YANGON (Reuters): Tenderly stroking the back of a large Burmese python resting on his lap, Buddhist monk Wilatha is trying to play a part in saving scores of snakes that might otherwise be killed or destined for the black market.
The 69-year-old monk has created a refuge for snakes ranging from pythons to vipers and cobras at the Seikta Thukha TetOo monastery in the bustling commercial city of Yangon.
Since the snake refuge launch five years ago, residents and government agencies, including the fire department, have been bringing captured snakes to the monk.
"Once people catch snakes, they will likely try to find a buyer," said Wilatha, who also uses his saffron robe to clean the snake, one of the many he looks after and describes as "my children".
Having such a sanctuary in mainly-Buddhist Myanmar means people can gain 'merit' by giving the snakes to a monk rather than killing or selling them, said Wilatha, who feels he is helping protect the natural ecological cycle.
The Southeast Asian country has become a global hub in the illegal wildlife trade with snakes often smuggled to neighbouring countries like China and Thailand, according to conservationists.
Despite being considered an invasive species in some parts of the world, the Burmese python has been listed as "vulnerable" in its native Southeast Asia by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"Generally, living in close proximity to people induces stress in snakes," said Kalyar Platt, a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society, explaining the need to get them back into the forest as soon as possible.
Relying on donations for the roughly US$300 a month needed to feed the snakes, Wilatha only keeps them until he feels they are ready to go back to the wild.
During a recent release at the Hlawga National Park, he said he was happy to see them slither into freedom but worried in case they were caught again.
"They would be sold to the black market if they are caught by bad people."