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For many concrete-bound urbanites in Hong Kong, snakes are the stuff of nightmares and horror stories, more closely associated in our minds with legends and folktales than the tactile reality of our everyday lives. Little do we realise that there is a whole host of these slithering, hissy reptiles living among us in our city’s backyard.
For all the fearsome reputation and quasi-mythical status of snakes, there are actually more than 50 species of these scaly creatures lurking in Hong Kong’s countryside and urban fringes. An encounter with snakes is not as uncommon as you might think, especially during the warmer months when the hot, humid weather tends to lure them out from their burrows. Whether you are frightened or fascinated by snakes, it’s always helpful to learn a bit more about them—so here is a deep dive into Hong Kong’s wild snakes, and what to expect when you encounter one.
Hong Kong’s notoriously humid subtropical climate lends itself to a robust and widespread population of wild snakes, most of which are native species that have been around for as long as the city itself can remember.
Due to their perceived danger and the fact that they generally maintain a low profile, slithering and crawling in quiet stealth, these limbless reptiles often slide under our radar of attention, barring the occasional snakebites that crop up on the news every now and again. And yet, snakes actually make up the largest group of reptiles in Hong Kong, more so than turtles and lizards!
Snakes are not only prolific across Hong Kong, but they also exhibit astounding diversity in size, form, and behaviour, with over 50 species of snakes having been recorded in the territory. Among them, six are sea snakes and the rest are of terrestrial habitat.
Land snakes mostly stay in their natural woodland habitat in the city’s country parks and rural hinterlands, where they can remain relatively undisturbed by human activities. Nevertheless, our close proximity to woodlands means that they can sometimes be found wandering into village gardens, drainage pipes, and places where urban and rural environments overlap.
Despite the bad rap snakes get and the fear-driven urge some have to exterminate reptilian intruders when they get too close to comfort, these cold-blooded hunters are no foes of ours. On the contrary, they play an instrumental role in the local ecological system, acting as a natural form of pest control and helping keep rodent and insect populations in check.
What about the danger that they pose? There are indeed some venomous snake varieties that hikers and outdoor enthusiasts should be cautious of. According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, 14 land snake species in Hong Kong are venomous, and among them, eight can deliver lethal bites. More often than not though, the snakes you cross paths with are perfectly inoffensive, and will normally only strike in self-defence.
A common misconception many hold is that snakes actively go out of their way to bite humans. The truth is that snakes are more scared of us than we are of them! Their natural instinct is to shy away from humans, and they rarely ever attack when unprovoked. In fact, most recorded cases of snakebites in Hong Kong have been instances when the snake was accidentally trodden on, picked up, or harmed in some way.
Back a few decades ago when Hong Kong was still an agricultural-based society, snakebites were far more prevalent. As the city gradually transitioned to a service- and knowledge-oriented economy and urbanisation took off at full speed, snake attacks have become increasingly rare. This is in part due to the loss of natural woodland habitat and subsequent decline in snake population, but also because of the simple fact that people are not out traipsing around grassy fields and shrubby wetlands as much anymore.
In the 1990s, there were around 300 yearly cases of snakebite reported, and in recent years, the number has plummeted to fewer than 100. To put that in perspective, the chances of being bitten by a snake are only about one in 100,000!
Even so, snakebites in Hong Kong are very rarely fatal, thanks to the accessibility of antivenom in local hospitals. The most recent death attributed to a snakebite occurred nearly 30 years ago, when an employee at a local snake soup restaurant was bitten by a Russell’s viper—an imported snake for which no antivenom was readily available.
The bamboo pit viper—also known as the white-lipped viper due to a white stripe that runs above the lip and along the body found on the males of the species—is the biggest culprit for venomous snakebites in Hong Kong, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all recorded cases. Identified by its bright-green body, triangular head, and reddish-brown streak on its tail, these poisonous snakes are nocturnal predators, known to ambush their unsuspecting prey when they pass by.
While not actively aggressive towards humans, bamboo pit vipers will readily strike when they are threatened or scared, which explains why their bites are comparatively common. A bite from this predator will cause a good deal of swelling and require a trip to the ER, but it is rarely lethal if treated within a reasonable time. Other venomous snakes frequently sighted in the territory include the hooded Chinese cobra, the many-banded krait, and the red-necked keelback.
Snakes are often deemed unwelcome company (even to the point of eliciting shrieks and frantic cries for help), but within the local culinary landscape, they are seen in a wholly different light. Most notably, snake stew (蛇羹) has been regarded as a delicacy in Chinese culture since ancient times, often consumed by aristocrats for its healing properties, specifically in improving blood circulation and warming the body in the wintertime. There have also been claims that this nourishing elixir could fight the flu and even promote longevity.
Made with a combination of snake meat slow-simmered with snake bones, chicken or pork, mushroom, ginger, and a medley of Chinese herbs, this thick, gluey soup first originated in the Guangdong province and has been a mainstay in the Cantonese culinary canon since gaining considerable popularity in the Qing dynasty. In particular, Hong Kongers developed a strong penchant for snake stew, giving rise to eateries that specialised in snake soup known as se wong (蛇王), which translates to “snake king.” At the industry’s zenith in the 1980s, there were over 100 se wong shops dotted across the city!
In the past, it was common practice for the police to enlist the help of snake catchers to remove snakes that were troubling citizens in exchange for a small fee. Oftentimes, the captured serpents were then brought to local snake soup shops and made into stew. You will thus find that common ingredients in traditional snake soup in Hong Kong include native snake species like the Chinese cobra, banded kraits, sharp-nosed pit vipers, and Chinese rat snakes. These days, however, local snakes are rarely used to supply these snake soup shops. Instead, most places import their snakes from Mainland China, Thailand, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries.
Due to concerns of ecological sustainability and an aversion to consuming wild animals after the 2003 SARS outbreak, the popularity of this traditional dish has been on a downward trajectory in recent decades, along with the industry that relies on it. What further expedites the decline is the high level of expertise and occupational hazard involved in handling poisonous snakes, leading to an unwillingness for the younger generation to take over the job. Now considered a sunset industry, there are only around 20 snake soup shops that remain in the city.
In time with growing environmental awareness, new measures have also been introduced to better handle snakes that accidentally stray into urban settings. In 1999, the Fauna Conservation Department launched the Wild Snake Rescue Project, establishing a formal protocol for snake handling after a police call-out.
Whereas previous custom was to deliver captured snakes straight to the food trade, the new initiative dictates that the scaly critters will be sent to the Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Gardens (KFBG) in Tai Po to undergo a general health assessment, before being released back into the country parks and other pockets of wilderness where they can live free from human disturbance.
Operating alongside the Wild Snake Rescue Project is the Burmese Python Conservation Project, dedicated to facilitating the rehabilitation of the Burmese Python, the only snake species in Hong Kong protected under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170). With this project, the endangered pythons can be processed and released into local forests upon capture instead of being transported away to mainland China to be taken care of by the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) management authority. Since the project’s commencement in 2011, the number of Burmese Pythons processed every year has steadily climbed up, attesting to the project’s positive impact on the species’ development.
If you are eager to learn more about these majestic reptiles and catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat, there are actually guided tours that allow you to observe and interact with wild snakes in Hong Kong from a safe distance. Local wildlife expert William Sargent is a professional snake catcher who hosts night-time snake safaris in hopes to educate the public and debunk common misconceptions about snakes. To join one of his exciting tours and learn more about our scaly friends, contact Sargent directly via email at [email protected].
Furthermore, you can do additional reading on the many snake species of Hong Kong at hongkongsnakeid.com and learn more about the snakes you’ve encounter, or buy a copy of A Field Guide to the Snakes of Hong Kong.