Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pythons and the Land - The Bangladesh Python Project Part IV --Guest Post--

By Jon Hakim

Make sure to start at Part I.

“Snake call!  It's the python.  Are you up?  We got a call for the python.”

The words were almost the same, but I woke up to see that Caesar's face held a grimace.  The call he feared had come. 

Let's back up to the night before.

In the last post I left you in a moment of triumph.  Kanai had led four of us right to our target species and a fantastic snake-eating-snake scene. 

But while we were enjoying the successful hunt, Caesar and Swapon were out with other team members, radiotracking the pythons and tortoises. Everything was going fine until they began to track Chaity, a nearly 9' male who in recent weeks had begun moving towards Radhanagar Village. Tonight the radio signals led the team even closer in the village's direction.  And every time they stepped nearer to the village, the beeps got louder...until they tracked Chaity to a spot right behind someone's home.

Here was the dilemma.  The primary purpose of Caesar's radio-tracking study is to gain a better understanding of python biology, especially their home ranges and activity over time.  The worse thing he could do to interfere with the study results would be to move the pythons.  But here was the python practically on the doorsteps of someone's home, where little good could happen.  Do you capture and relocate the python, thereby interfering with the study, or do you let the python keep doing its thing?  Do you risk the likely result that it will encounter the villagers?  Caesar and the tracking team chose to leave the python there and returned to the dorm that night with worried looks on their faces.

It's not like this hadn't happened before.  Back in March, big Asha was caught by irate villagers with a duck in her belly and four dead ducks lying around (her predator instinct was so strong that she killed ducks faster than she could eat them).  It had taken an effort to pacify the local villagers, who blamed Caesar for the duck losses because the python was “his” python.  In the end, the forest department agreed under pressure to reimburse the villager for his ducks.  But he didn't exactly walk away happy.  Caesar relocated Asha about 1.5 km from the village she had invaded, forcing him to start a new set of data points from scratch.  And month-by-month, Asha seemed to be moving closer to the village again.  But she still had a ways to go when the team tracked Chaity to the verge of the very same village. 

Fast forward to today.

Caesar had received the snake call just after dawn.  Sure enough, a python had gotten into the ducks...again.  Caesar, Swapon, and I jumped in a car and went to check it out.  Before we even reached Radhanagar Village we were met on the road by an angry crowd with a large bag.  They thrust the bag at us.

Sure enough, it was Chaity.  The young male python, surprisingly, was unharmed.  The same could not be said for the duck, which the villagers also helpfully placed in the bag for us.

The man who gave us the bag went off on Caesar and Swapon in Bangla.  Low and behold, it was the same man whose ducks had been taken by Asha the previous time!  I asked Caesar what the man was saying.  Caesar couldn't maintain a straight face as he translated for me:

“He's saying that it's our fault the pythons are coming to the village.  He says that we put the radio transmitters inside of them, and now they want to go to the village.  He's not making any sense at all.  I tried to explain to him, but he was angry and wouldn't listen.”

As we returned to the dorm with Chaity to do a health check and new measurements (he stretched out to 8'11”, showing nearly a foot of growth since October), Caesar went back and forth over his options. They weren't particularly good.

Do you leave the python until the last possible second, or do you proactively relocate it whenever it gets too close to a village?  Relocating the python interferes with the home range data and displaces the python from its territory, but if the python takes prey from the village, then someone is going to catch it and force the relocation anyway.

Do you reimburse the villagers every time a python takes a duck, or do you work out some other long-term solution with them?  Reimbursing the villagers may help keep them from seeing the pythons' meals as a negative impact on their bottom line, but it also reinforces the notion that their ducks belong there and the python doesn't.

Do you tell the villagers that this is the natural behavior of the python and convince them to find a way to coexist with typical python behavior, or do you try to find a way for pythons to exist within the villagers' current framework?  It's possible that asking the villagers to switch from ducks to chickens would be an effective compromise – ducks frequent the water where the pythons prefer to hunt, and chickens tend to stay out in the clearings that the pythons avoid.  But would the villagers agree to such a life change, and would it even work if they did?

Behind these practical questions are deeper ones. Can major predators like pythons still survive in parks like Lawachara? The big cats, wolves, and wild dogs are already gone. The largest terrestrial predators left are a few pythons, the rare king cobra, jackals, and occasional small cats which may not be permanent residents.  Is it possible that there's just not enough space preserved here for predators and people to get along? That's the greatest question that Caesar has to answer – whether or not there is enough land in Lawachara for these incredible creatures. How much land does a python need? 

After 9 days in Lawachara, our team shifted to the other side of Bangladesh for a fantastic 3.5 day trip to the Bangladesh Sundarbans (you can read about that trip here).  The time we had spent with Caesar, Rashid, Animesh, and the people and animals of Lawachara made a lasting impact on us.  Dean Lambert has considered returning to Bangladesh in December to help CARiNAM with a Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) survey, the first such survey in the Sundarbans.  

I am planning to return to Lawachara next monsoon to do an intensive month of survey work alongside Caesar, especially focusing on frogs, caecilians, and fossorial snakes. 

Scott Trageser and Ash Wisco will come back to Bangladesh with another team next year, to again lend more funding and manpower to Caesar's work. (Queries about the trip should go to Scott Trageser) Some of us also hope to again join Animesh in his village next to the swamp forest and spend some days with him and his frogs. 

But we all know that the ongoing survival of the plants and animals of Bangladesh, like the ongoing survival of all ecosystems, depends not on the scientists who study them but on the men and women who live alongside them.  There are 160 million people in Bangladesh today.  It is not an easy place to live.  When I think of those people, I think of the miles and miles of rolling hills I saw covered in tea plantation, and I wonder who brought the tea there and who buys it.   I think of the garment factories that we passed on the highway on the way to the forest, and I wonder how the workers inside those factories live, and who buys those clothes and how much they pay for them.  I think of the old ships brought to their coastline to be torn apart for scrap, and I wonder what toxins were left inside and what impact the toxins and other hazards will have on the boys who tear the ships apart, not to mention the ecosystems the chemicals leach into.  

In a nation as small and highly populated as Bangladesh, with as little true resource regulation as Bangladesh, the only reason any natural areas survive at all is because the people live in poverty, with only a tiny amount of land and resources taken up by each one.  I think about how much the other side of the world is profiting off their poverty, and doubt that the situation is the least bit sustainable.

The questions of 1st-world consumption based on 3rd-world production, of wealthy nations who consume far too much and impoverished nations who have far too many consuming, and of wild spaces that get further and further encroached on every year, are extremely difficult ones.  Our two weeks in Lawachara National Park gave us a glimpse into the lives of the people and the wildlife there, and a strong impression of how vital it is that those questions are answered.  What steps can we take to ensure that the people and the fauna of Bangladesh will both have a productive future?  I recall Leo Tolstoy's brilliant short story on wealth and greed, “How much land does a man need?”  Once we learn how much land a python needs, will we be willing to face the question of how much land we do?

If you would like to support the Bangladesh Python Project, please contact Shahriar Caesar Rahman via the Bangladesh Python Project Facebook page.

About the Author: Jon Hakim

Jon Hakim got his love of snakes from his father, who frequently took him on long days in the woods herping and observing wildlife in rural Oregon. He went to school to work in biophysics, but has found his meaning in professional life as a science teacher and community development worker. Jon has worked extensively in citizen science with the North American Field Herping Association, and the Herpetological Education and Research Project”. He currently lives in a slum in India with his wife Rose, learning Hindi, teaching kids to read, and herping whenever he can. You can read his field guide and herping adventures with Thailand's reptiles and amphibians at Bangkok Herps.

The following papers give more information on the snake assemblage found in Lawachara National Park.

Rahman, Shahriar Caesar, & et al. (2013). Monsoon does matter: annual activity patterns in a snake assemblage from Bangladesh The Herpetological Journal, 23, 203-208

Rahman, Shahriar Caesar, et al. "Composition and structure of a snake assemblage in an altered tropical forest-plantation mosaic in Bangladesh."Amphibia-Reptilia 34 (2013): 41-50.

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