WILD FRONTIERS | Sakaerat Conservation & Snake Education Team (SCSET)
Located in a region of high biodiversity and serious conservation threats, Wildlife Reserves Singapore focuses its conservation efforts within Southeast Asia. Over the past ten years, we have supported over 50 projects across the region, through project funding or capacity-building.
Last month, Jose Pedro, our Herpetology Section’s Deputy Head Keeper, headed on two-week field trip to track King Cobras with the Sakaerat Conservation & Snake Education Team (SCSET), an organization of dedicated herpetologists and conservationists that we have been supporting for the past two years.
Here he chats with the Conservation & Research department’s Vinita Ramani on how it was a life changing experience.
This is the first in a series of posts for Wild Frontiers, which will bring you stories from our staff heading out to participate in regional conservation projects in the field.
Situated on the edge of Thailand’s Khorat Plateau about 300km northeast of Bangkok, the Sakaerat biosphere reserve was created around the Sakaerat Environmental Research Stations (SERS), which was established in 1967 as a field site for research on dry evergreen and dipterocarp tropical forests.
The biosphere is also home to the longest venomous snake, the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), and the longest snake in the world, the Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus). As an apex predator, the King Cobra plays a critical role in its ecosystem and can function as a flagship species. They have large home ranges which, if protected, provide habitats for numerous other endemic and IUCN Red listed species living in the Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve.
Species found in the reserve include Leopard Cat (Prionailurus begalensis), Leopard (Panthera pardus), Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus), Malayan Sunbear (Ursus malayanus), Red Dhole (Cuon alpinus), Golden Jackal (Canis aureus), Variable Squirrel (Callosciurus finlaysoni), Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang) and Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica).
The area also draws bird watchers from across the world with over 235 bird species that have been spotted. Species seen here include Wreathed Hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus), Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis), Crested Serpent-eagle (Spilornis cheela) and Vernal Hanging-parrot (Loriculus vernalis)
Around 5,300 people live in the reserve area and rely on paddy cultivation and crop plantations for their incomes. While illegal hunting and tree cutting has been a problem, education programmes run by organizations like SCSET has done a great deal to reduce such practices.
Vinita: First off, tell us what you do at WRS.
Jose: I am the Deputy Head Keeper of the Herpetology Section. We take care of all the reptiles and amphibians at WRS. We have almost 400 species and just over 1,500 individuals.
Vinita: Have you ever been on a field trip to see in situ conservation work with snakes like this before?
Jose: No I have never gone on a field trip for a conservation project before. I have participated in a few trips to help with breeding programmes and with respect to managing captive animals. But I’ve never seen work like this.
Vinita: Tell us a little about what SCSET does. What were your first impressions?
Jose: SCSET runs a really well organized research project. What I really appreciated is that they try to study the behaviour of King Cobras without being in close proximity to the snake. So one of their protocols is to keep a minimum distance of 10 metres from the animal. From what I know, many projects track the animal and make their presence felt, which means it gets used to you, or is influenced by your presence, but if as a tracker you are continuously keeping your distance, you are less likely to change the natural behaviour of the animal.
Since this was my first time, I went with a very open mind to see what conservation oriented field work would be like. My first impressions were great. The team are incredibly friendly and they were keen to show me everything they do. They’re really proud of the work they’re involved in.
So I arrived on the first day, I was introduced to the team, we changed up and headed to track the snakes immediately. The two team members I went with were great and began teaching me what they were doing, what the protocols are for tracking snakes, what information they collect and how this information is studied and used.
I found the tracking process really interesting. I had the pleasure of being involved in two different projects over the two weeks. One was for the King Cobra and the other was for tortoises, which we don’t support financially, but which they let me have an insight into as well. So I got to track using two different methods. For the snakes, we used triangulation to keep a distance from the one we are tracking and to make sure the snake is not moving when you are establishing three different lines. A similar method was used for tracking tortoises, but in this case we were able to get a little closer to the animal we were tracking.
The terrain was forested. It’s a tropical dry or deciduous forest and there were bamboo clusters, forest plantations and also grasslands. It was the dry season, so the area is usually burned at this time to clear some areas for cultivation. Most of the tracking was done either in these areas or around villages and plantations.
We did not track deep in the forest but mostly in open thorny areas. Most of the snakes that SCSET tracks tend to be near the village areas. I learned that the snakes tend to move around a given territory and usually stay within its boundaries. Most of the males have their own area that they’ve established and don’t mix with other males.
Vinita: Are King Cobras misunderstood? Why?
Jose: Well, once you say “snake”, people usually think “death”. There are actually very few cases of human deaths associated with the King Cobra; they are snake eaters, so they are not attracted to villages by the presence of rodents like other snakes. They are also very aware of humans and avoid contact or confrontation at any cost. So you won’t hear many reports of people being bitten by King Cobras. Overall in Thailand, I was told that while villagers are scared of these snakes, they do catch them to eat them.
Vinita: What specific work did you do during your field visit? Were there any surprising insights?
Jose: I was working most of the time with one snake, which they’ve labelled OPHA15. From the day I arrived until I left, the snake was under the rocks and almost never left that particular site. He wasn’t shedding and it was the mating season, so I expected him to move at some point. But it never happened. On one of the nights, we placed camera traps in the area. When we looked at the footage we saw that he went out to inspect the area and went back under the rocks. He did that twice, but other than that he stayed under the rock. I never expected that these animals would spend so much time in one place. That was a surprise.
Then there was also the community engagement work that SCSET does.
The older generation apparently don’t give much attention to conservation or protecting wildlife. But the kids and the younger generation are really interested and want to know more about taking care of local wildlife.
They shared this lovely story with me about a young girl I met when I was there. She went to an event at her school when she was 6 years old and the SCSET team was there to talk about their King Cobra project. A few days later, her family found a King Cobra in her house. Her grandfather wanted to kill the snake. But she stopped him and asked him to call SCSET to come and take the snake from the home. He listened to his granddaughter and the snake was saved.
Two weeks later, the same thing happened again at the house of a neighbour and she was the one who told them about SCSET. The whole team got along really well with the family of this little girl, so over time, whenever they needed any manual work to be done at their field station, they engaged the grandfather for the work.
So in this way, the snake wins, the family wins and so does the team. The girl is now 9 or 10 years old and every time they have an event, she is there. They make sure they invite her and the family. That was a great feeling, to hear that story!
Vinita: What are the benefits in keepers like yourself, who mostly get to do ex situ work, heading into the field to work with in situ conservationists and herpetologists? And what could you share with them, drawing from your own expertise working with reptiles in captivity?
Jose: You learn about how animals behave in the wild: that’s the biggest insight.
Our goal in zoos is to try to allow animals to exhibit natural behaviours in captivity. We try to keep them healthy and if we are managing endangered species, or species that are close to being extinct in the wild, our goal is to potentially reintroduce them into the wild if the habitats exist for them and the right conditions are gathered as far as safety for the species and mitigation of the potential threats that led it to become endangered.
So it’s interesting to see people who are dedicated to keeping these animals alive and safe in their natural habitats. Field conservationists try to preserve those habitats and want the animals to continue to live there and thrive. We have the same goals: we want these endangered species to survive. It’s just the way we contribute that differs.
We spent evenings just talking about our work. I told them about how we handle snakes, the things we do for education and outreach at the zoo and how we manage species in captivity. They don’t need to handle reptiles on a regular basis, or feed the animals or clean enclosures like us. But they catch snakes in a few situations: to rescue the animals (e.g. a snake in a house), or when they find a new snake that they want to track. When the transmitter batteries die off, they also need to recapture the snake to put in a new transmitter. So all these situations require capture and release.
So we shared information on how we catch snakes because we realized that the way they do bagging (to catch snakes) is different from how we do it. We have different methods, but we all want to improve our approaches. On one of the days I saw one of the team members closing the bag and I showed him a safer way to do it. As a result I was asked to show it to all of them. They liked our safer method very much and decided that from now on, they’re going to try to do bagging in that way!
Vinita: Finally, would you go back? Why?
Jose: Absolutely yes! The team is amazing. They work really hard and are really dedicated. They can have a great chat at night, go to bed at 2am but they’ll still wake up at 5am to track snakes. They also take tracking really seriously. They will keep going from when the snake is moving until it stops. They are that passionate and they don’t even stop for a break. They don’t do it because it’s a job or an obligation. It’s a passion. They are fighting to keep this species alive. It’s not for money or fame.
I really appreciated their passion, team spirit and approach to their work. Time flew by really fast and by the end of the 13 days, I felt like I was leaving family members behind.
WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE’S ROLE IN CONSERVATION
WRS plays a significant role in supporting conservation efforts across Southeast Asia. We believe in adopting the One Plan Approach for conservation, which ensures that in situ and ex situ efforts are better integrated. In our regional efforts WRS is proud to partner with major conservation organizations such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and its regional associations, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Specialist Groups of the Species Survival Commission (SSC), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), TRAFFIC, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, The Turtle Conservancy (TC), Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Bird Life International, International Rhino Foundation (IRF), Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP) and many more.
WRS also plays an active role in the Executive Committee of the Asian Species Action Partnership (ASAP). The ASAP is an IUCN SSC-convened group, established by conservation partners to support Southeast Asian governments to minimize extinctions of critically endangered freshwater and terrestrial vertebrates in the region.