Pur­su­ing the Un­known Vipers of Guang­dong

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Jin Yi Pho­to­graphs by Xu Tingcheng Trans­la­tion by Trevor Pad­gett (CAN)

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.

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