Pursuing the Unknown Vipers of Guangdong
Recently an increasing number of people in China have become interested – obsessed, even – with filming and photographing wildlife. Compared to the popularity of birds, mammals, and insects, however, few have shown interest in aiming their cameras towards snakes. Scarce among the growing catalogue of wildlife images, other than famous species such as the king cobra, snakes are at once feared and avoided by most photographers. Confronting this imbalance, author Jin Yi, along with fellow snake enthusiasts Zhang Liang, a herpetologist, and nature photographer Xu Tingcheng, recently entered the lush but unforgiving karst forests of Guangdong in search of some of the rare and forgotten snakes of China. These “non-famous” snakes have special biological and ecological significance but remain largely unknown, even the people who live amongst them. Here, these important animals are brought to life.
Snakes living in the Shimentai Nature Reserve are generally nocturnal reptiles. With its protective color and vine-like body, the Asian vine snake can hardly be seen while hiding in branches and vines. When we find the one in the photo, we realize, from its attack position, that it noticed our approach much earlier. Photo/ Fu Ruojin
Throughout the world, snakes – particularly venomous ones – are greeted by most people two distinct, yet not dissimilar, reactions: disgust and fear. These reptiles seem secretive, and their ways evil or sinister. In the Chinese language there is an idiom
that almostpoetically conveys this relationship people have with them: 心如蛇蠍.
This roughly translates to “having a heart of a snake”; to be cold, hard, uncaring. Sinister. Evil.
I have enlisted the help of two special friends, herpetologist Zhang Liang and nature photographer Xu Tingcheng to help me dive deep into the mysterious world of these “sinister” and “evil” creatures. It is an effort to prove the idiom wrong; I want to show the world their beauty and mystique. Together we share an obsession with snakes and together have taken many journeys in search of the rare and little known serpents throughout China.
In 2015 we set out on our most recent adventure. We were headed to the Shimentai Nature Reserve, and a place of unique ecology deep within the karst region of Guangdong Province. It is a natural oasis, a place where thick sub-tropical forests coat rolling and jagged karst terrain that is besieged by monsoon rains for almost half a year.
Zhang Liang works with the Southern China Institute of Endangered Animals, a part of the Guangdong Academy of Sciences. He specializes in snakes, and according to his research the Shimentai forest is home to an extremely rare one – the horned pit viper (Protobothrops cornutus). Finding this snake is the main goal of our visit. Xu Tingcheng, our photographer, though a long time photographer was not always making a living at the end of a camera lens. He was once an experienced hepatobiliary surgeon, and for many years the hospital was his office. But passions have a way of nagging at your conscience, and after years of trying to push them aside he finally broke; out of the blue he one day resigned from his well-paying career, and permanently switched out his surgical tools for photographic ones, becoming a full-time nature photographer. Together, we now spend our time in search of China’s secret serpents.
The geographic distribution of or prime target, the horned pit viper, is, like the snake itself, unique and little known. The scant records that do exist tell a strange tale when drawn on a map. Unlike most species, it is difficult to find an “area” where they exist; instead of a band or range, the habitat of this viper appears as sporadic and scattered dots across Southeast Asia.
The horned pit viper was actually unknown to the world until the 1930’s, when researchers from Europe made the first collection of the species in Vietnam, a place much further south than Shimentai Nature Reserve, but in a similar karst ecosystem. The snake was then, and remains today, elusive; since that original collection very few have been reported. When I first saw the map of its supposed range, the vast gaps between the little splotches scattered on the map surprised and confused me. The empty spaces in between may in fact be home to many of these vipers – these vicious serpentine predators going unseen and unnoticed for generations – or it may be a viper wasteland. It is hard to know. As far as we can tell, nobody has taken the time to look.
Midnight Luck: Tracking the Horned Pit Viper
Shimentai Nature Reserve covers a lush and biodiverse piece of Guangdong Province, a unique piece of geography that has been left untrammeled by the economic engine of China. Leaving Yingde City, the reserve’s nearest city, we arrive at the reserve’s research station in the twilight of the early evening. Opening the car door, I am released from our air conditioned world and hit by a pulse of forbidding sub-tropical autumn heat and humidity. Thought the sun has set, I am enveloped by the thick heat that lingers. I wipe beads of sweat from my head and look out into the murky darkness. Silhouetted trees wave in the breeze, and I close my eyes to absorb the feeling and sounds of the early night.
There are many other rarely seen reptiles living in the karst lands of northern Guangdong. Chinese cave gecko, an ornate reptile, so far found only in northern Guangdong, stays motionlessly on the moss-covered rock. Its red eyes have earned itself the nickname “red-eye demon” among herpetology fans. Photo/ Fu Ruojin
Zhang Liang has no time to absorb; his obsessive goal to find a horned pit viper keeps his mind in gear, and there is for him no time for gazing – unless it is at a snake. He is packed and ready, and less than calmly waits for me break my spell and join him along the trail. I sense his excitement. I open my eyes, shut the door, pick up my gear, and follow with him into the darkening forest.
It is not a long trek from the groomed grounds of the research station to the edge of the virgin forest. As we push aside lianas and crawl over a few fallen trees we are soon engulfed by the forest. Instantly, as if our welcoming party, we are rewarded with a pair of ornate Chinese cave geckos (Goniurosaurus yingdeensis). Motionless, their unnerving blood-red eyes stand out against the pale grey of the limestone upon which they are perched. These unearthly eyes are imposing, and justifiably have led many to refer to them “red-eyed devils”. Others call them tigers; no matter their name nor the eerie mercury-like eyes that stare back as they cling in uncanny defiance to gravity, there is one thing that is obvious – their beauty.
As inferred from the Latin name – yingdeensis – the Chinese cave gecko is endemic to this region, found only in a narrow band of geography in these karst forests around Yingde. Being almost entirely nocturnal they are seldom encountered; researchers specifically searching them out are even lucky to find a single individual. In fact, it was only recently, in 2010, that this species was first discovered by Wang Yingyong and his team of researchers in the department of zoology at Sun Yat-sen University. It is a stunning reminder that the forest we are in remains largely unexplored. However, before we can take a single photo the gecko retreats to the safety of a crevice in the rock and disappears. We share smiles - just seeing it has made the trip a success.
We busy ourselves the following morning with important tasks such as resting, snacking, packing, and a bit more rest. The trek we have planned is going to be long and hot, and will have us weaving through the forest for most of the night. If we want rest, now is the time to get it. But by lunch, a mix of boredom and anxiety crescendos and we are ready to go – we can rest later. We set out along the same trail we sampled last night and hike for more than 10 kilometers, broiling under the midday sun as we sink deeper and deeper into the forest. Soon the canopy grows dense, and blocks most of the light turning the daytime forest dark.
Called “the most mysterious viper” by herpetology aficionados, the horned pit viper is a snake little understood by even researchers, let alone by common snake seekers. However, if you do meet one in the wild (just like the author and photographers), keep in mind that this bad-tempered snake is highly dangerous. The loreal pits on its head allow it to sense even the heat radiated from your flashlight, meaning that it can locate and attack immediately, before you have any idea you should react.
We are treating the daytime portion of our trek as a means to cover ground. Reptiles are not usually active during the daytime, and as such we harbor no expectations of finding anything spectacular until dusk sets in. We are proven wrong: in front of us, wrapped around a tree branch is a well camouflaged Asian vine snake (Ahaetulla prasina). Its nimble tail, adapted for arboreal life, coils securely around the branch and
holds its slender body suspended in the understory. It remains motionless, but not emotionless; its eyes watch us intently, and appear unamused at being discovered among the thick tangle of foliage. Knowing its reputation as a violent attacker, we approach in slow motion. But it knows our game. With each step closer it slowly raises its head, assuming attack position.
Zhang Liang was once bitten by such snake, fortunately, Asian vine snakes’ fangs, the specialized hollowed structures that feed their venom into the body of their prey, are located in the back of their mouths, not in the front. Eating mostly small prey such as frogs and lizards, these rear fangs are adapted to only inject venom after the prey is secured in the mouth – not before. Larger animals, Zhang Liang’s hand included, are not worth their precious venom.
We bid farewell to the vine snake and continue deeper into the forest. As dusk falls we find ourselves approaching a small Yao settlement. We meet some of the villagers along the trail and ask about the horned viper. They instantly perk up when we mention its name, and tell us that it indeed lives in their forest. No one, however, has ever seen it. Perhaps sensing our excitement, and apprehension, as they start to leave one villager turns back around and says “it is here, you just need to find it”.
As night finally falls, the nocturnal cast comes to life. Animals unseen and unheard during the day scamper through the canopy and fill the darkness with their sounds. The forest is now completely dark; the trail meanders along the front of a mountain ridge, and the towering limestone conspires with the impenetrable canopy to keep the meager moonlight away. In the darkness the trail narrow sand begins weaving us through an increasingly rugged terrain. Each step is taken with care.
Life in this karst region is difficult. Other than a small footprint of the Yao villages there is little human activity – we are pushing through a land mostly untouched, primarily because of its rugged inhospitality. But not completely untouched. Driven by money and the lure of riches from poaching and illegal logging, people find their way into the most inhospitable of places. The establishment of the nature reserve, for now, is keeping it wild. Southwestern China is assailed by insatiable urbanization, and both legal and illegal hunting and logging becoming lucrative options as roads dig deeper into the once wild wilderness. The Shimentai Nature Reserve is one of the last places for animals to run wild and free.
Two kilometers further we meet our second Yingde gecko, a beautiful female. Unlike the first, this one gives no hint that she wants to leave. She just sits and lets us watch. The life of a nature photographer is rarely filled with such opportunities – often you are left chasing, or taking awkward and unfulfilling photos as your subject dives, runs, climbs, slithers, digs, or flies away. To find a beautiful, rare, and calm gecko is a surprise, a delight, and we take time photographing it. Not far away I find another, red-eyed and alert as it peers off into the black forest.
The horned pit viper is dangerous and its venom causes intense pain and, if bitten, you need to find a hospital as soon as possible. However, there is another type of snake venom neurotoxin found in some poisonous snakes, such as the Chinese krait, which is the most poisonous snake species in China. You feel nothing when bitten by a Chinese krait but you gradually lose consciousness and die of respiratory failure. Hence, even the bravest person would not dare to interrupt the large Chinese krait in the photo, which is in the process of swallowing its prey—another snake.
Following the gecko’s gaze, we continue along the narrowing path. Our steps begin to slow as the ground becomes rougher and the trail begins to fade. Soon it is gone, and nothing but gnarly rock fans out before us. It is a sea of jumbled stone, cloaked in darkness. Through it we move like monkeys, leaping from one moss covered slab to another, avoiding the jagged abysses between. Anyone who has experienced hiking in karst regions knows this movement well, and is painfully aware of how tiring and unbearable it can be during the day, let alone at night. I am the leading monkey, and with each jump taking us deeper into the stone sea, I realize that – as far as I can see – it will not end soon. I stand on a small rock and pause. I look out into the blackness of the forest, and see only rock and moss. My chest heaving, legs pounding in pain, and my camera tucked away for safety, I realize that this is no way to find our snake. We have already hiked for six or seven hours to get here, and we still have the long return trek ahead of. I make the call to retreat. We all turn, and together we hop and clamber back across to the trail.
Trips like this are expected to be hit and miss. Being at the whim of nature, success or failure are equally possible outcomes. A vine snake, a few geckos, and a long eerie trek through a damp and dark forest were certainly enjoyable, but as we began our return trek to the research station we all feel a slight unease. We are aware that we missed our goal: no horned viper. But the luck of the forest is fickle, and courage and determination to continue looking must be tempered with courage to give in, to consider safety first, and let the forest win.
Exhausted, as the trail weaves us back through the forest we keep our eyes down and focus on the trail, all but ignoring the world around us. The drive, the preparation, the adrenaline spikes, the hike, the heat, and now the long march home have all taken everything out of us. The thin crescent moon that had periodically given us slight advantage over the darkness finally sets, and we are alone with the blackness of night.
The midnight forest is hot, and with no wind penetrating the trees we are left drenched in sweat. When we finally return to the gecko, I nod a friendly hello and take a moment to wipe the sweat from my face. In doing so my eyes wander, and notice something odd in the tree above it. Something in the silhouetted jumble of trees and lianas sways, but there is no wind. I lean in closer, pressing my hand against the rough rock and hold tight. The gecko remains still, and I feel drips of sweat trickle off my chin as I point my headlamp up. I am awakened by a jolt of adrenaline – snake!
I am familiar with Chinese snakes, but in the light of my headlamp the patterns and colors adorning this snake seem unfamiliar. My mind quickly rolls through a catalogue of familiar species, but comes up blank. The snake raises its head, and I can’t help but notice its pair of horns. Zhang Liang leans in, his headlamp joining mine. He shares my amazement, but he is not at a loss for a name: “That’s it!”, he whispers excitedly. It is no stranger – we have found the horned pit viper, one of Asia’s most mysterious, and venomous, snakes.
The forest is silent, and I restrain an urge to cry out in excitement. I wave Xu Tingcheng over, silently but frantically swatting the thick evening air. I dare not take my eyes off the snake, and soon the metallic clank of camera lenses fills the forest with sound.
Xu slowly clears a few branches that are obstructing his photos. His movements are careful, purposeful, and crafted; every move at this point is important, both for his own safety and so as not to scare away the precious snake. Zhang Liang crouches down to get a different angle, leaning against a tree trunk as his wet hands click the shutter while reminding us: “this not the same as that green snake earlier, this one is…temperamental”.
In all our adventures together, this is the first time he has ever warned us to be careful. It is with good reason: the horned pit viper is known for its short temper. More importantly, I recall with a tinge of fear, there is no anti-venin; in the event of a bite, even if we could manage to make it to a hospital in time there would be no reprieve waiting for us. Not only are they temperamental, they are also expert predators; the “pits” on the viper’s head can perceive heat, and help it to judge distance allowing it to accurately strike from impressive distances. Even when you think you are safe you are still in danger. This snake, in all its beauty, is a disaster waiting in the woods.
A triangular head and a relatively short and thick body are typical features of a pit viper. The one in the photo is called a Chinese mountain pit viper, but it is rarely found in China. The few sightings in the wild were reported in Guangdong. Perhaps people will find other habitats in the future. Photo/ Li Runlin
“Hold the light further away!” Zhang Liang sputters. Startled, I retreat, not sure if I am too close to the snake for his comfort or if I am simply flooding his shot with light. Either way, I am reminded that I am in good company. Both he and Xu Tingcheng are very experienced, particularly with deadly snakes, and having them with me puts my mind at ease. I trade off light-holding duties with Xu Tingcheng, grab my own camera and begin shooting.
Through my camera lens the ferocity of the snake is obvious. Yet, such a close view makes it also seem unearthly: its head violently triangular, like a spear tip, with protruding eye set upon the corners; its mouth like a coral reef parrotfish, sharp and purposeful; and two bulging symmetrical heat-sensing pits saddle its head. The eyes seem out of place, set upon the corners of the spear-like head, and I wonder if their position has a special role, offering some advantage. I assume they do, that there is an evolutionary advantage to eyes in such a seemingly dislocated position, but I don’t dwell on the thought. Not for now, at least. Right now, my goal is to photograph.
I press the shutter and quickly check the screen – a perfect image! My happiness, however, is short lived. Beside me Zhang Liang lets out a haunting gasp, and I look up to see him in mid fall, awkwardly holding his camera in one hand and grasping the sharp rocks with the other for balance. The snake startles, and flees. This elicits more gasps, this time from all three of us, because it is fleeing towards us, not away. It flies out of the trees like a spear, fakes towards me and then twists and heads towards Zhang Liang and Xu Tingcheng. Years of hiking have kept them agile, and years of experience with snakes have kept them prepared – they lean and crouch, as if in a limbo contest, and manage to dodge it. The snake doesn’t pause, it just keeps going and then, in an instant, it is gone. Adrenaline pounding through our bodies, we strain to find it in the underbrush but quickly realize that the moment is over– our viper has disappeared. We share a glance, and then a smile, and wipe the dripping sweat from our faces. Silence returns to the night.
Serpents by the Lake
An hour later we come to a small clearing and take a break.xu Tingcheng takes out his camera and relives the encounter with the viper – his pictures are stunning. He has won the lottery, and he knows it; a rare animal, of which so little is known, on his camera screen. Perhaps that is an unjust comparison. The lottery must be won by somebody; this snake, in comparison, could have remained hidden. Was it not for our determination, and the luck of pausing by the gecko, this snake would be just another on a long list of wishes.
I lean over his shoulder and share in his joy. Photographing snakes, particularly venomous ones such as the horned pit viper, might cause the average person to reel in disgust or fear – snakes are certainly not the world’s favorite animal – but he, like Zhang Liang and I, find joy in the danger, an elated feeling that can only be explained by that experience. And as excited we might be that the night finally gave us our viper, we soon found that the night is not yet over. Out of a slight mix of fate and mishap, our luck continues.
Having originally decided to go as light as possible, we abandoned our full packs at the station and set out with only water and camera gear. After hours of hiking and scrambling over jagged and trail-less karst rock in the humid heat of the night, we are parched and hungry. Our hunger would have to wait, but according to our map water
could be found in a nearby pond. Arriving at the pond edge, we are elated at the sight of water and as we hunch over to fill up our empty bottles, we are treated to another surprise: a nearly 1.5 meter long black and white body in a tree, twisting, flopping, and eventually tumbling to the ground. It is a Chinese krait (Bungarus multicinctus), a surprise on its own, but made more exceptional by the reason for its tumbling and twisting – it is tightly coiled around a second snake, a Chinese mountain keelback (Opisthotropis latouchii), in a deathly battle.
The Chinese krait is widely regarded as the most venomous snake in China. Its venom is a neurotoxin, and only 1milligram is enough to kill a human. This is scary. More frightening still is that fact that their bite is often superficial and not overly painful, often causing only a slight numbness. Their bite is often not even noticed. This is terrifyingly dangerous because in the case of any venomous snake, let alone the most venomous, moments wasted in obtaining the anti-venin is the difference between life and death.
Compared to the horned pit viper, the Chinese krait is an almost certain death sentence in terms of the toxicity of their venom. The snake before us has enough in its mouth right now to kill the three of us, if it wanted. There is, however, a stark contrast in the demeanor of the two snakes; while the horned pit viper is fiery and impulsive, the Chinese krait is calm and tactical. Our main concern while watching this mild-mannered lethal predator is not us, but it. We move quietly and slowly, so as to not scare it and cause it to release its prey and flee. Even for a tempered killer, finding a meal is not easy. We don’t want to deprive it of this hard earned feast.
Soon the keelback stops struggling. The battle is over. The krait’s venom has done its work, efficiently shutting down the keelback’s nervous system and leaving it without fight. Releasing it, the Chinese krait begins to consume it, slurping up the keelback’s elongated torso head first. Fast, succinct, and final. I have seen on documentaries before the King Cobra (Ophiophagus Hannah) consuming prey in similar fashion, but I never expected to see the same scene play out before me. Especially not in the same night as a horned pit viper.
The Secret White-headed Viper
We return to the trail, bottles and cameras filled, and continue our way home. When we are nearing the research station I hear Xu Tingching yell out, startlingly loud. His voice catches me off guard. Normally calm and reserved during these night hikes, he never breaks the unwritten rule of nature photographers: never break the silence of the forest. Yet, he did. With emotion. I can only assume that he is in danger or has found something special and worthy of the rule breaking outburst, so I too dispose of convention and hastily run to his side.
He grabs my shoulder tightly and points to the ground. My eyes follow and at first see nothing but the forest floor. Then I see a snake, trying to make its way out of a
depression along the side of the trail. It’s coming towards us. A dark body with orange stripes, it is topped with a white head and I know right away what we have stumbled upon – the extremely rare white-headed viper!
The habitat of the white-headed viper actually covers three countries – Vietnam, Myanmar, and western China – at elevations between 200 and 1600 meters. While their range may be large geographically, recorded sightings are painfully few. The majority of them being made in low karst mountains, the very same topography we are hiking through. It was not until 1988, in the Kachin Hills of Myanmar, that the white-headed viper was even discovered. Based on its unique anatomical characteristics, feeding habits, and venom chemistry, most herpetologists believe that this is the most primitive of vipers, earning them their own taxonomical group – the white-headed viper sub-family, Azemiopinae, and genus, Azemiops.
Ten years ago, when I first met Xu Tingcheng, he had mentioned that photographing a white-headed viper was his dream. I did not understand at the time why he had such a fascination with the species – its range is large and covers diverse landscapes and multiple countries, and though they are certainly rare, there are nonetheless many photographs of them already in the literature. Were there not other more spectacular snakes to search out?
It turns out that he knew more of the story than I did. In 2013, researchers divided the white-headed viper into two unique types – two different species: the type found in China, west of the Red River in Yunnan Province was renamed the black viper, Azemiops feae; the type only found east of the Red River, the same one at our feet, retained the name white-headed viper, Azemiops kharini. So this snake is not actually distributed throughout mainland southeast Asia as I had thought. It is a surreal addition to our already successful trip, and to be with a friend as they meet their dream species makes it all the more fulfilling.
White-headed vipers, like many snakes, are mostly nocturnal. Their affinity for the nighttime is not necessarily because of a penchant for darkness, but rather temperature regulation; they are not physiologically equipped to deal with extreme heat, and during the peak of the day retreat to cool underground burrows. If the temperature drops too low, however, they are also known to go into partial hibernation. They are at the whim of the weather, and the demands that the heat puts on them means that despite their range being quite large and diverse, they are often hard to find.
But we found one. It is foiled by the steep slope and slips back down to the rocky bottom. It appears to be trapped, or at least troubled, by the slight swale it has found itself in. It eventually takes a break, settles and waits, and we are given a great opportunity to photograph. The bright head gives it a balding appearance in contrast
with the deep rich colors of its body and tail. Looking closely, I notice that it’s head is not entirely white. Dull brown patterns cover both sides, and it has a faint orange tinge, as if painted with a watercolor and left in the rain. Its flicking tongue is a curious mix of red, yellow and black.
Still in shock by the sudden, and repeated, good luck, we remain vigilant to the reality of what is before us: there is a viper at our feet. White-headed vipers appear tame, but their venom is quite toxic and they are not afraid to protect themselves. Like the horned pit viper, the white-headed viper is not common enough for hospitals to carry anti-venin. A bite by either would be deadly.
“It seems like we have a dangerous job, but it’s really actually easy”, Zhang Liang later tells me. Flipping through photos and re-living tales from the field – particularly the bloody bite that started our trip– it is understandable that people perceive our pursuit as dangerous, or even reckless. Add to the mix the lack of anti-venin, the distance to hospitals, and that most treks take place in remote forests during the dead of the night, it is certainly, on paper, a job that chases death. Its little wonder that compared to other animals, snakes continually rank lowest in terms of number of published studies and recordedobservations. Yet snakes are ecologically some of the most important species of the forest. To us, seeking them out and bringing them to the eyes of the world is a risk worth taking.
It is well past midnight when we say goodbye to the viper. We help it out of the gully, and send it north. We turn and head south. As we follow the trail into the blackness, Zhang Liang says: “This is the first recorded white-headed viper in the Shimentai Nature Reserve…”. His voice trails off. Xu Tingcheng smiles. I remind myself to write the idea down in my notebook when we get home. We finish the walk in silence.
Back in Guangzhou, both Zhang Liang and Xu Tingcheng confirm that ours was the first sighting of a white-headed viper in that region of China. We share in the elation that we have not just taken pictures, but also added to the body of knowledge of a reclusive species. We went all the way to the middle of nowhere to photograph these rare but ‘non-famous’ snakes, and though they may deviate from what the public wants – the famous and the revered – these are more important. Rare, hidden, and reclusive, these snakes may remain unknown for some time. To properly understand these snakes will take not only time and effort, but more importantly the single vital ingredient many people lack – determination. And, of course, a little luck.
And that, perhaps, is the lesson the snakes wanted to teach us all along.