I smell a rat

16th July, World Snake Day

The region of southern Ontario where I was lucky enough to be able to stay for a couple of weeks in the first half of July holds an important yet threatened population of the Gray Ratsnake, Pantherophis spiloides. While participating in the memorable BIOSPHERE Youth Environmental Leadership Expedition at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) on the shores of Lake Opinicon, the enthusiastic program leader Dr. Shelley Ball interrupted our dinner one evening with a Gray Ratsnake she had just hand-caught. Perhaps one of the few things I will stop dinner for!

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Gray Ratsnake being held by Shelley

Gray Ratsnakes are one of Canada’s largest snakes. They are the largest in terms of length, with adult able to reach over six feet from head to tail, but are pipped by Bullsnakes with regard to mass.

During the expedition at QUBS, we were treated to a short presentation by Matt and Meg who are working on how to prevent the decline of this sizeable snake. One of the leading causes of fatalities in this species is road collisions. The dark colouration of the ratsnakes means that they are often mistaken for the shadows of overhead branches on roads, and are therefore not noticed by motorists. Even when they are recognised as snakes drivers have a hard time avoiding them, as due to their length they can easily stretch across the entire width of the road.

On account of this, Matt and Meg are working on avoiding these snake RTAs by reducing the incidences of snakes crossing the road. They are helping to develop snake-proof fences which aim to guide the snakes to specially-built culverts which they can use to get to the other side of the road without risking being hit. Gray Ratsnakes are semi-arboreal and spend lots of their time in trees, so are adept climbers. The fences to be implemented, therefore, need to be resistant to climbing by these agile snakes. Creating fences that not even ratsnakes can ascend also prevents a wide variety of other wildlife such as turtles from being hit and allows them to utilise the culverts as well.

Gray Ratsnakes are remarkably docile and are rarely aggressive when handheld. When threatened they do possess the abilility to release the contents of the cloaca, musking the assailant with a foul smell. However, the related Northern Water Snake behaves in this manner with far greater regularity. It, like the Gray Ratsnake, is non-venomous, so has to make itself as unappealing to predators as possible, by releasing both musk and excrement. Despite the lack of venom, the bites are still painful and the saliva of the Northern Water Snake has an anticoagulant which causes the bite to bleed more freely. However, although it might sound threatening, the water snake is another fascinating reptile.

I had the good fortune of glimpsing a Northern Water Snake on one occasion at QUBS as it swam past the boathouse. As its name suggests, it is a very strong swimmer. It will take sleeping fish at night in shallow water and during the day it will hunt other prey such as crayfish and amphibians among vegetation at the water’s edge.

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Northern Water Snake snaking through the water at the QUBS boathouse

To finish off this post for World Snake Day, I’ll mention the third species of snake we encountered on our expedition at QUBS, which was also the most numerous. The Common Garter Snake is, as its name suggests, frequent, but also fairly skittish. As a result, they are difficult reptiles to photograph. However, nearing the end of the expedition we disturbed one from a pile of dead leaves near the library. It retreated to a stone wall, from which it poked its head out to survey the scene, giving a rare opportunity to photograph this species.

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A curious Common Garter Snake.

The Common Garter Snake, like all but one snake in Ontario, is another non-venomous species. Snakes are often misrepresented as being solely dangerous creatures. However, less than a fifth of the world’s snake species are considered a threat to human health, with very few venomous snakes being found in the more populated temperature regions of the world. Instead of being feared, snakes should be more appreciated for their incredible diversity and fascinating range of habits.

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The Conservationist’s Battleground

It’s just past midday and in the 35 degree heat, we drive along the National Highway-29 with an expanse of wild floodplain to our north and forested highlands to our south. As we pass a small, one-man roadside fortification, a shooting post, we are told about this area’s ever-present war. This is not just a deterrent where untrained local militia shoot at an intruder’s feet to ward them off. Someone was fatally shot here the previous night, as they are every few weeks.

‘The Pride of Assam’ roams the Kaziranga National Park we had just exited. With an alleged higher potency than the horns of its African counterpart, it is in particularly high demand in Asian countries, especially Vietnam, where it is used as a supposed cure for cancer. Its value is highlighted by the risks the poachers will take to harvest it. Approximately the same number of people are killed by the anti-poaching force each year as their quarry are by poachers: the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros.

The Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, also known as the Indian Rhinoceros, is one of five rhino species worldwide, with three being found in Asia. Every species has experienced declines.

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Adult female Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park

The Javan Rhinoceros is one of the rarest large mammals in the world. It used to be widespread in south-east Asia, with its range stretching from the Sunderbans in east India, east to the Vietnam coast and south to Central Java. Now, only around 120 years  since it first became locally extinct in India, the sole remaining population inhabits the Ujung Kulon National Park. The park has an area of 1200 square kilometres, of which about a third is marine and supports as few as 60 Javan Rhinos.

The Sumatran Rhinoceros is only slightly less rare. It once had a similar range to the Javan Rhinoceros, and although it didn’t inhabit Vietnam, it was found in Borneo, where one of the four or five populations is located. Although there are more individual populations than the Javan Rhinoceros, these are tiny and probably add up to fewer than 100 individuals.

Fortunately, the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros is approaching 4000 individuals having almost doubled over the past couple of decades. Despite this, as with the other two species we have looked at, the distribution has decreased from a wide band ranging from Pakistan to the easternmost point of India to several scattered pockets in south Nepal, West Bengal and along the Brahmaputra River in Assam; and there is a chance there is a population in the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan.

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One of the first rhinos we saw in Kaziranga National Park

The increase in the population of this species is at least partly due to the work of anti-poachers around the populations of this rhino, particularly around the national parks where many of the rhinos live. Nepal is an excellent example where the holy grail of zero-poaching has actually been achieved, where several very popular species in the markets of Vietnam and other East Asian countries such as Tiger, Asian Elephant and Rhinos live. With almost a quarter of the country assigned as national parks and other protected areas such as Bardiya NP and Chitwan NP, where I was lucky enough to see both Tiger and Rhino several years ago, and a huge commitment from the authorities, it has illustrated that the war against poaching doesn’t have to be an insurmountable battle.

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Inhabitants of the many river sandbanks along the Brahmaputra River. In some places such as near Chitwan National Park, children are being educated about conservation with projects such as Eco Clubs in schools.

In my opinion Kaziranga National Park and other areas in India which support the Greater One-horned Rhino may soon realise the abolition of poaching. If the anti-poaching rangers continue risking their lives to save this magnificent animal, and other approaches such as monitoring and education continue to be implemented, then this rhino may just survive and perhaps even prosper.

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Mother and calf on the misty plains of elephant-grass.

 

 

Thick-headed

At the end of March I had the good fortune to be able to visit North-east India for a few weeks. For the first part of our trip, we stayed at the Sunderban Jungle Camp on the edge of the Indian Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Each day we would take a boat and explore the unique habitat of the mangroves and hope to find some of the special species that inhabit it.

Luckily we had several great sightings of restricted-range birds in particular, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher. This species is restricted to the mangroves on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea from Odisha to the southern tip of Myanmar. It was one of six Kingfisher species encountered in the Sunderbans, surely the Kingfisher capital of the Indian subcontinent.

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Brown-winged Kingfisher

Although my personal highlight was not the intricate beauty and variety of the many kingfishers seen, but the drab Grey Thickhead. Unsurprisingly this is not the modern accepted vernacular name for this species, although it is the literal translation of the Mangrove Whistler’s scientific name, Pachycephala cinerea. Although is is unclear to me what warranted their scientific name, the genus appears to me to be just like typical flycatchers albeit with a slightly broader bill and perhaps chunkier. However it is not the appearance that drew me to this species, but the melodic song.

The voice of the Mangrove Whistler rises high and proud above the accompanying chorus of the mangroves. It consists of a series of tuneful notes which crescendo to a concluding flourish which is audible even above the din of the motorboat as it chugs along down the wide mangrove channels.

Having heard the distinctive tune, our guide Sujan ordered our boat to be stopped at the edge of the mangroves near where the whistler was whistling. To him it sounded abnormally close, the species usually prefers to remain deep within the mangrove forest without access by boat. This is why they are very tricky to see in the Sunderbans: walking is forbidden due to the danger of tigers. So when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, I knew that I was very privileged.

The small nondescript bird flew up to a convenient perch on one of the higher mangrove bushes along the river. From there it began to sing, occasionally switching position but almost constantly in view for several minutes. So hard to find, so unexpected that this species wasn’t even on our trip checklist – a cumulative list from around 9 years of running this trip with 2 or 3 trips a year. Our guide has the honour of having seen over 1100 species of birds in India, yet the elusive thickhead only 5 or 6 times before.

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The Mangrove Whistler sitting dignified on its mangrove perch