Threats to the Boelen`s python (by MARK O`SHEA)



Threats to the Boelen`s python (by MARK O`SHEA)
Th rears ro rhe Boelen's pyrhon (by Mark O 'Shea)
Threats ro the Boelen's pyrh on (by Ma rk O 'S hea)
Threats to the Boelen's python (by MARK O'SHEA)
T he threars to snak es in general , a nd pyrh ons in p articular, a re man y and far ranging.
Run over on roads, bush-knifed in garden s, hunred for meat o r skins, killed out of
prejudice o r because of rnisraken identi ry, subjecred ro lose of habitar through road­
building, slash a nd burn, rnining, forestry o r orher activiries, all faeror s rhar can con­
rribute the demise of a species, eirher loc ally or cornpl erely. Being prot eered by laws,
inrernarional, nation al, provincial 0 1' local , does not a lways pr evenr this p roblem.
M a inl and N ew G uinea (Papua New Guinea, a nd rhe Papua a nd Wes t Papua
Provinces of Indonesia) po ssesses an impressive artay of pyrhon species amo u nting ro
13 species, wirh ad d itio nal spe cies occurring in a rch ipelagos ro north , eas r, west and
sou rhwesr, M ost o f these pyt hon s are eirher lowland coastal spec ies (Antaresia rnacu­
losa, Morelia spilota, Leiopy thon albertisii, Liasisfitscus) o r spec ies wich island-wide dis­
triburi ons (Morelia amethistinn, M .viridis, Apodora papuana). Only rhe Boelen's
pyr ho n (M. boelenz) can be sa id tO dernonsrrare a truly m ontane distrib ution above
1000 m, absenr from lowland, coastal habi tars. T h is is irnporranr when consid ering rhe
rhre ars ro exisren ce rhar these p yrh on s face as individuals a nd as a species.
f ig. 8 2 : Tap ini (Cen tral Province, PN G) .
My exp eriences, from eigh r or nine visit s ro New Guinea since 1986, all relare ro the
easrern half of th e island, Papu a New Guinea. I shall th erefo re try to confine my co m­
menra ry ro PN G alrho ug h I am aware rhar rh e Indonesian side of rhe island has a
th riving w ild life trade wirh la rge number s of co llecro rs and expo rte rs su p plying th e in­
terna tio na l animal trade wich specim ens. Pap ua Ne w G u inea is not like rhat. Papua
Ne w Guinea d oes not perm it the exploitat ion of its native w ildlife for comme rcia l rea­
so ns, with a few exceptions suc h as cro codile ski ns and pinn ed butterflies th at are seen
as village indusrries.
Fig. 81: MARK O 'S HEA rrekking in Owen Sranleys, Tapini (Cen rral Province, PN G ) in 1986.
Death on th e Ro ads.
Beco m ing a road -kill is th e way a great m any pythons (and orher snakes) end th eir
d ays. The ne rwork of roads in P NG is increasin g all rhe time a nd wh ilsr ir is still not
possible ro d rive o n good road s from th e cap iral, Port Mo resby, ro rhe pr ovincial capi­
cal o f an y of rh e neighbouring pr ovin ces, there is an extensive road sys rem running u p
and down rhe coast of C enrral Province, and aseparare nerwo rk connecring rhe five
Hi ghland provin ces ro rhe Nor th Coasr High way th ar links Lae wirh Ma dang and
Bog ia.
In m y tim e I have d riven m an y of rhese roa ds, even been there as ehe ro ads we re
widened and tarrnac'ed, o fre n removing snak es from th e coconut palm s being felied
Th rears ro rhe Boelen's pyrhon (by Mark O 'Shea)
during rhe road-widening process. At nigh r, a fter rain , I have driven ehe road s out o f
Port Moresb y and M adang on mor e occasio ns rhan I co uld co un t a nd caug h t up to
rhree python species a nighr , bur rhat was th en , and rhi s is now, Th ese ro ad s pr ovid e
very few live pyrh on s, and in truth very few d ead ones eieher. Over time most of th e
pyth on s venturing on ro th e black-rop and rem aining a litrl e too long, have been run
over, eirher deliberately or acc idemally on purpose. I have seen PMV (public rnot or
vehi cle) minibuses swerve across th e road in rhe ou tskirts o f M oresb y, at grear risk to
rhe passengers, just to kill a ca rpe t pytho n.
T he settlernen ts growing up alo ng ehe roa ds have also been responsible for th c
d ernise of any snakes found w hilsr cu tring th e grass alon g rhe ro ad verges, aro und th c
hou ses or during garde n ing in rhe prolifera tio n o f agriculrural allo rments th at eat th eir
way inr o th e surro und ing bush. C loser exam ina no n of roa d- killed snak es th ese d ays,
w hether pyrh on s, b row n treesn ake (Boiga irrcgularis) o r raip an (Oxyuranus scutellatusi
w ill ofren exp ose a ligarure aro und ehe sna ke's neck o r a spear-wo u nd to rhe bod y.
These sna kes have been killed so mew he re else and rhr own on to th e road . Sornetirnes
rhe dead sna kes are thrown ove r releph one ca bles in rhe same way schoolboys rhr ow a
rival's pair of rrain et s o ur of reach . Large pythons are sru nned and dragged o n ro rhe
road ro be wa rched bein g run over, somerh ing I rerm ed "T he Sna ke Ga me" (O'SHEA
Th rears to rhe Boelen's pyrhon (by Mark O 'Shea)
1996). I have seen dead pythons of rnosr mainland species on rhe roads o f PNG
(A. papuan a, M. amethistina, M. spilota, M. uiridis, L. albertisii, L. hoserae) but I have
yer ro see a Boelen's pyrho n in such a situation .
And I don 'r expec t ro eirhe r, Few if an y road s curre n tly traverse Boelen's pyrho n
habi rats, and th ose rhat d o are typically wh at would best be called 'co mp any roa ds'.
T h is is n ot really wha r chey are called but I have co ined th e term for th ose high q uali­
ty and we il m aimained road s co nstructed by ehe m ining, o il an d timber co m pan ies in
rhe ir geograp h ical areas of inr erest , man y of which are locared in Boelen's py rho n
co u n try in ehe H ighlands provinces. Access to rhese road s is resniered to au rho rised
veh icles and au rho rised dri vers and the y are reach ed o n ly by passing rh rou gh sec u riry
gates. Thereafrer chey may stretch for m any mil es th roug h pr istine rainfor est. M ost are
no t black-t op but w ide gravel roads bur because rhey are subjec red to occasio nal but
heavy veh icula r rraffic, th ey are re-graded o n a regul ar basis and could be rh e cause of
pyrho n d eath s if ir were not for com pa ny imposed speed- lirn irs and regulat ions p ro­
recrin g w ildlife (bur I shall return to rhis later). There is a hu ge d ifferen ce in q ua lity be­
rw een o il explo rarion co m pa ny road s, behind chec k-po in rs, and rhe ope n-access roads
used by rhe oil pa lm industr y.
T he Con flicr berw een C on servarion and Tr adition.
T he Boelen's pytho n is rhe on ly full y pr ot eered rept ile in Pap ua New G u ine a, it is af­
forded eh e sam e prot ect ion as th e Bird s-o f-Paradi se (Parad isaeidae), bu r wha t does th at
mean ?
Fig. 83: Road kill is nor a major rhrear for MoreLia boeLeni due ro rhe low number of roads
in irs range (rhe phoro shows a specimen of Apodorapapuana in Morobe Province, PNG,
dragged onro rhe road ro be run over).
Int ernationally it mean s rhe pyrh on cannot be expo rred from Papu a N ew G uinea, bur
since this regul ation is linie different from th ose pro tect ing all C IT ES protected rep ­
tiles ie. o ther py rho ns, boas and moniror lizard s, ir does not seem to affo rd th e Boelen's
pyth on any special sratus.
Do mestically ir m ean s the Boelen's python may not be co llected from th e w ild,
killed , or po ssessed in cap rivity by a non-National, so meo ne not bo rn 0 1' nat uralised as
a Papu a N ew G uinean. This naturally applies ro any derivati ves of rhe python suc h as
irs skin, bur technically a forei gner in is in breach of rhe law if he/she is in po ssession
o f a slo ugh o r, for wha rever reason , a scat from a Boelen's pyth o n . T his law also ap p lies
ro o the r spec ies ro a lesser de gree. The first (Wo peo p le to take PNG nati on alisation
followin g Indepe ndence in 1975 were Austra lian croco d ile hunters wi th lucrati ve bu si­
nesses in th e Fly and Kik ori River systems.
So me years ago, rh ere was a large pair of Boelen's pyt hons in rhe N arion al M useu m
live collectio n. The sto ry goes that the y ori gin ated from a for eign er's accem p t to sm ug­
gle the m overseas. The aur ho rities in Port Moresby knew of his plans ro take th e
snakes, th e 'ju ngle drums' had informed them w eil in adva nce, a nd th ey were wai ting .
At th e airport th e snakes were seized and th e sm ugg ler ar rested , pendi ng a fine an d de­
Th rears to rhe Boelen 's py rho n (by M ark O'S hea)
T h reats ro rhe Boelen's py tho n (by Mark O 'Shea)
rarely (b ut not never) wo rn in batrl e rhey are du sted off and patch ed up fo r ehe annu­
al sing-s ings when d an s co m pe te wirh one ano the r for arten non . In truth reprile skins
rarely seem ro be wo rn in rhis marine r, apa rt frorn mo niror lizard (Varanus) or filesn ake
(Acrochordus arafurae) ski ns th at are used on ceremo nial kundu d rums, bur I use chis
as an exa m ple ro explain rhar ehe wild life of rhe for esrs, savannas and swa m ps of PN G
can be freely utilised by the local inh abitants, regardless of nati on al 0 1' internati on al
pro tec rion. Ir is rheir righc and it goes back hundred s, if not rhou sands, o f years to a
time w hen we were wea ring bear and wolfskin s, and painting our skin wirh wood. The
pro blem is rhat a man wirh a shorgu n and no skill can acco m plish in seco nds wha r
might have taken a skilled rrad irional hunrer several days to achieve, in tirn es gone by.
In th e Boelen's pyrh on 's favo ur is th e facr th at in some areas ir is seen as a rot ern ie
creatu re. T ha r mean s it is prot eered by th e very rraditions rhat may mak e it fair ga me
furth er down the rnouncainside. C errain rare spec ies, see n under cerrain co nd icio ns, in
part icul ar sacred places, o n parri cul ar days, a re rhernselves con sid ered sac red, and rhey
may not be killed o r molesred. Ir ma y be a w h ite wallab y near Marshall Lagoon o r a
Boelen's pyrhon sorn ewh ere in the Highlands, but sorne tirnes di scovery by man does
no r au to rna tically mean d esrru cti on .
Fig. 84 : Hunters shack : local hun rers claim tha r ir is possible ro co llecr as ma ny as rhr ee 0 1' fo u l'
spec ime ns in a day in a goo d seaso n. Ne ar We me na (Wes t Papu a, Ind on esia).
porr arion when co nvicted. H owever, in th ose days th e fin es for sm uggling wild life
we re piddlingly small so th e authorities devised ano ther punishm em in the meantirne.
U ntil rhe case cam e to co urr rhe sm uggler was for ced ro stay in rhe rnost expen sive ho­
tel in town, at his ow n expense, and since rhe case took so rnerirne ro com e co court he
had probably paid rhe fine several tirnes over for rhe pleasure o f sirring in du sry Port
Moresby for a prolonged period.
Nati onals (Papu a N ew G uineans) are permitted to cap ture , kill , and possess
Boelen's pythons juSt as th ey may utili se any nati ve faun a. Th ere is a very lon g and
p ro ud tradition of wa rriors wea ring elabor at e head-dresses and skirrs of Bird -of­
Paradi se feathers, the fur o f th e cu scus (Phaumger an arbo real marsupial), the shells of
various marin e molluscs and any th ing else eye-ca tch ing that the for est o r ocean ca n
provid e. The nllmber and di versity of rare feath ers or pelt S are seen as signs of wealt h
and sta tus, rather like an expensive suit o f armo ur in Medieval Eur op e, 01' an Ar ma n i
suit worn at a bu siness meeting or conferen ce. Alth ough th ese ado rn m em s are now
I am sure wild life poaching in Indonesian New G uinea is panially fo r rhe wildlife crade
bur I sllspect (I do not kn ow for su re) rhat thi s forms on ly a sma ll part of any poach ­
ing in PN G, and rhen prob ably only close ro th e border. Poachin g for food is a dif­
ferent m atter however.
Pych ons have lon g fearured in rhe di ers of Papu a New Guinean s, and th ere is noth­
ing wro ng wirh rhat , A pyrh on brought horn e by a hunrer is jusr ano the r resource for
his fam ily, provided it does not become a cornrnercial operano n supplying ciry-folks,
Ir is offe n hard to find ot her ga me in N ew G uinea. Large indigen ou s rnarnrn als, chose
large eno ugh to make a dece n t rneal, are rarely enco u n tered and in all my visits to
PN G since 1986 I rhink I have o nly seen rhree wallabies (Macropus), and not one tree
kanga roo (Dendrofagus) in rhe wild. Th e largesr creatu re in ehe fo rest is acru ally a
Aighdess bird, rhe cassowary (Casuarius), a qu arr y wirh the reputati on for being able
to di sembowel a careless hunter with on e weil aim ed kick. Ind on esian rusa deer
(Cervus timorensis) have been introduced to some areas and feral pigs are also a co m­
mon source of nutririon for rhe inhabitants but whe n it co mes to indigen ou s mam ­
mals, th e bandicoors (Peroryetes, a sort of marsupi al rat), and even real rats, are com ­
mon fayre. So is it a ny su rp rise people like to eat pyth on . The peopl e of Kuru, Western
Provi nce a re more circu mspec t abo ut their di et than their village nam e might suggesr
('k uru' is also a Papu an form o f BSE contract ed fro m ea ting human brain s). At cer tain
times o f the year th ey sllbsist primarily on pyth on meat , and with seven spec ies with­
in their area it is cert ainl y bett er than the alte rna tive.
Threars to th e Boelen's pyrh on (by M ark O'Shea)
Th rears
rhe Boelen's pyrh on (by Mark O 'Shea)
Fig. 85: Boeleni's pyrh on co un rry, H egigio -Moro region (Sourhern Highlands Pro vince, PNG).
The arrows show o il com pany insrallarions on cleared hili rops.
M . O 'S HEA
Fig. 86 : Morelia boeleni is so merimes enco un rered wh en clearing for esr for devel opmeur projec ts.
Fig. 87= M ontane rainforesr go rge, Hegigio- M oro region (Sourhern H ighlands Province,
Threars [Q the Boeien's pyrhon (by Ma rk O 'Shea)
Fig. 88: Montane rainforest, Hegigi o River gorge (So urhern Highlands Province, PNG).
Threars [Q the Boelen's python (by Ma rk O'Shea)
Fig. 89: Oil pipeline, H egigio-M oro regio n (Sourhern H ighlands Province, PN G ). M. O 'SHEA
Threars ro rhe Boelen's pyrhon (by M ark O 'Shea)
Bur rhar is not po aching, thar is huncing and 'fair ga me'.
Acc o rd ing ro Webseer's di ctionary definiei on poaching " is ehe acr o f h u ncing for fish or
game illegall y, or erespassing for ehe purpose of eaking fish o r game illegall y" . This de­
fin irion mi ghe be ex pa n de d ro includ e illeg al merhcds o r eaking of ga me by people not
pe rmirred to hunt in a specific area, "rhe ki ng's deer" sort o f ehing .
Several co m pa n ies o pe raeing in Papua N ew Guinea enfo rce, o r rry to enforce, stricr
regularions with regards ro how rh eir employees rreat ehe local inhabiranrs, rh e land­
scape in which rhey w o rk an d ehe w ild life rhar dwells eher ein. Since m any of rhese
co m p an ies ex pe nd a greae d eal o f time and money makin g su re their workforce is weil
fed , rem arka bly so from m y exp erienc es, rhey feel ir reason able to en fo rce a rulin g rhat
sra res rh ar n o w ild life w ill be hunred , kill ed o r orher wise h armed by employees or co n­
tracr ors w o rkingfo r ehe company. A very re asonable rulin g it mu st be agr eed. Yet this
ruling is flaunred rep ear edl y w irhe u t any ap paren r retriburion . Pyrhons, including
Boel en's pyrhons , discovered during a d ay's work in ehe field ar e ca p t ur ed and then
burehered ro be eat en, H aving seen ehe m ouncainous m eals avail able ro ehe w orkers
concerned in rhi s ac rivi ry I wortder w here chey can possibly pue it a ll, rhree co urses a nd
a p ython fo r dessen, or is rh at berween me als!
This is a praceise ehae sho u ld ce na in ly be seam p ed upon by man ager s w ho proclaim
a co ncern fo r ehe en vironmenr and ecology of ehei r surro u n d ings, especiall y when ie is
a w rirren rul e in eheir rerms o f emplo ymenr.
A n d even more in sidious is rh e poaching co order praceised by so m e of ehe As ian
logging companies. These co m pa n ies operaee in PNG b ur do noe seen co look afeer
eheir em p loyees co ehe same degree as so m e o f ehe min in g co m pa n ies. The resule is ehae
th e fo reig n wo rkfo rce emplo ys local hunrers co hunc everyehing edible for ehem to eae.
Birds, mammals , repeiles , ie makes no differ ence, eve ry eh ing all go inco ehe p oe a nd
soo n entire a reas become devoid o f w ild life. There are no co ncro ls, no regulaeions, no
proeection for wildlife wiehin eheir sp here o f influen ce .
Collection for ehe Exotic Reptile Trade.
As already seaeed, PNG d oes n ot p ermie ehe exp on o f its w ild life fo r co m me rc ial pur­
po ses, w ith a few excep eio ns which do noe include pythons. However, th e reverse is
tru e o f Indonesia and ehere is a ehrivin g ca p eive repeile erade emanacing from W es t
Papua, as we il as o eher islands in ehe archipelago , w h ich feeds ehe de sire o f p rivaee
keepers and zoos acro ss th e res e of ehe world co keep sp ecies like the Boelen's python.
Bryan C h risey (2008) su m m ed ie up as " Bigge r, M ean er, Rare r, H oe" w he re ehe
Boel en's pyehon would definieely qualif)r in the " Rarer" caeego ry. These sn akes co m ­
m and premium prices, o ffen d espiee eheir poo r co nd ieio n and seaee o f healeh , man y o f
th ose reachi ng cap civiey d yin g soo n afeer purchase and all b u e a sele ct few flady re fus­
ing CO reprodu ce in ca p eiviey. B u e th e markee does n o t get a ny smaller becau se of ehese
losses, in fac e ie in creases den1and when ehe spec ies is hard co o b tai n a nd eve n ha rd er
Th rears ro ehe Boelen's pyrhon (by Mark O 'Shea)
ro m ainrain. To "c rack" suc h as spe cies an d breed th ern successfully is ehe Hol y Grail
fo r many herperoculturisrs, both private a nd zoo , as much for ehe kudos as ehe cash,
an d wirh suc h a rna rker ro feed, more pyehons w ill be ca p ru red and shipped o verseas.
The p roblem is that wi t h in cre asin g demand and hi gh prices comes unsc rupulous
pracrices such as o ver-collecring. As already di scussed , the p opulations of Boelen's
p yrh ons m ay be sma ller, less reproducr iveiy ac rive an d m ore v ulnerable rhan popula­
rions of lowland py th o n species, so excessive pressures from ov er-collecting m ay have
rh e sa me effec e as ove r-h u n t ing for meat o r habirar desrrucriou, ehe only differen ce be­
ing rhar ch is th reat comes fro m th e very pe o ple w ho claim to ca re about ehe species.
In summary.
Boelen's py tho n ar e pro bably n oe exce edingly rare. Th ei r perceived ra riry is probably
m ore an ar re fac r o f ehe rern or eness o f th eir m ontan e d isr riburion , which srre eches vir­
tu ally from one end of the Cenr ral New G u inea mounrain chain , to ehe o ther, This re­
rn oteness is weil illu strared by th e fact rh at the species was not d escribed ro sci en ce un ­
til 1953 w h ile rnos t of ehe other New G u inea pyehons were d escrib ed in ehe 1geh
ce nr ur y (o r have be en d escribed frorn wiehin one of rh ese earlier spec ies). The firs r ex­
pl orer s did n ot even venr ur e inco ehe Hi ghlands unril th e earl y 1930S, by w h ich eime
th e nonhern and so u t he rn coases had b een col onised for over 100 years and repeaeed­
ly visited since th e 16 th ce nr ury.
But th ae is noe co say Boele n's pyeh on s are co m m o n ei eher, p o p ulaeio ns m ay co nsis e
o f widel y scarrere d indi viduals. The face is we sim ply do noe lmow, because so few
s pec imens have been see n by sc ie ncises and ehe species h as ye e co be full y scud ied in ehe
wild. Ir may be ehat some areas hold relaeively large po pulaeions bue ehat apparenrl y
eq u al ly su ita b le habie aes, d ose by, are de void o f a ny p yeh ons . Ir also see ms reasonabl e
ehae ba sed on ehe coo l cond ieio ns prevailing in ehe m ounrains, ehe p yehons m ay grow
co macuri ey more slow ly ehan coas tal species, and reproduce less frequ enrly. The end
resule o f ehis wou ld be th ae ehe loss of ad u le p yehons, o r loss o f a clue ch o f eggs, o r 10ss
or severe aleerat io n of ha bieae, m ay have a serio us effe ce o n ehe sur viva l o f ehe popula­
tion loc all y, and co nr rib u ee co a n overa ll dedine. This is o ne reaso n w hy co mpa n ies
plannin g co expl oie lar ge areas in ehe Hi ghlands, cue t he cops o f hills co eseablish oil
platform s, clear-fell hill sides fo r eimber, or dri ve ro ad s ehrou gh pri seine rainforese,
sho uld ca rry out En vironmencal Impace Assessmen t surveys in adva nce in order co d e­
termine ehe impace ehei r o p era eio ns ma y luve on ehe narive fauna and especially large,
vu lnera b le, unique a nd emoti ve sp ec ies like ehe Birds-of-Paradise , eree kangaroo s,
Bo elen's p yehon an d Salvador's m onico r lizard (Varanus salvadol'l).
And ed uc a tio n of workers, villagers, an d o ehe r persons likel y co e nc o u nre r ehese
lied e kn own sp ecies, is also an imponanc a im if ehey are CO be co nserve d for fucure ge n­
era eio ns co know an d enj o y.