Snakes invading Bangkok homes, thanks to urban sprawl

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CC BY 2.0 AdenArdenrich

The fire department had received 31,801 calls this year for help in removing snakes, three times as many as in 2012.

Eight-foot long pythons rising from the toilet to sink their fangs into the flesh of an unsuspecting toiletee is the stuff of urban legends ... except that it is also the stuff of truth in places like Bangkok, Thailand. And the appearance of snakes in homes is an occurance that is increasing in the city, according to a recent story by Richard C. Paddock and Ryn Jirenuwat in The New York Times:

It could be argued that snakes have always owned this corner of Thailand, and that the people of Bangkok are merely borrowing it from them. The main airport, Suvarnabhumi, was built in a place called Cobra Swamp, and the city itself took shape on the Chao Phraya River delta — a marshy reptile paradise.

But this year, the Bangkok Fire and Rescue Department, which removes snakes from homes, has been busier than ever.

As of The Times report, the fire department had logged 31,801 calls so far this year for panicked residents looking for help in removing snakes. Last year there were 29,919 calls; in 2012 just 10,492. On one recent day alone, the fire department was called 173 times for snakes. On the same day, they had five fire alarms. “There’s no way we could survive if there were more fires than snakes,” said Prayul Krongyos, the department’s deputy director.

And as The Times points out, those numbers don't include the many snakes killed or removed by residents without the help of the fire department.

While the fact that it has been a wet year has likely added to the snakepocalypse – the expanding city is also to blame. With more than 8.2 million people, the city already takes up 605.7 square miles (1,568.7 square kilometres) of space in the delta. As the manmade environment inches into previously wild places, it's not like the snakes are just going to run in the other direction. And as Prayul notes, most of the calls are coming from developments on the edge of the city where housing is creeping into the snakes' dwindling domain.

“When people build houses in their habitat, of course they will seek a dry spot in people’s houses because they can’t go anywhere else,” he says.

Nonn Panitvong, a biodiversity expert and leader in efforts to help people identify snakes rather than just kill them, echos the observation. “In Thailand, homes continue to expand into the natural environment," he says, "so there will be always more snakes in the homes." It's a problem that humankind is seeing wherever we plough into habitats of other creatures – bears and coyotes come to mind for those of us in North America. We conquer their neck of the woods, then when they appear in our yards (which were previously theirs) we freak out and shoot them.

But in Bangkok it might not be all grim news for the snakes; loss of habitat aside. (Which is pretty grim.) They reportedly perform helpful services in keeping rodent populations down, and are considered by some to be a sign of good luck. With efforts like Nonn's identification project and the fact that most of the snakes rescued by firefighters are taken to a wildlife center and later released back to the wild, it's evident that some compassion for the reptiles clearly exists.

Still, the poor snakes. It's not their fault that we have invaded their turf; and unless we point our sprawl skyward and build denser cities, we are going to continue having to deal with sharing the space with the creatures that lived there before us. If that means 8-foot long snakes in the toilet, maybe they can serve as a cautionary tale and we can start thinking twice about ravishing every last wild place left on the planet.

Snakes invading Bangkok homes, thanks to urban sprawl
The fire department had received 31,801 calls this year for help in removing snakes, three times as many as in 2012.

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