Many people dislike or fear snakes. Others grow up believing snakes are nasty, slimy, sneaky and evil things. In reality, they are just misunderstood.
Human fascination with, and anxiety about, snakes has led to many myths about them: they can use their bodies to whip people, shape themselves into hoops and roll down hills, milk cows and hypnotise prey.
In Chinese culture, snakes symbolise ying (female) characteristics, so when a pregnant woman dreams of a snake, it’s popularly believed she will give birth to a girl.
Snakes are also believed to be guardians of treasure and feature prominently in Chinese folklore as grateful creatures that always repay kindness or favours.
There are 49 known native species of snake in Hong Kong, including three that live in the sea or fresh water. Only eight of the 49 species have life-threatening bites and they seldom pose a threat to humans unless provoked or startled.
Hong Kong’s snakes vary in size from just a few centimetres – such as the blind snake, also know as the iron-wire or cable snake – to more than six metres, such as the Burmese python, which enjoys a relatively stable population in Hong Kong as a result of its protected-species status.
Hong Kong even has its very own exclusive; a species found nowhere else in the world. The shy and rarely seen Anderson stream snake lives in the remoter parts of Hong Kong, where it feeds on small fish, frogs and other aquatic forms of life.
We are often completely unaware of snakes and how close we are to them. The harmless blind snake can often be found in outdoor plant pots and flowerbeds, where it feeds on grubs, worms and termites. Many people mistake them for small worms.
Wait a minute; aren’t those flickering tongues supposed to be poisonous? Nonsense, just another myth. When a snake sticks its tongue out, it is just trying to get to know you by capturing your body smells and transmitting them to its Jacobson organ, which is in the roof of the mouth and allows the snake to determine if you are prey, predator or mate.
What about those beady eyes? Again, nothing to worry about. Snake eyes are covered with clear scales that protect them, so they have no need for eyelids. Hence they don’t blink, appearing spooky to some.
Look beyond the bad-boy image and snakes play a critical role in their environments, through their position in the food chain and eco-system. Many are top-level predators; for example, a single rat snake can consume more than 100 rodents in a year. Other snakes are important for the control they exert on insect populations – cockroaches, flies and grasshoppers make particularly delicious meals – as well as those of other invertebrates. All snakes form part of the diet of predators, including other snakes, birds of prey and various mammals.
Since 1998, a programme has been in operation between the Hong Kong Police Force (who are usually the first to be called when a snake is found in a house), seh wongs (snake catchers) and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Gardens to identify intruding snakes and return them to an isolated area of Hong Kong to slither in peace.