. Without them in the area we would be suffering,” he said.

By Rachel O’Brien

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