Ron Lilley: The Snake Man of Bali

Ron with a Brown Tree Snake Boiga irregularis)
Ron with a Brown Tree Snake Boiga irregularis)

How did you come to work with snakes in Bali?

As someone who has been interested in snakes and other wildlife since I was a small boy, I was allowed to keep reptiles at home, and I will forever be grateful to my parents for encouraging me and allowing me to do this. After going to university, I helped to start a couple of local herpetological clubs in the UK, and worked in two large reptile collections in the south of England, where I learned to handle various venomous snake species. In 1986, I first visited Indonesia on an Operation Raleigh Expedition, and as a scientific project leader, I recorded and collected reptile and amphibian specimens from Manusela National Park in Seram, Maluku, eastern Indonesia, for the Indonesian and British Natural History Museums. For my Master’s degree, I looked at captive Komodo dragons in the world’s zoos, and the feasibility of reintroducing them to Padar, a small island in Komodo National Park. After moving permanently to Indonesia, I worked with various nature conservation NGOs, and was able to pursue my passion for reptiles in many wonderful places throughout the archipelago.

What are the main species of snakes more commonly found on Bali?

From the few records, papers and books that exist, and from captures, I have a list of 46 species of land snakes, with the possibility of a further 15 species of sea snakes being found in the seas surrounding Bali. I have photographed all of the species I have come across so far, but there are still several rarer ones (including the rare flying snake Chrysopelea paradisi) that I have not yet encountered. Because of its favourable tropical climate, Bali provides habitats that include underground, leaf litter, open fields, vegetation along rivers – a main source! And up in the bushes and trees. Snakes are found up to elevations of 1,500m here, but the colder temperatures and dense cloud that often occurs at higher altitudes are not generally suitable for most species. Reed snakes (Calamaria spp.) are sometimes found at higher altitudes, but these are rarely seen, and have been poorly studied. The most frequently encountered snakes here include: Spitting Cobra (Naja sputatrix), Island Pit Viper (Trimeresurus insularis) and Banded Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina) (VENOMOUS), Green Vine snake (Ahaetulla prasina) (MILDLY VENOMOUS), Common wolf Snake (Lycodon capucinus), Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus), Rat Snake (Ptyas mucosa and P. korros), Dog-toothed cat Snake (Boiga cynodon), Slug Eater (Pareas carinatus) and Reticulated Python (Malayopython reticulatus).

Ron removing a reticulated python (Python reticulatus) from a property.
Ron removing a reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus) from a property.

What is the Bali Snake Patrol and what is your role within it?

The Bali Snake Patrol emerged as a response to the numerous requests I was receiving from people in Bali to remove snakes from their premises. I still work mainly alone, as it is difficult to rely on other people when there are safety concerns, and also language barriers to deal with. There are other people in Bali who will catch snakes, but these tend to be businesses where the captured snakes are resold. I am an advocate of education, raising awareness about snakes and other wildlife, and am frequently called out by private individuals and owners of villas and hotels, to give snakeproofing advice. I love to give talks to schools, and especially to the younger children, since I fear that without this type of information, young people are increasingly remote from the natural world. The issue of snakebite is of particular interest to me, and, in the absence of trained medical staff and antivenom, I also give advice on snakebite first aid. Villa owners, businesses and private individuals also request snakeproofing advice for their premises (although many tourist establishments will not tell anyone about the presence of snakes for fear of frightening away potential customers!).

Calls to me often reflect the perceived “dangerousness” of the snake, rather than the threat it actually presents. Pythons and large rat snakes are obviously intimidating because of their relatively large size. Interestingly, small snakes are frequently not considered to be dangerous, and I am at pains to point out that, if it is venomous, a small snake can still put someone in hospital! People here love to have overgrown, jungley gardens and these favour tree-dwelling species such as Vine snake, Bronzebacks and Dog toothed Cat snakes. Houses with rice fields views inevitably attract cobras, and a number of species of water snakes (such as Xenochrophis melanozostus and Rhabdophis chrysargos) move into premises with ponds to feed on frogs and fish.

How great is the potential threat to humans by the venomous species and the large pythons found there?

Asian Coral Snake Calliophis intestinalis photo Ron Lilley
The Asian Coral Snake (Calliophis intestinalis), a venomous species that is potentially problematic for locals.

With regard to venomous snakebite, there are no data available from the local Health Authorities or hospitals here. Therefore, it is hard to quantify the number of people who are bitten by venomous snakes. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) points out, snakebite is one of the world’s neglected health problems, largely because by far the majority of people who are bitten are farmers living in rural areas, and fishermen who work in small boats far away from the coast. Neither of these groups has the benefit of access to health services, rapid transport, and even if they did, they would not be able to afford the treatment. For these sectors of the community, Snakebite also has longer-term economic impacts. While, for example, a farmer bitten by an Island pit viper might survive the bite, lack of adequate treatment may lead to secondary infections or even amputation. A sick, one-legged farmer is effectively out of the workforce and becomes an economic burden that family and friends cannot afford! 

The lack of antivenom is another problem throughout Indonesia. Only one company here produces polyvalent antivenom suitable for treatment of bites from Spitting cobra (Naja sputatrix), Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus) and Malayan Pit viper (Calloselasma rhodostoma). While there are claims that this polyvalent antivenom can also be used to treat bites from other species, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. In any case, recent research shows that this antivenom is poor in quality compared to, say, antivenom produced in Thailand. The use of larger quantities of antivenom to try and treat bites from other species increases the risk of side effects, such as anaphylactic shock, significantly. In addition, the huge geographical spread of the Indonesian archipelago, and the high numbers of endemic species caused by longer term separation of the islands, calls into question the effectiveness of antivenom administered for bites far from the site of original collection and antivenom production. I recently visited the snake farm in Bangkok to discuss these issues with them.

A stunning, hatchling Blue Krait (Bungarus candidus)
A stunning, hatchling Blue Krait (Bungarus candidus)

As for pythons, two species – the Reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus) and the rarer Burmese python (Python bivittatus) are known to live in Bali. I think habitat loss and the lack of wild prey animals are among the reasons why these animals now turn up in suburban and urban areas. If they raid farms in search of chickens, goats and pigs, and dogs and cats, they will surely be caught and often killed. These species do not appear to grow much longer than 4m in Bali, but one such large snake did kill a security man in the tourist town of Sanur in 2013, because he rather foolishly grabbed its head and tail and then placed it around his neck with a view to taking it home. The snake constricted him, and he was dead within 2 minutes. Onlookers were too scared to help him, but took several photos of the event using their smartphones! For poor, hungry villagers, a captured big python will provide much needed protein, and perhaps also a skin to sell!

Dog-toothed Cat snake (Boiga cynodon)
Dog-toothed Cat snake (Boiga cynodon)

What is the general attitude people of the island’s inhabitants towards snakes, and what efforts are being made to alleviate tensions between the people and snakes of Bali?

I find it encouraging that expatriates living here (many who come to live in Bali because of its reputation as the Island of the Gods, and are more ‘spiritually’ inclined) have a new understanding about the need to live with and conserve nature. While there are also some who, somewhat surprisingly, did not expect there to be snakes in this tropical island, a growing number do not want to kill the snakes they encounter, but are learning to live with them, or at least have them moved elsewhere without harming them. Of course there are those for whom all snakes are scary and a potential threat. These folks either kill the snakes themselves or more usually, get a ‘local’ to dispatch the snake for them. Farmers who do not recognize the value of snakes in the control of rodents and other pests that threaten their crops, will throw snakes onto the road so they can be run over by passing vehicles. Surprisingly, even farmers, who regularly come across snakes, are unable to identify common snake species correctly. One has to be wary of ‘local knowledge’!

Interestingly, Balinese Hindu culture, which is a legacy of human migrations long ago, still has religious beliefs that revere snakes as sacred, wise protectors of humans, and skin shedding evidences rebirth. These beliefs are an integral part of the three principles- the connections between humans, god and nature. Sadly, the religious taboos that formerly provided some protection for snakes (particularly those seen around temples and shrines) are becoming forgotten and lost. To complicate matters further, Indonesia is a multi-faith, multicultural society, and there appear to be a number of cultural sectors for which snakes and other wildlife are considered ‘evil’, or a threat, or ‘useless’ unless they can be exploited for financial gain. One aim of my talks to the public, and especially local farmers, is to explain that snakes are ‘useful’ , particularly in rodent control, and that, without them, farmers may suffer significant economic losses when their crops are damaged. It is, however, a challenge to educate people when so many superstitions and erroneous beliefs still pervade their thinking. My basic message is, RESPECT ALL SNAKES, LEAVE THEM ALONE, AND CALL EXPERT ADVICE IF A SNAKE NEEDS REMOVING!

How have the trends in snake populations changed over the time you have lived in Bali?

Because of limitations to my own time and resources, my information on snake species distribution tends to reflect more the locations of human/snake conflicts rather than actual distribution. Fortunately, there are individuals and groups /clubs who are starting to record snake distribution, and the Indonesian Herpetological society, although still relatively young, is important in bringing together the nation’s herpetologists and connecting them to the wider global herpetological community.

People in the snake restaurants (where snake meat, blood, medicine and skins are sold) told me that in former times, local people would provide them with as many snakes as they wanted. As wild snake numbers dwindled, these establishments were obliged to import snakes – especially cobras- from neighbouring Java.

My best guess is that, as the wild areas in Bali disappear under developments (mainly for tourism), and human/snake encounters are becoming more frequent, some species will undoubtedly become threatened because of habitat loss. The other, more robust generalist feeders, such as pythons, spitting cobras, and the rodent feeders such as the Rat snakes (Ptyas spp.) and the Racers (Coelognathus spp.) will probably survive longer. 

Red tailed green ratsnake (Gonyosoma oxycephalum)
Red tailed green ratsnake (Gonyosoma oxycephalum)

More recently, I have seen a trend for more non-Balinese snake species to appear. These include Bungarus fasciatus, Boiga dendrophila, and Xenopeltis unicolor. These snakes, especially those that are snake eaters, will be having an effect on the local species, which I think deserves closer monitoring. The growing hobby of snake keeping means that various ‘exotic’ species, including (Captive bred) corn snakes, ball pythons, and boas, either escape or are deliberately released, particularly pythons when they become too large, and these will all have high prospects for survival in this climate. There are also stories of reptile dealers who released surplus non-native snakes into the surrounding countryside. Clearly, as this trend progresses, it becomes increasingly possible that I will be called out to rescue a non-native species.

The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) is under constant pressure from traders not to list reptiles (and other species of wildlife) as protected under national law. Limited funding and human resources means that population surveys are very limited, and it is these that are needed to more accurately identify species at risk. I am of the opinion that all wildlife should be nationally protected unless it can be demonstrated that a given species is not threatened by overcollection, habitat loss or some other factor. Then, and only then, is there a valid argument for the establishment of a quota for its collection, provided that its populations numbers continue to be monitored. Sadly, Business interests tend to overrule conservation needs. I would add, however, that the argument that the “poor people need an income” is hollow, and used as an excuse by the few who actually profit from the reptile trade. The poor villagers are paid very little for what they collect, and will remain poor until other socio-economic factors are addressed.

In spite of claims to the contrary, in Indonesia, there is as yet no large-scale commercial breeding of snakes or other reptiles to feed the consumerist appetites of a growing human population, so all of the live snakes, snake meat, blood, and skin products we see here are from wild–caught animals.

Can you give an account of some interesting encounters you had while catching snakes in Bali?

I received a call from a distressed villa owner that his guests had found a python lurking in the toilet. Each time they lifted the seat to look, it disappeared underwater and round the “S” bend. Finally, it emerged to sit on the toilet lid, where it was easily captured. It is all too common for snakes to turn up in peoples’ bathrooms, as many are open and easily accessible from outside. I have caught a number of snakes that have fallen into bathtubs from which they could not escape.

Trimeresurus insularis
Trimeresurus insularis

Snakes will take refuge under roofs in order to find prey, digest their food, shed their skins, or just escape the wet weather. I retrieved a 3.8m python that had obviously been living in the attic space for some time, but had become so heavy that its weight broke the ceiling panels and it fell into the bedroom below.

Unfortunately, I receive all too many calls from people who have seen a snake and then have no idea where it is when I arrive. Hours of fruitless searching overgrown gardens or emptying cluttered storerooms leave me frustrated and the house owners disappointed and still frightened. On many occasions, I am sure that the snake has long since departed and may already be hundreds of meters away from the property.

A Balinese woman called me to say she had caught an unusual snake. When I arrived, she showed me what turned out to be a beautiful little spitting cobra, with no pigment. When I pointed out that this was in fact a venomous snake she said “no, it can’t be. It’s the wrong colour!” I convinced her of the snake’s identity by making it sit up, whereupon her friends remarked how silly she was to have picked it up with her bare hands!

What is your ultimate goal?

My main aim is to rescue snakes from people and vice-versa, to educate people about snakes and their place in the local environment, to provide accurate identifications, and up-to-date information about snakebite first aid.

I am still waiting for the opportunity to fund the first-ever scientifically-robust snakebite survey in Bali. However, funding agencies I have approached (including Rotary) rightly insist that I give them some idea of the scale of the problem. How many people are bitten? How many die? They want this information before they commit to giving funds, and herein lay the problem. Without the data, there can be no surveys, and without the surveys, no data can be collected!

What challenges do you face?

With my family and work commitments, I cannot devote all of my time to snake rescues, but I do try to respond to every enquiry as promptly as possible. I greatly appreciate those who see some value in my efforts here, and I am always very grateful when I receive donations to cover my time, transport and equipment, food for my little collection of captive snakes, printing materials, and so on. In developing countries, people will gladly pay for these kinds of services, but this is often not the case here, especially if there is no snake in the bag at the end of a search!

I would like to conduct more snake viewing trips for visitors here, but I have serious concerns about the insurance risks, poor healthcare facilities and lack of antivenom here, should anything go wrong! I am currently trying to have a popular book on local snakes published here, and this will be in both English and Indonesian languages. One day I would like to build my own small reptile facility for venom extraction, education and snake viewing. Perhaps one day I will be able to realize my dream!

I would like to sincerely thank John Dunbar, Phillip Evans, The Herpetological Society of Ireland and supporters for their efforts to raise funds for my work. These contributions make a significant difference and help to offset my own costs.