World Premiere: Reticulated Python Fit With Satellite Unit In Sabah

Pythons often receive scars when tackling large mammalian prey, as can be seen on the top of the head. This inspired the researchers to name her ‘Pilat’, meaning ‘scar’ in the Dusun language. - Photos copyright - Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC)
Pythons often receive scars when tackling large mammalian prey, as can be seen on the top of the head. This inspired the researchers to name her ‘Pilat’, meaning ‘scar’ in the Dusun language. – Photos copyright – Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC)

KINABATANGAN – A female reticulated python was fitted with a satellite unit last week near Danau Girang Field Centre, in Lot 6 of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS).

This is part of a collaborative project between the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC).

Benoit Gossens
Benoit Goossens

“This is the first time that a reticulated python is fit with a satellite unit,” said Dr Benoit Goossens, Director of Danau Girang Field Centre, in a joint statement issued by the Sabah Wildlife Department and DGFC on Sunday.

“The spatial information that we will gather from this python and others in the future will allow us to begin to understand how these animals are able to utilize their habitat, and give an idea of their home range,” added Goossens.

Pilat is expertly kept calm while Dr Laura Benedict operates on her tail. - Copyright: DGFC
Pilat is expertly kept calm while Dr Laura Benedict operates on her tail. – Copyright: DGFC

Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong is financially supporting this project. PhD student Richard Burger (registered at Cardiff University and attached to DGFC) and Malaysian wildlife veterinarian Dr Laura Benedict from the Wildlife Rescue Unit led the collaring operation.

Richard Burger, leader of the project said the reticulated python is the longest species of snake in the world, widely kept in zoos and as popular pets throughout the world, “yet we know so little about them in the wild.”

“Large pythons are very difficult to study as they are very secretive and camouflage experts, so it is very hard to find them in dense forests. This is why we currently have no idea of their population size or density.

The newly attached device can be seen here in relation to the large size of Pilat. The tag only weighs 1.3% of her body weight, so should not be difficult to carry around. - Picture: DGFC
The newly attached device can be seen here in relation to the large size of Pilat. The tag only weighs 1.3% of her body weight, so should not be difficult to carry around. – Picture: DGFC

“By attaching a GPS device we can begin to discover the secrets of how these enigmatic animals behave in their natural habitat, and this is vital in making management decisions about the species in the future,” added Burger.

“How much forest does a single python require, how much overlap is there between individual home ranges? These are important questions that we currently just don’t have an answer to. Hopefully, with this study, we can begin to find some answers,” concluded Burger.

Richard Burger (PhD student at Cardiff University and DGFC), Dr Laura Benedict and Wildlife Rescue Unit ranger carefully checking that the unit is well fixed on the tail of Pilat. - Picture: DGFC
Richard Burger (PhD student at Cardiff University and DGFC), Dr Laura Benedict and Wildlife Rescue Unit ranger carefully checking that the unit is well fixed on the tail of Pilat. – Picture: DGFC

The animal was caught near DGFC in the Kinabatangan and Wildlife Rescue Unit’s veterinarian Dr Laura Benedict carried out the operation.

“The snake was a female we called Pilat (meaning ‘scar’ in Dusun), weighing 11.3 kg and measuring 3.63 m,” said Laura.

“The GPS tag weighed 145 g and was affixed to the tail, so that it does not interfere with vital organs or movement. As the tag is smaller than the diameter of the snake’s body, any gap that the python moves through should in theory be large enough to allow the unit on the tail to pass through as well, without getting caught in the undergrowth,” she added.

Pilat being released where she was caught, the satellite tag can be seen at the end of the tail. - Picture: DGFC
Pilat being released where she was caught, the satellite tag can be seen at the end of the tail. – Picture: DGFC
Sen Nathan
Sen Nathan

“After the operation, the snake was kept for three days to monitor its health and then successfully released where it was initially caught. It will then be closely and visually monitored using VHF transmitter while GPS data will be transmitted by satellite.”

Dr Sen Nathan, Assistant Director of Sabah Wildlife Department and a collaborator on the project, had this to say:

“Wild reticulated pythons are heavily exploited, particularly in Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia, as their skins are a valuable commodity.

Pilat climbed in a tree after being released. (Picture: DGFC)
Pilat climbed in a tree after being released. – Picture: DGFC

“This trade has seen rapid expansion in recent years. CITES allows a quota of skins to be exported each year, but there is also a great deal of illegal leather trade activity that occurs, and an unknown number of animals are also killed out of fear or for meat.

“We cannot continue to remove hundreds of thousands of animals each year from their natural habitats if we don’t know anything about their ecology or population size; continual monitoring is essential for any species that is harvested in this way.”

Sen said it is important that this trade remain at a sustainable level, so that communities can continue to reap the financial benefits that the skin trade brings for many future generations, without causing the species to become endangered through a combination of over-harvesting and habitat loss.

Pilat climbed in a tree after being released. - Picture: DGFC
Pilat blends in with the environment as she climbs up a tree in freedom. – Picture: DGFC

Many people who live outside of cities may be familiar with this species, as they regularly come into villages, looking for rats to eat.

“They may occasionally take the odd chicken, but the ecosystem services that they provide people by eating rodents, and other pests, is probably severely underappreciated by most people,” remarked Sen.

“It should be reminded that pythons are listed under Appendix II of CITES and Schedule 2 of the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, meaning it is illegal to kill pythons without an official license,” he concluded.

A juvenile Reticulated Python photographed in the Danum Valley region in Sabah. - Photo from the internet by| Nick Garbutt
A juvenile Reticulated Python photographed in the Danum Valley region in Sabah. – Photo from the internet by| Nick Garbutt