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Highest (160 species) snake diversity in the world
Published on: Monday, July 03, 2017

RICHARD Burger, SZtv's latest star in its Borneo Jungle Diaries series, grew up with a passion for wildlife, fuelled by travelling to exotic locations to see animals in the wild and volunteering with wildlife organisations at home in the UK and abroad.

"The pattern is beautiful," said Burger. "This is why they are so highly prized for their skins.

Unfortunately, a lot of people think it looks nice as a handbag or a pair of boots."

Beyond their beauty, snakes are an incredibly important component of the ecosystem, and provide a great service to humans as pest controllers! But mostly, they are good for controlling rats, and that's why Sabah's vast oil palm plantations are an ideal home for them.

With around 160 species, Borneo is thought to have the highest snake diversity in the world.

Borneo's snakes come in many shapes, sizes and colour, and are found all over the island, from seas and mangroves, to mountains and jungles.

The reticulated python (Python reticulatus), which is Burger's favourite by the way, is a species of python found in Southeast Asia, and more so in Sabah. They are the world's longest snakes and longest reptiles, and among the three heaviest snakes. Like all pythons, they are non-venomous constrictors and normally not considered dangerous to humans.

They will eat most small mammals, also birds, and occasionally, reptiles. So when small they eat a lot of rats, which is good news for farmers and plantation owners. As they get bigger they will move onto larger things like monkeys, deer, domestic animals, even pigs.

There is even a recorded case of a sun bear eaten by a python in Kalimantan.

"The way pythons move around despite a lack of legs with such an alien speed and grace makes them really fascinating to watch. It is a challenge to search for snakes in the wild, as they are generally so secretive and hard to find that seeing one is always something special," says Burger.

Now for the cool part. The ligaments and tendons in these predators' mouths are specially adapted for extreme flexibility. This means they literally swallow their prey whole. Once it is all over, the snake may not need to feed again for weeks.

Richard Burger "I studied Zoology at Cardiff University as an undergraduate, where I had the opportunity to attend a new field course in Borneo at Danau Girang Field Centre in 2009.

"I then continued at Cardiff as a postgraduate to gain an MRes in bioscience, carrying out fieldwork in Mauritius to study dietary competition between the endemic Telfair's skink and invasive Asian musk shrew, using molecular technology.


"After spending some time researching lizards in South America and working as a science tutor in the UK, I got a job as Principal Investigator of terrestrial research for an NGO in Madagascar.

I was the lead researcher for projects on a wide range of fauna, including soil invertebrates, spiders, butterflies, frogs, reptiles, birds and lemurs, as well as manager of the field camp.

"My interests have always focused predominantly on reptiles, however, and the high abundance and diversity of snakes (and lack of venomous species) made Madagascar an ideal place to hone my skills.

I have now returned to DGFC and Cardiff University to study the effects of oil palm plantations on reticulated python ecology, and am currently in my second year of study."

Asked when and how he got into snakes, and what about them that fascinated him.

Burger was quick to say: "I can't really point to any specific trigger, but I've just found them fascinating from a young age."

When asked about his reply to Bertie's question about how he's feeling at the end – 'logical' – Burger said in jest: "The director was giving Bertie directions on the next piece-to-camera, and told him to ask me how I was feeling about a successful night's work. Bertie responded that scientists don't have feelings, they only think using logic.

"So when filming I answered Bertie with 'logical' to take the piss a bit, and make him have to walk back and do the take again. But everyone liked it, and we didn't do another take. It seems a bit weird in the show out of context, but it's fine!

"The truth is that unlike the bad rep that scientists possibly get sometimes about being cold and logical automatons, there's really a huge amount of passion and dedication involved, perhaps especially so in conservation as there's a great amount of emotional investment. When working with these animals I feel a great deal of satisfaction from what I do, and getting to see so many of these big snakes up close and personal is a real privilege."

Tracking the Reticulated Python While at Danau Girang Field Centre, Richard assisted in fitting a female reticulated python with a satellite unit last year, the whole idea being that whatever information that is gathered from this crawler, and others in the future, would allow researchers to begin to understand how these animals are able to utilise their habitat, and give an idea of their home range.

Richard, leader of the project said the reticulated python is widely kept in zoos and as popular pets throughout the world, "yet we know so little about them in the wild. Large pythons are very difficult to study as they are very secretive and camouflage experts, so it is very hard to find them in dense forests.

This is why we currently have no idea of their population size or density."


"By attaching a GPS device we can begin to discover the secrets of how these enigmatic animals behave in their natural habitat, and this is vital in making management decisions about the species in the future," Burger said, adding that there are no answers to many important questions.

According to a Sabah Wildlife Department spokesman wild reticulated pythons are heavily exploited, particularly in Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia, as their skins are a valuable commodity.

"This trade has seen rapid expansion in recent years. Cites allows a quota of skins to be exported each year, but there is also a great deal of illegal leather trade activity that occurs, and an unknown number of animals are also killed out of fear or for meat," he said.

"We cannot continue to remove hundreds of thousands of animals each year from their natural habitats if we don't know anything about their ecology or population size; continual monitoring is essential for any species that is harvested in this way."

The SWD feels that it is important that this trade remain at a sustainable level, so that communities can continue to reap the financial benefits that the skin trade brings for many future generations, without causing the species to become endangered through a combination of over-harvesting and habitat loss.

Asked if there had been any frightening experience he has had, Burger has this to say: "They are not generally all that dangerous, and most of the time will leave people alone, and if disturbed, will try to just get away. That is the experience I have with them, they are only likely to bite if you start messing with them.

"A large python, over 3-4m is strong enough to kill a man by constriction, as its impossible for one person to get it off if it gets around your neck, so you shouldn't go picking them up if you don't know how to handle them.

"Yes, don't mess with it, if anyone is worried about a large one they should contact someone to come deal with it, such as the WRU, who do an amazing job with rescuing wild animals in Sabah."

Summing up, Burger has this to add that pythons should be respected, and treated with caution, as they probably get a worse reputation than they deserve.

"It's always sad to me when people kill any snakes they encounter; it happens all over the world, but the majority of snakes are completely harmless, and even the dangerous ones will mind their own business if you leave them alone."

Borneo Jungle Diaries is produced by SZtv and follows environmental photojournalist, Aaron 'Bertie' Gekoski as he investigates life behind-the-scenes at the Danau Girang Field Centre.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and be released on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.


What's more, viewers are encouraged to take part in the competition that is being held;

All you have to do is answer five questions from the episode correctly each week to win a 4-day / 3-night stay the Danau Girang Field Centre. There will also be a grand prize at the end of the 10-series Borneo Jungle Diaries for those who get all questions correct across all quizzes.

For more information, check out Borneo Jungle Diaries on SZtv.


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