Health

Dodging Death With China's Snake Catchers

There are so many deadly snakes on the loose in Guangzhou that the city has its own "snake season."
January 11, 2018, 9:30am

This article originally appeared on VICE China.

The Eastern Russell's viper kills tens of thousands of people a year across Asia. The snake is notoriously aggressive and so venomous that a single bite from even a young viper can kill a full-grown man. Add in the fact that its bite is also one of the most-painful on Earth, and it's easy to see why no one wants to find one of these snakes outside their door.

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But in Guangzhou, a city in southern China, Eastern Russell's vipers and King cobra sightings are a daily part of life. Once a week He Mingliang, a snake expert with the Guangdong Research Center for Endangered Species, heads over to a plot of open land in Shizishan—one of the city's ritzy neighborhoods—that's an outdoor playground for the children of the elite. He runs a program where he brings these ultra-rich kids closer to nature one afternoon a week. But first he needs to clear the land of deadly snakes.

The local school set up snake traps on both sides of the road, layers of nets that ensnare any snake that attempts to slither into the playground. It's He Mingliang duty to check the traps before the kids arrive.

"Just last week we picked up a three-pound Zhoushan cobra," he told VICE. "We've recently found a lot of Chinese cobras, but, so far, I haven't seen any Eastern Russell's vipers, even though the environment here is actually really suitable for vipers."

He Mingliang looks for snakes in an over-grown lot.

Now if you don't know China all that well, it's easy to imagine that all of this is happening in some remote part of the country. It's not. Guangzhou is a city of some 14 million people. It's a modern place, a city with iconic skyscrapers, huge apartment towers, and an expansive subway system. It's also right in the middle of sprawling megalopolis that encompasses some or all of nine municipalities and totals more than 44 million people—nearly the entire population of Spain.

And right there in the middle of all that urban sprawl are at least three species of deadly snakes: the Chinese krait, the white-lipped pit viper, and the Chinese cobra. Then there's the other species, like the King cobras that get loose from pet owners and restaurants. Today there are so many snakes on the loose in greater Guangzhou that the police asked the research center staff for help.

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He Mingliang and his colleague Zhang Liang now spend their days helping people catch deadly snakes. He Mingliang told me that the reason why there are so many deadly snakes in the city has a lot to do with the pet trade.

"We know that a lot of venomous snakes run away from their handlers or are deliberately released," He Mingliang said. "These days there are so many handlers who release their vipers once they get bored of taking care of them. And most of the people who release snakes don't really go all that far from their homes. They usually just release them in a nearby park."

The King cobra is a remarkably popular pet in Guangzhou. There's a group of snake handlers who prefer the snake because it's seen as being highly intelligent. They believe that a King cobra, raised from birth, can recognize its owner, the same as a dog. But that intelligence comes at a cost. A lot of King cobras escape their cages and find their way into the city's parks. This year, Zhang Liang and He Mingliang caught a two-meter-long King cobra near a middle school.

Zhang Liang shows me a snake he caught.

Local news crews have caught on to the story. In the past six months, the team at the research center have appeared on TV news shows multiple times. Every time the journalists want to know what someone should do if they are bitten by a snake. The news coverage is helpful, Zhang Liang told me, because it teaches people about nature. But it also makes people afraid.

Zhang Liang holds a non-venomous snake during an interview withe local news channel Guangdong Star Chinese.

Zhang Liang knows the danger of his job. It's made him more than a little superstitious. He has a habit of pressing his fingers together several times to calculate his luck. He's always starts his day hoping that an accident won't happen. And he takes special care to be on the lookout for omens. A few days ago, He Mingliang saw two snakes mating in the middle of the road. Zhang Liang took that as a sign of bad luck, so he decided to not handle snakes for a few days.

Zhang Liang takes an emergency call at his office inside the Guangdong Research Center for Endangered Species.

The story reminded me of a "mercy release," event I was at in 2014. It's an ancient Buddhist practice where people release captive animals in the hopes that it will result in good karma. Most of the people there had brought with them tortoises, snakes, and birds they purchased from the market and set them loose.

But sometimes these animals are incredibly dangerous. When I was heading to Guangzhou to report on this story, I saw a news piece about a rash of deadly run-ins with Chinese moccasins, a snake so deadly it's known as the five-step snake, as in five steps and you're dead, occurring in the city. The story made Zhang Liang furious. He posted on social media, "what does the animal release group actually want?"

A snake tries to slither away.

That's why Zhang Liang brought me into his office for an experiment. He wanted to show me how deadly viper venom can be. He drew a vial of blood from my arm and then squeezed a drop of Eastern Russell's viper venom into it. My blood immediately started to coagulate. The venom caused the blood to solidify into a jelly-like substance. Other types of viper venom can liquify tissue and muscle, causing blood to pour out of the eyes, nose, mouth, ear, and basically every orifice imaginable.

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“So if I was bitten by a snake right now, would any surrounding hospitals here in Guangzhou have the anti-venom?” I asked.

A victim of a viper bite bleeds uncontrollable from the wound in an area hospital.

The answer was pretty frightening. In Guangzhou, the likelihood of running into a cobra is pretty high. But the city's hospitals don't have any cobra anti-venom in stock. Most Chinese hospitals only carry anti-venom for three kinds of snake bites, the Chinese krait, the Pallas' pit viper, and the Chinese moccasin. All of these anti-venoms are produced domestically by the only anti-venom manufacturing in the country, a company that stopped making cobra and viper anti-venoms because it was so expensive.

"So we, who have to do this job, have to source it from Malaysia or Thailand," Zheng Liang told me. "But it's very expensive and the amount we can acquire is very small.”

He Mingliang shows off his personal stash of anti-venom.

Then there's the fact that China just doesn't have all that many snake venom experts.

"Right now China doesn't have someone who can conduct deep research on venoms," Zheng Liang said "So today if someone was bitten by a cobra, the situation would be very troublesome. People these days will return to Chinese traditional medicine for a cure, but its efficacy hasn't been scientifically proven."

When I left He Mingliang and Zheng Liang behind, Guangzhou was in the middle of its snake season. The two men were busy at work, but as I prepared to leave the city behind, I couldn't help but feel like anyone, myself included, could be the next victim.