Serpents in the city

Photos By StoryPhotos GRACE CHEN

The rising rat population in urban areas combined with the heatwave have increased the incidence of city folk coming into contact with venomous snakes.

ON MARCH 31, the Remote Envenomation Consultancy Services (RECS) in Ampang Hospital treated an 11-year-old girl for suspected snake bite on her left foot.

Case files reported that she was bitten at a night market. The location was not recorded and the snake was not positively identified. But symptoms exhibited were characteristic of a cobra bite.

Doctors had to remove dead tissue destroyed by what was suspected to be neurotoxic venom from a cobra.

The patient required a skin graft.

In another case which happened a year earlier, the RECS team in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Medical Centre (UKMMC) reported a Malayan pit viper biting a 32-year-old woman from Taman Bukit Segar Cahaya 2, Cheras.

She was bitten on her right hand but it was a “dry” bite (where no venom was released) and was discharged.

Last July, the same team reported another pit viper bite from the same area.

The victim, a 12-year-old boy, had found the snake in his neighbourhood and was bitten while trying to put the snake into a bottle.

All three cases happened in urban locations and the snakes were venomous.

Malaysian Society on Toxinology president and RECS consultant Dr Ahmad Khaldun Ismail confirmed that out of 24 cases reported by RECS from Ampang Hospital, Kuala Lumpur Hospital and UKMMC between 2015 and 2016, five snakes were identified to be venomous. The snake species identified were the Malayan pit viper and mangrove cat eye.

“This year, we are seeing two to five consultations per day for Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

“There was once we had five within 24 hours in the Klang Valley alone,” said Dr Ahmad.

Judging from the number of times he had been called in to remove snakes from residential areas in the Klang Valley, snake venom researcher and conservationist Arun Raveendaran agrees the snake population has increased in the past 10 years.

Arun has removed up to 50 snakes, mostly monocled and spitting cobras from Ampang alone.

Khaldun with the pit viper he caught in Cheras.
Khaldun with the pit viper he caught in Cheras.

Both types of cobras are venomous.

He has identified Ampang, Cheras, Melawati, Setapak, Selayang and Kepong as habitats.

In Gombak, he has extracted 100 pythons from the homes of startled residents.

One recent case was in a restaurant near Kuala Lumpur city centre. According to Arun, pythons are not venomous but their teeth may contain bacteria which can lead to infection.

“Cities make the most ideal breeding grounds.

“They can breed in drains, rat holes, rubbish dumps and underneath houses.

“Market areas are the best because the high rat population provides a large food source,” he said.

Explaining the cycle, Arun said food waste would attract rats which in turn attracted snakes.

“This explains why there is a possibility for snakes to thrive better in cities than in the wild.”

Arun with his monocled cobra.
Arun with his monocled cobra.

His opinion is backed up by the large captures he has carried out in houses and building. His record catch is a 1.9m-long monocled cobra.

From RECS records, Dr Ahmad confirmed and verified six to seven cases of Malayan pit viper bites in Cheras residential areas since 2011.

The latest incident occurred early this year.

An exploratory trip to the area saw Dr Ahmad discovering two live adult specimens.

While jungle clearing for development is regularly cited as a reason for the migration of serpents into populated urban areas, Dr Ahmad notes that pet owners are also contributing to snake bite statistics.

“More animal enthusiasts are buying snakes as pets.

“Non-venomous exotics like corn snakes, Burmese and ball pythons are popular but some collectors go for venomous and dangerous snakes.

“Whether the snakes are venomous or not, their owners are at high risk of getting bitten.

“In the case of exotic venomous snakes, there will be an issue with anti-venom in case of bites.

“Pet suppliers do not provide or sell anti-venom because it is a controlled drug and need special care and medical specialists to administer them,” he pointed out.

From RECS records, two Malaysians were bitten by rattlesnakes in Selangor.

As the species is exotic here, there was no anti-venom in the local hospitals.

It had to be brought in from the Singapore Zoo, an extremely expensive affair for the patient.

Former National Zoo employee, Tayalan Rahman said there was a strict procedure to follow when importing venomous snakes.

“When the zoo brought in an African king cobra, it had to be reported to the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) and the National Poison Centre.

“It was especially necessary to inform the National Poison Centre so that it would have the anti-venom in stock in case of emergency.

Tayalan advised keepers of venomous snakes to get a licence from Perhilitan and, for their own safety, inform the nearest hospital that they have these snakes as pets.

He reckoned that one reason why the rattlesnake case required the help of Singapore Zoo might be due to the owner’s failure to tell the nearest hospital of the existence of their exotic pet.

Commenting on the case, Malaysian Association of Reptile And Exotic Animal Keepers (Marak) founder Mohd Nazri Hassan Basri said permits for the keeping of exotic venomous snakes were highly regulated by Perhilitan.

“Permits are only issued to zoos and permanent display facilities, not to individuals,” he said.

On cases of pet snakes escaping from their confines or were abandoned by their owners who thought it would be best for them to go back to the wild, a 2013 story in The Star cited then Perhilitan law and enforcement director Burhanuddin Mohd Nor describing the impact of such actions as “devastating.”

There are precautions one can take to avoid snake bites.

“Cut away the rubbish and lalang and you would have addressed a big part of the problem,” said Mohd Nazri.

Arun said: “Don’t look for trouble.”

“If you see a snake, do not disturb or try to catch it. Chances are high that it will move away when it feels the vibration of human footsteps.

“Snakes do not usually chase after humans.

“It is usually the other way around,” he added.

RECS was developed to assist healthcare providers at various levels of clinical management for snakebite (and bites or stings from venomous animals) and envenoming. Established in early 2012, it is made up of emergency physicians who are members of Malaysian Society On Toxinology.

A consultation network among members is established through telephone calls, email and various forms of short text messaging systems.

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