When the temperature rises and rain falls, the life forms that inhabit Taiwan’s forests become more active. Some expatriates might loathe Taiwan’s sultry summers, but for snake aficionados Bill Murphy, Hans Breuer, and Dane Harris [pictured right, handling a snake], the season has definite advantages. All three spent many years in Taiwan before they began to appreciate the size and diversity of the island’s serpentine population.
“I’ve been interested in wildlife my whole life, ever since my grandmother used to explain the flora and fauna during hikes,” says Wisconsin-born Bill Murphy. “For the first decade I was in Taiwan, I’d occasionally see a snake, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them to the exclusion of other wildlife. Taiwan is an area of unusually fecund biodiversity. In the hills, I’ve come across flying squirrels, ferret badgers, pangolins, giant moths, glass lizards, rhinoceros beetles, barking deer, and Swinhoe’s pheasants.”
One day, Murphy was walking his dog, Ulysses, on Tiger Head Mountain in Taoyuan, the city where he has lived for most of the past quarter century. “I came across a large snake eating a toad. I had a video camera with me and recorded the incident,” recalls Murphy. He posted the video on a discussion website, where it caught the attention of Hans Breuer, a German then living near Sanzhi in New Taipei City.
“Hans asked me if I wanted to go out ‘herping’ with him some time. I’d never even heard the term before! He explained what it meant, and soon enough I joined him for a hike on a local hill, and then later we went road-cruising at night,” says Murphy. “A whole new world opened up for me!”
Unlike Murphy, Breuer was fascinated by snakes as a youngster. But, readily admitting to being the type of person who has “obsessions, not hobbies,” he says that his interest fell by the wayside when he discovered blues guitar at the age of 15.
The businessman, who first arrived in Taiwan in 1989, traces his adult mania for snakes to a revelatory experience a decade ago. “From 2000, I got into carnivorous pitcher plants. At one point, I had about 300 of them in my greenhouse. Then, in 2007, I went to Kuching [in Sarawak, Malaysia] to attend a pitcher-plant conference. While there, we went out to the jungle to see the plants in a natural setting.”
Breuer had never before seen pitcher plants in their natural habitat. “Seeing something in the wild, rather than a zoo or a greenhouse, is massively different,” he says. He got rid of his pitcher-plant collection and took up nature photography. Soon afterward, a professional herpetologist belonging to the same photography club invited Breuer to go out and look for snakes. His enthusiasm for serpents was immediately rekindled, and between 2007 and 2011, when he relocated to Kuching on a semi-permanent basis, Breuer went out herping up to five nights each week, often with his sons.
The best months for herping are May to late October, and not just because the temperatures are higher. Rain brings out insects, insects bring out frogs, and frogs bring out snakes. According to Breuer, damp ditches are especially good places to search for snakes.
Inside Yangmingshan National Park, Breuer was once confronted by a park ranger. “I managed to convince him I wasn’t catching snakes so I could sell them to collectors in Europe,” he remembers. On several occasions, he came across Taiwanese people catching snakes for profit. Breuer points out that when such people are asked about the size of snakes they have seen, the answer usually comes in terms of girth, not length, “because they see the snakes as food.”
The reaction of Taiwanese hikers to snakes sometimes dismays Breuer. “I remember one family who saw me photographing a snake. The mother screamed, and the father started looking around for a stick he could use against the snake. The teenage boy looked terrified, but his young sister showed curiosity rather than fear,” he says. After several such experiences, and seeing the strongly negative attitudes toward snakes in rural Sanzhi, he decided he should try to educate the next generation. By the time many Taiwanese reach their teens, he says, they have been “brainwashed” into fearing snakes.
Pitching his presentation as a safety lecture, he reached out to scores of schools and spoke to about 12,000 students before leaving for Malaysia. In a 90-minute program, he explained the role of snakes in forest ecosystems, then brought out a couple of non-venomous snakes which the youngsters were allowed to handle. “There’s no margin for error with potentially venomous snakes,” he stresses...
To read the complete article, go here. The photos above are courtesy of Dane Harris, Ryan Hevern and Hans Breuer. Murphy and Breuer's website Snakes of Taiwan is recommended.
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