Gi­ant pythons at­tack in In­done­sia, and con­sumersmight be to blame

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NATION & WORLD - By TheWash­ing­ton Post

In all the man- ver­sus­python 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 Sept. 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- foot­long 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 said. “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 said. “It’s not that the snakes are at­tack­ing. They’re just not ex­pect­ing peo­ple.”

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.

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