A reticulated python is taken care by his keeper Maryoto at Curugsewu recreational Park, in Kendal, Central Java, Indonesia, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2003. The 15-meter (49.21 feet) long, 447-kilogram (985 pound) snake was captured in Jambi province in Sumatera island last year but only recently put on public display. If confirmed, it would be the largest snake ever kept in captivity. (AP Photo)
In all the man-versus-python stories, the snake is almost always the coldblooded antagonist.
Reticulated pythons like the ones involved in two attacks in Indonesia this year are among the world’s longest and strongest. They kill by coiling around their prey and squeezing until its heart stops. Then the serpents swallow their victims whole.
It’s certainly the stuff of villains. Even when the end result isn’t death, the attacks often make international headlines.
But scientists and snake lovers say the strikes may be more than just alarming stories about reptilian foes. They may be the indirect result of our global food chain’s insatiable desire for an inexpensive product.
The latest snake attack victim was Robert Nababan, according to Metro.co.uk. On September 30, he was riding his moped home from his security job at an oil palm tree farm in Indonesia when he came across a gigantic python lying across the road – and tried to move it.
Accounts diverge from there. Some say he was simply trying to clear the road; others say he was trying to capture the snake.
What happened next is not in dispute: The python latched onto his arm and began to coil, the reports say. At some point, it also bit his head. He was able to dislodge the animal, possibly with a machete, but not before he was seriously injured.
He was rushed to a hospital where doctors treated him. His snake attack story rocketed around the globe.
He survived, unlike a python attack victim in Indonesia earlier this year. Villagers on the island of Sulawesi went searching for a man who never returned from a palm oil fruit harvest in March. Instead, they found scattered pieces of fruit, a picking tool, a boot and a 23-foot-long python, swollen from a recent meal.
When they sliced the snake open, they found the missing man, dead and covered in reptilian digestive juices.
The attacks are more than just the result of unsuspecting people who stumbled upon slithering snakes. And the causes may indirectly stretch all the way across the globe, to a grocery store near you stocked with shampoo or ice cream or chocolate, or some other product made with palm oil.
By some estimates, half of all things found in grocery stores are made with the fruit of the palm oil plant, a versatile and cheap ingredient that happens to grow best in areas of the world where reticulated pythons thrive.
Because producing palm oil is so lucrative, plantations have razed giant swaths of rain forest to make room for the cash crop.
It’s sparking an environmental crisis in Indonesia, an aggregation of thousands of islands that contains the third-largest chunk of the world’s rain forests, behind Brazil and Congo.
Most of the world’s palm oil is harvested from two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, with devastating effects.
By 2012, the amount of deforestation in Indonesia was estimated to be higher than the amount of deforestation in Brazil, according to a research paper in Nature Climate Change.
“Much of this palm oil is produced in ways that involve the destruction of tropical forests and peatlands, adding to global warming emissions and reducing habitat for many already threatened species, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The effects on the climate are well documented, but there’s another, unintended consequence, says Doug Boucher, a scientific adviser for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The plantations increase the chances that Indonesians will come in contact with a snake.
“They’re not coming after us,” he told The Washington Post. “In various ways, either directly or by our actions with changing land use, we’re coming after them.”
It’s more complex than deforestation eating away at the snakes’ habitat, Boucher said. The palm oil plants are a magnet for rodents and other small animals that feed on the fatty, energy-dense fruit.
And the snakes hunt the rats.
“You have these sudden encounters,” Boucher told The Post. “It’s not that the snakes are attacking. They’re just not expecting people.”
The results are often bad for the people, but can have a devastating effect on snakes.
The one that attacked Nababan last month didn’t get away.
According to police, as the man was whisked off to the hospital, villagers took the newly dead snake home and strung it up between two trees.
Pictures spread of a child straddling the snake corpse, riding it like a horse.
Afterward, the report said, the villagers cut the snake into small pieces, fried it and made a meal of it.