A python in your house? Call the “Snake Princess”
Early in the morning in a monastery in Rangoon, Burma, a team of snake hunters arranges one by one in large canvas bags around thirty pythons captured in recent months from private homes.
By van, the volunteers who constitute the only unit of its kind in this Southeast Asian country plagued by a civil war, will release the reptiles outside the city, in their natural habitat.
Shwe Lei and his team are usually called by frightened residents who report the presence of pythons, sometimes cobras or vipers, in their house or apartment.
“I like snakes , because they are unassuming,” Shwe Lei told AFP at one of the snake sanctuaries she runs.
“If you accept their nature, they're adorable,” she adds, two pythons entwined around her.
But Ko Toe Aung, a burly 40-something who has been catching snakes since 2016, says he has been hospitalized seven times for bites.
Their team has a dozen members and rescued about 200 snakes in the area last year. Yangon, the largest city in Burma.
Videos posted on social media showing the couple dragging snakes out of sink holes, drains or gutters have earned them the nickname “prince and princess of snakes”.
Pythons, vipers, cobras
These volunteers rely on donations to operate, from protective gear to gasoline for their “ambulance,” a purple van.
They mainly catch Burmese pythons, non-venomous snakes that reach usually five meters long and which choke their prey, rats and other small mammals, to death. Very venomous cobras and bongars have also taken up residence in the streets of Rangoon.
In 2014, according to the latest figures available from the WHO, out of 15,000 people bitten by a snake in Burma, 1,250 died.
This is one of the highest rates in the world, largely due to a weak health system and unequal access to antivenoms.
As well as being “quick and nimble”, hunters must be able to guess where a snake may be hiding in a house, says 40-year-old Ko Toe Aung.
They also have to be calm about poisonous snakes.
“There is a 90% chance let the serpent bite me,” he said.
Sometimes the snakes don't even show themselves.
In March, the team spent two days outside a home in suburban Yangon in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge a family of cobras which had taken up residence in the basement.
Piercing through the concrete as neighbors watched, they were frequently interrupted by the snakes inside spitting venom in their direction.
More than a thousand deaths per year
“It stinks,” said Ko Ye Min, 31, a tattooed member of the team, forced to take a break.
Hunters should recognize the musk released by a stressed snake, as it determines whether it is poisonous or not, explains Ko Toe Aung to AFP.
Cobras smell a little “rotten”, but pythons have a much stronger smell. “Sometimes it makes us vomit,” he says.
Once captured, the snakes are kept under observation in a monastery until they are fit to return to their habitat.
At the end of March, the team packed up their 30 pythons and walked 150 kilometers to the hills of Bago Yoma, north of Yangon.
In single file, they ended up walking in the bush, each carrying one or two snakes on their backs.
“No one likes to feel locked up,” Shwe Lei told AFP after the last snakes were released, some a bit stunned.
“I'm happy…from the point of view of caring for each other, it's gratifying”.