For at least the last three weeks (and probably much longer, without our noticing it) we’ve had a deadly pit viper, Bothrocophias microphthalmus, living next to the entrance trail to our Rio Zunac Reserve. I wrote about him here and here (with video). The venom of this pit viper is especially dangerous, according to the herpetological literature and the Venomous Animals Database. Because this individual hadn’t moved from this heavily-used trail in three weeks, we became concerned that a possibly fatal accident was likely. So yesterday we reluctantly decided to move it to a place not visited by humans. Today we did it.
How to move a deadly snake without risking our own lives? Juan Pablo Reyes, our reserve manager, is a herpetologist with lots of experience handling snakes, though they almost all had been non-venomous species. He had two snake hooks at home. He would be the snake handler. Our reserve guard, Fausto Recalde, and I would be his assistants. We took a 4 inch diameter, 2 meter long plastic water pipe to put the snake in; this was so long that it would be impossible for the snake to strike the hand that closed the tube after the snake was inside. I brought a portable hand-pumped watering device which I use to care for my orchids; my plan was to make the snake think it was raining, so that it would calmly uncoil from its strike position and head for its shelter log (which I had found when I made my video of the snake a few days ago). I also thought cold water might make the snake more lethargic and easier to handle. I also brought a “shield” of polycarbonate greenhouse plastic to protect our legs, and an aluminum tube to help manipulate the snake from a safe distance.
I found the snake immediately in its usual spot, coiled and ready to strike. It hadn’t moved more than two meters from its trailside nest in the last three weeks. Plan A was to see if we could persuade the snake go into our plastic tube by itself, to shelter from the rain I would make. Fausto laid the pipe’s entrance near the snake’s head. I filled my watering sprayer with cold water from the nearby stream and started spraying water on the coiled snake. After quite a long time, the snake began to calmly uncoil as I’d hoped it would, but it didn’t go into the pipe. That would have been too easy.
Onto Plan B. With my legs protected by the bicarbonate shield, I kept spraying water on the snake, which made it want to go towards its nest. Fausto moved the tube to anticipate the snake’s movements, though we were hampered by a barb-wire fence. Juan Pablo tried to direct the snake into the plastic tube, but that didn’t work and the snake retreated to a difficult spot. While it sat there I used the aluminum tube and some duct tape to extend Juan Pablo’s snake hook, so he could stay at a safer distance. I then gave the snake more cold water until it once again headed for its nest. Several times Juan Pablo managed to work the snake hook under the snake and pick it up briefly, but not for long enough to get the snake into the tube. By then the snake was in the path, crossing to the other side which had lots of hiding places that would make things harder for us. I blocked it with the polycarbonate shield, and Juan Pablo was able to lift the heavy snake for longer periods, while Fausto kept maneuvering the plastic tube’s mouth to keep it under the suspended snake. We failed a few more times; sometimes the snake’s head went into the tube, but the body was powerful and it would emerge again before the tail got in. Finally it slid in, and I capped the tube and taped it shut with duct tape. We’d done it! Just then a group of schoolchildren walked by quickly on their way out of the forest. We didn’t say anything. They had no idea that on their way in, they had been within a meter or two (perhaps much less) of this pit viper.
We were very pleased that neither us nor the snake nor anybody else had been hurt. The snake had been amazingly docile during the whole process (as it had been on Dec 11 when it didn’t react at all as I nearly stepped on it). Not once did it strike at us, though there were times when its neck was tensed into its ready-to-strike position.
We rather proudly carried our snake-in-a-tube into town. Fausto made an interesting observation as he carried the tube: he could feel the warmth of the snake through the tube! We all felt it, and it was quite warm, much warmer than ambient temperature. There had been very little sun either, at least while we were there (in fact it was raining hard by the time we finished). It was a surprise to feel that much warmth coming from the snake.
We drove the snake to a remote spot far from people and trails, and let it out of the tube. It was very lethargic at first, and we worried we had hurt it. But after a few seconds it slithered off to its new home, where it will live out its life in peace.
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