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Jakarta Post

Thai university draws snake researchers from around the world

  • Raveebhorn Chaiprapar

    Kyodo News

Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand   /   Wed, August 15, 2018   /   07:04 pm
Thai university draws snake researchers from around the world Only a few places provide a teaching program for venomous and non-venomous snakes in Thailand, but among those very few is Suranaree University of Technology. (Shutterstock/By Skylines)

Only a few places provide a teaching program for venomous and non-venomous snakes in Thailand, but among those very few is Suranaree University of Technology.

A tropical snake study program started about eight years ago at the School of Biology of SUT's Institute of Science, with its first student being Colin Thomas Strine, whose graduate thesis was on green pit viper ecology. Now, Strine is a conservationist and ecologist working at SUT as a lecturer and graduate thesis adviser.

Many other foreigners share the same interest and want to follow their dreams to become tropical snake researchers. Today, SUT has more than 10 students from Poland, Britain, Italy, the United States and the Philippines.

Sakaerat Environmental Research Station in Nakhon Ratchasima, a province in northeastern Thailand, is home to many activities including reptile and amphibian research. There, foreign students from SUT including Curtis Radcliffe and Cameron Hodges are conducting research on several kind of venomous snakes, a rare study subject in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

Sakaerat Research Station became a new home to 42-year-old British student Radcliffe, who is now engaged in a three-year doctoral research program in cobras.

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Radcliffe explains that snakes are very important to the ecological system as they play a significant role in Asian and African countries, where they control the population of rats, who eat and destroy crops.

Snakes also create a balance in the ecosystem by not only eating rats but also by controlling and preventing the spread of some diseases carried by them. So, they can help reduce the outbreak of dangerous diseases to humans.

Snakes are more often seen during the rainy season, and a full adult cobra can be as long as 4-5 meters. When a cobra makes a noise, it implies that the snake is warning its opponent not to come close to them. It is the animal instinct to protect themselves.

Hodges is a 26-year-old U.S. student now doing a three-year masters in environmental biology at SUT. He studies Malayan krait and banded krait. The Malayan krait is known to be one of the most dangerous and most venomous snakes of Thailand.

He told Kyodo News about how his passion about the dangerous animal developed. "When I was 8 years old, I used to start to look under rocks to try to find snakes, spiders, scorpions," he said.

Hodges got one krait for his research study so far. Once caught, the snake was implanted with a radio transmitter inside its stomach cavity. The snake will then be released back to nature, with its natural daily activity being tracked with a receiver.

To track the snake, he holds up the receiver's antenna to help locate where the snake is.

With the radio receiver, Cameron could learn how large its home range is and discover its activity patterns. Also, he can grasp what type of habitat it is choosing to live in, such as big or small trees, open ground or lots of dense vegetation.

A green pit viper's home range is less than a hectare, while that of a king cobra is approximately 800 hectares and a Malayan krait's is about 12 hectares.

According to Hodges, the Malayan krait's activity pattern is nocturnal. They are active at night around midnight and most of the time they hide under the ground.

Hodges explained his interest in venomous snakes in Southeast Asia stems from the fact that there has not been much research done and this is the region of the world where the rate of forest loss is fastest so the animals are in trouble. He wants to help educate the community and give a better understanding between human and snakes, which most Thais are very frightened by and often misunderstand.

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"A lot of people are bitten because they are trying to catch or kill the snake. And if they don't know how to do it safely then they will have a much higher chance of being bitten than if they have been trained," he explained.

"There is such a high density of people and high rate of habitat loss that people are moving closer to nature. Most of the people being bitten are people working in agriculture. I want to help them understand the snake better and know how to fix the problem in a safer way that does not hurt the snake but also keep them safer too," he added.

For people without good or basic knowledge about snakes the simplest way to catch them is by using a long stick, a so-called "grabber" with one end having a flat tape or rope and the other end hanging on to a string rope that can pull in and out to control the loosen the rope once the snake's head is trapped inside the flat rope. A grabber is good for a beginner as they can keep some distance from snake but it could hurt the snake if they tighten the rope too tight.

Snake experts say that, in general, venomous or non-venomous snakes are very afraid of humans and usually try to escape if they have a chance. Moreover, venomous snakes do not want to use their venom other than for digestive purposes because it takes a lot of energy to produce.

In medical science, snake venom is reportedly being actively studied as a treatment for a range of serious ailments including strokes.