The earliest memory I have of Burma, where I was born, is sitting on a warm tin roof on a sunny afternoon eating a small bowl of rice, overlooking my grandmother’s concrete-paved courtyard in Rangoon. I must have been about two and a half years old, and I could see my grandmother moving about just a few feet below me. I was happy and content. Over the years, my grandmother’s tales of Burma and her life there were some of the most vivid memories I have of her. I seem to think of her even more often as I have become a mother and now a grandmother myself.
Though she passed away in 1994, one story in particular stands out. It reminds me of the kind of woman she was: an amazing, strong and brave woman who was widowed at 45 with 9 children ranging in age from 1 to 18. Through her tenacity and sheer will at times, she survived and so did they – all eventually married, settled with good careers and most with children of their own. This is the line of women I am descended from – survivors – and when I remember her, she comforts me yet again with memories of her strength and resilience.
The story my grandmother told was of how she was busy in her kitchen one day, when she moved a coal sack in the corner. Up came a King Cobra from behind the sack, swaying and hissing at her, as only those snakes will do. What did she do? She grabbed a broom and shooed the snake out of her kitchen. As she said, it was her kitchen after all.
Snakes are a fact of life in Myanmar (Burma). There are more than 150 species of snakes in the country, and 40 of those are venomous. While King Cobras and Vipers are common, the most well-known snake of Myanmar is the Burmese python.
The Burmese python (Python bivittatus) is one of the five giant pythons in the world. These fast-growing animals are highly prized as pets and are popular in the global leather market for their attractive coloration and skin pattern. They are also sold for their highly sought-after value to folk medicine and in some parts of the world, such as China, for food.
Due to a decline in their overall population, the Burmese python has recently been listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The average length of a Burmese python is 12 feet, though they can grow to sizes of 23 feet or longer. Generally, they are black and brown with patterning, and are also found with yellow and albino coloring. Because of their rarity, pure white Burmese pythons with blue eyes are highly prized.
The Burmese Python as Predator
The Burmese python is a carnivorous predator. Its diet consists mostly of mammals and birds. In the wild, Burmese pythons have been known to attack and consume adult deer. In Florida, where Burmese pythons are an invasive species, there have even been incidents where pythons attack and eat alligators. In captivity, a python’s diet usually consists of rats, rabbits or poultry depending on its size and maturity. Since pythons can become fairly large, 15-20 feet or even longer, some larger pythons may require larger animals to eat, such as pigs or goats.
VIDEO (python and alligator):
How a Burmese Python Consumes Food
The Burmese python uses constriction to kill their prey, with animals dying of suffocation within just minutes. Like other snakes, the python’s rear-pointing teeth help to seize and hold its prey in place. The snake then wraps its body around its prey, and contracts its muscles to crush the prey. Once a python has consumed its kill, coating it in saliva as the meal goes down, it can take about 10 days to 2 weeks for the digestive process to complete. A large Burmese python would not need to eat again for about two months after a large meal.
Burmese pythons, like other snakes, have a lower jaw that is attached to the upper skull with just a small bone and highly elastic tendons, muscles and ligaments. This means that the lower jaw can drop and move almost independently of the upper skull because it is not attached tightly to the upper skull. Contrary to popular belief, the jaw of a Burmese python does not dislocate.
Burmese Pythons Habitat and Behavior
The Burmese python is native to a large area of Southeast Asia, and is found in parts of eastern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Vietnam. They are also reported in parts of Bali, Indonesia, Malaysia and some areas of Taiwan. Burmese pythons are considered semi-aquatic and powerful swimmers, and prefer to be near water sources. They are also capable of climbing trees and with prehensile tails, they can easily grasp and grip branches and other items.
Burmese pythons are nocturnal, and are most at home in tropical environments including the jungle, forest and savannahs. Pythons are also found in rocky areas if they have access to water and food sources.
Burmese Pythons Invade Florida
Since 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit coastal areas of Florida, the Florida Everglades have become home to what is estimated to be tens of thousands of Burmese pythons. It’s believed that a Burmese python breeding facility was destroyed during the hurricane, and that the python escapees contributed to the great population of pythons that now live in the Everglades. Due to the protected nature of Florida’s Everglades National Park, the pythons are thriving. They are also disrupting the delicate ecosystem of the region, which is home to numerous endangered animals and plants, including alligators. In the Florida Everglades, Burmese pythons are considered “Invasive Alien Species” – animals that have been introduced into a place that is outside of their natural range, where they become established, disperse and create a negative impact on the local ecosystem and species.
In fact, efforts are underway to control the python population in the Everglades. As a result, a new type of animal hunter has emerged – the “python hunter”. These python hunters are taking part in a special 2-month, $175,000 pilot program managed by the South Florida Water Management District to help rid Everglades National Park and surrounding areas of non-native species of pythons. More than a thousand applicants applied to the python hunting pilot program. Of these, 25 hunters have been selected who will be paid to euthanize pythons as part of their “hunting”.
Florida Everglades Python Impact
According to LeRoy Rodgers, an invasive species biologist with the Water Management District, pythons were first discovered in the Florida Everglades in the late 1970s and began appearing on Water Management District land in 2005.
The python has no natural predators in the Florida Everglades, known as the “river of grass”, with a climate that’s perfect for pythons to hide and thrive. While there are no precise population figures, it’s believed there are now tens of thousands of pythons living in Miami-Dade County’s ecosystem.
According to a 2012 research study led by John “J.D.” Willson of Virginia Tech University and Michael Dorcas of Davidson College, in partnership with the US Geological Survey, pythons in the Everglades may have caused severe declines in the populations of rabbits and foxes in just a few years. The study documents the impact of pythons in the area, and found that within 11 years of the establishment of this non-native species, the numbers of mid-sized mammals has been significantly affected. Their findings support significant alteration to the populations of raccoons, opossums and bobcats, which have dropped by as much as 99% in the area.
Willson states “Our research adds to the increasing evidence that predators, whether native or exotic, exert major influence on the structure of animal communities. The effects of declining mammal populations on the overall Everglades ecosystem, which extends well beyond the national park boundaries, are likely profound, but are probably complex and difficult to predict.”
Burmese pythons have also been discovered farther north in both Broward and Palm Beach counties.
My mother, in her semi-autobiographical memoir Where Flowers Bloom: Memories of Burma remembers snakes as a vivid part of her childhood. She writes of her striking memories of these incredible animals and the fear they struck in her childhood. Following is an excerpt from her book, in a chapter that tells the tale of a family member as he trekked through the jungles to escape the Japanese advancement into Burma during World War II:
It had been a hot steamy day, and the moisture of the heavy rain that had fallen previously rose out of the drenched earth in a mist, and drifted through the dense forest undergrowth. The vague notions of the Englishman, who called himself a geologist, had by now made my uncle lose faith in his ability to lead them to any area where they might find something with the slightest resemblance to mica. The closest they had come to it, was when they had been trekking in the area west of Mandalay, where the geologist had said there had been considerable earthquake activity in the past, and from around that location, they had scraped a few chips of mica, with which they had eventually returned.
Despondently trekking through soggy terrain, they were on their way back having finally decided to give up their mission. The Burmese workmen who had accompanied them were equally disappointed, and dragged their equipment along. Suddenly one of them shouted out:
“Aw homa kyi! homa kyi! Mway! Mway !”
“Oh Look there! Look there! Snake! Snake!”
Smoothly sliding across the path in front of them, was the body of a gigantic python, its muscles quivering as it slithered along. The beautiful patterns of brown and gold on a creamy background had them spellbound, and as the tapered end came into view one of the workers grabbed it and pulled. There was a crash as the creature recoiled and swung back its large head with its beady eyes inches from them. One of the other men had a sharp dah held ready in his hand and he lunged at the head. In an instant, the snake whipped its body around him and caused him to drop the implement.
“Grab him by the back of the head!” yelled my uncle. And my brother Arthur, leaping forward, grabbed the back of the snake’s head in a firm grip with both hands while my uncle picked up the dah, and with a quick sweep severed its head from its body. It was a few minutes before the python lay still, and when it did, it was laid out along the path and was found to measure almost twenty feet.