Snake wranglers to the rescue as sightings increase in Jakarta amid urban sprawl, frequent flooding
JAKARTA: When Mr Richard Ratuwalu moved to a housing complex in an eastern suburb of Jakarta in 2016, the 40-year-old banker thought he had hit the jackpot.
His one-storey home sat at the edge of a riverbank which was covered by thick trees and shrubs. He was drawn to the area’s serenity and fresh air, something not available in the city centre.
But the new environment presented an unexpected challenge. Snakes could often be found at his front porch and backyard.
"I have had six encounters with snakes during my time here," he said.
Fearing that they might one day harm his two-year-old son, Mr Ratuwalu raised the issue with his neighbours early this year.
His neighbours, who had either sighted or had their own run-ins with the limbless reptile, decided to hire snake wranglers to comb their neighbourhood.
Their plight was shared by many others in Greater Jakarta.
Scientists have speculated that a prolonged dry season in Indonesia, which lasted into mid-November, prompted snakes to extend their egg incubation time, increasing the egg hatching rate from the usual range of between 50 per cent and 70 per cent to 80 per cent and 90 per cent.
Flooding which hit the region in early January also meant that snake pits were sometimes inundated, forcing the serpents to venture out in search of safer dwellings.
There were also snakes that were washed away by the floodwaters and ended up in residential areas.
A recent snake scare gripped the Greater Jakarta area, prompted by the discovery of 34 cobra snakelets in a residential area in Citayam, south of the Indonesian capital on Dec 11.
This incident was followed by the discovery of 18 cobra snakelets in a densely populated housing complex in Joglo, West Jakarta on Dec 15 and the removal of 8 cobra snakelets from a residential area in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta on Dec 17.
While a higher snake hatching rate was observed, a herpetologist told CNA that it was nothing to be alarmed about.
Human-snake encounters would see an upward trend as people continue to push further into the snakes' natural habitat, he added.
With the recent snake scare, Mr Nurdin Anoy's reptile removal company Indah Pesona has been swamped with requests from residential areas and factories to comb their premises.
The company, which charges 2.5 million rupiah (US$182) per visit, is booked all the way until the end of February.
Armed with snake hooks, flashlights and cotton pouches, an eight-member team arrived at Mr Ratuwalu's 7ha neighbourhood at 9pm on Jan 11.
The team prefers to get to work at night because snakes are nocturnal and like to hunt for food when the temperature is cool.
They diligently scanned the rows of trees along the perimeter walls surrounding the residential area, inspected every drainage hole, turned over rocks and stacks of wood, and poked holes and cracks on the ground. They also combed through thick shrubs and grass patches.
It was not long before they found their first serpent, an Asian vine snake wrapping around a tree branch.
To the untrained eye, the vine snake would be nothing more than a thin line amid the thick foliage, but the team spotted its body glistening in the beam of their flashlights.
One wrangler tried to catch the snake using his hook while another readied the pouch. The snake tried to escape but in the end the wrangler managed to pinch the snake’s body with his hook.
As the wrangler tried to put the 50cm snake into his pouch, the snake put up one last fight and bit the wrangler’s hand.
Although vine snakes are not venomous, their bite can still lead to infection if the wound is left untreated, particularly if the snake’s fang snaps and lodges underneath the skin.
The wrangler examined his two puncture wounds, washed them with antiseptics, wrapped his hand with bandages and carried on with his work as if nothing had happened.
Mr Anoy, who has been wrangling snakes since the company started in 2006, said his line of work is very risky. “That’s why we only let the more experienced members of our team to handle venomous snakes,” he said.
But even the most skilled wranglers are prone to mishaps and accidents do occur.
“Our team is depleting. Some left the profession because they got married and their wives told them to stop. One team member died four months ago after he was bitten by a cobra,” he said.
KEEPING THE NEIGHBOURHOOD SAFE
It was 3am when the team finished combing the housing complex.
After six hours of hunting, the team caught ten highly venomous serpents - seven Javan spitting cobras, one Malayan krait and two white-lipped pit vipers.
They also caught several non-venomous snakes, including two pythons, six vine snakes and two painted bronzebacks.
“We catch the snakes and release them in the wild, away from residential areas,” Mr Anoy said.
Mr Ratuwalu was shocked by the amount of snakes the team managed to find.
“I can breathe a little easier easier now,” he said. “I hope the neighbourhood will be a lot safer after this."
Mr Anoy has a few tips for homeowners to keep their houses safe.
“The first thing they need to do is close all access. Smaller snakes can creep through gaps underneath the doors. People need to invest in sink hole covers as well,” he said.
“Snakes are also sensitive to pungent smell like moth balls and air freshener. People can also put hemp ropes around the house because snakes wouldn’t slither across coarse surface.”
Mr Anoy admitted that it is impossible to completely remove all snakes from the area, “especially with the housing complex divided by a river and connected to a drainage system, there are many ways for snakes to still creep in.”
"SNAKES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THERE"
The snake wrangler shared that the number of snakes they netted recently provides a hint of how rampant the problem has been this rainy season.
They caught 15 cobras from one housing complex in Condet in East Jakarta. There were also 24 cobras found in Cilangkap, East Jakarta while 31 hatched cobra eggs were discovered in Bojong, south of Jakarta.
Does this mean there are now more snakes in Jakarta residential areas?
Dr Amir Hamidy, a herpetologist from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said that the recent scare does not necessarily mean that there has been an unusually large number of snakes inhabiting residential areas.
“As cities grow and more houses and buildings are being built, humans are encroaching on snakes’ natural habitats. Snakes, particularly cobras are extremely resilient and they can adapt to human-modified environments. They can live and lay eggs around houses in damp holes and gutters,” he told CNA.
“Conflicts between humans and snakes happen all the time. But this time, the cases were well documented and reported. Coincidentally, the cases also happened within a short interval.”
Indonesia is home to 349 species of snakes, 77 of which are venomous, Dr Hamidy said.
He added: “Snakes have always been there. People just don’t know it because snakes tend to avoid contact with humans and hide. But if the snakes felt threatened, they will strike back”.
With more housing complexes being built, conflicts between humans and snakes will continue to rise, he noted.
Dr Hamidy noted that there has been a higher hatching rate this season, attributed to the changing climate patterns and this year’s prolonged drought. However, this spike is not out of the ordinary, he added.
“We need to see if such influx occurs again during the next wet season. Then we can determine if this is a one-off phenomenon or a trend,” he said.