Komodo Dragons and the Snake Cave

Hello everyone!

My name is Colin Keane and I graduated from UCC just over a year ago. This past year has not been easy in terms of gaining worthwhile employment with my dear zoology degree. A combination of a lack of animal related jobs along with stiff competition, for the rarities that do occasionally surface, make it extremely difficult to get work. Include in this the scraping of the post graduate grant a number of years ago and we get a picture of the sad reality for many young graduates out there. Gaining much needed experience with little or no money is one of the biggest challenges for any fresh graduate today. This summer I managed to get extremely lucky and gained vital experience in both my current career path and in field work.

Colin Keane with a reticulated python

Colin Keane with a reticulated python

I’ve been attempting to pursue a career in zoo keeping and a lack of practical experience has been a major issue. During summer 2011 I volunteered at the Kilkenny Reptile Zoo as part of my final year work placement module. I was here that I decided I’d like to make a career of zoo keeping if I could. It was through this work that I gained a paid summer contract with the zoo this year. As anyone will tell you getting a paid contract with little experience in zoo keeping is next to impossible and I was very fortunate to get it. While here I worked with a variety of snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises as well as poison dart frogs, tarantula’s, cane toads and scorpion’s. The job involved learning how to care for this wide variety of species, how to interact with them and how to educate the public about these animals in terms of conservation, biology, behaviour and ecology. It also involved tackling common misconceptions about reptiles and pushing the conservation of the natural world as a whole. For those of you seeking experience, the zoo is always willing to take people who are willing to work hard and who understand the message the zoo is trying to get across. If you’re interested here’s a link to their website where you can contact them about volunteering and I’d also suggest you give it a visit if you’ve never been before!

While working for the zoo I was offered the chance to take part in a fieldwork course in Indonesia which was organised by The Gerry Martin Project. Based in Bangalore, India, this project describes it’s self as “a movement that empowers conservation efforts by educating and inspiring people about the environment and wildlife”. They work in partnership with scientists, research stations and naturalists to combine education and learning with measurable conservation. The current topics the project are focusing on include venom research, snake rescue training, medical training for health care staff to help treat victims of snakebites and an education and awareness programme which covers snakebite protocol, conflict mitigation and conservation efforts. The group readily accepts volunteers to assist in current projects but will help volunteers develop projects of their choice as well. While most projects are based in herpetology participating in projects will allow volunteers to engage in all aspects of the projects including research and conservation studies, skill dependent work that contributes towards the growth and success of the particular project, education and awareness and a host of other activities. In short, you’ll gain invaluable transferable skills which you’ll use later in your career so don’t let the snakes and lizards scare you.

Adult Komodo Dragon

Adult Komodo Dragon

In addition to their long term goals the Gerry Martin Project also organise trips and expeditions to remote corners of the world. These are designed to contribute to conservation research in the field as well as give people the opportunity to see and experience some of the worlds most amazing places.  Their most recent trip was the Komodo herpetological trip which brought us to Indonesia, the home of the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) not to mention many other reptile species. This trip was both a fact finding mission for further trips as well as an introduction to herpetology in the field. The location allowed us to gain experience in a number of different habitats including paddy fields, mangrove forests, scrub bushland, jungle and coral reefs.

While these trips are open to anyone around the world we ended up with a total of 12 people taking part, 7 of which were Irish. We left Ireland on the 30th September and, after 24 hours delightful travelling, arrived in Denpasar International Airport, Bali. Our first day was spent relaxing in Ubud, getting to know one another and planning the evening excursion. Ubud is surrounded by paddy fields which gave us a high possibility of finding cobra’s on our first night. Sadly we didn’t find any cobra’s however we did find vine snakes (possible Ahaetulla prasina), green pit vipers (Trimeresurus albolabris) and two invasive species, the Asian common toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) and the giant African land snail (Achatina fulica).  The highlight of the night was finding a highly venomous Malayan krait or blue krait (Bungarus candidus). Under the guidance of James Hennessy (director of the Reptile Zoo) we learned how to correctly handle and interact with these snake species, all of which are venomous. The following day we took a flight to Flores Island before taking a 3 hour boat journey to Kanawa Island beach resort, where we’d be based for the next 3 days. The island itself was perfect in terms of different habitats and is gives a good base for anyone travelling to Komodo island and Rinca island.

Kanawa allowed us to do further night surveys in mangrove forests and scrub bush as well as snorkelling on the coral reef that surrounds the island. While the aim of the snorkelling was to hopefully see some species of sea snakes we didn’t find any during the day. The highlights for me were swimming with a black tip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and finding clown fish (Premnas biaculeatus). Each night we did a survey in a different habitat starting with the scrub bush where again we found a number of green pit vipers. The mangrove forest wasn’t really big enough to support a large number of species though we did spot kingfishers and a number of pigeons to my delight (FYP on woodpigeons). Nearly stepping on and then chasing a blue spotted stingray (Neotrygon kuhlii) was a highlight though on our return to the resort we found two sea kraits (Laticauda sp.). They were on land together meaning they were most likely mating. These highly venomous snakes are quite docile and can be free handled with care. Our final night was spent doing another survey for Russell’s viper’s (Daboia russelii) which was sadly a wild goose chase, which is a far more common result in terms of herp survey’s.

Team member with a sea krait

Team member with a sea krait

We left Kanawa during our two full days there to head to Komodo island the first day and Rinca island the second day. Komodo national park was, quite frankly, a bit of a let down. While we did spot a variety of wildlife, including one juvenile dragon in a tree, on our guided trail we saw no adult dragons. While we weren’t expecting many dragons due to the time of day the mystery of the missing dragons was soon solved. Your tour ends in a small built up area for tourists. Despite assurances from the guides that the dragons are no longer feed by the people here 6 adult dragons and a number of juveniles were clustered in or around the restaurant. The guides grasp of the dragon’s left an awful lot to be desired as well. Almost the second we saw the dragons our benevolent guides began trying to get us back to our boat and gone. One decided it was a good idea to start poking a large female with a big stick for our amusement which did not sit well with anyone. Combine this with the massive and out of place signage, sponsored by the local telephone company, on the trail and it made for a very disappointed group heading home. The following day we made for Rinca island which proved to be a far better option then Komodo. Extremely guides lead us on a much longer and more intense trail then the one found on Komodo. We found much more wildlife, as well as dragons, out on the trail. While it would be fair to say the guides might need to be better informed they didn’t mind when Gerry Martin took over from them and were quite happy to take their time will 11 camera’s clicked away. While we did see dragons clustered around the small village, most likely looking for food, we weren’t charged extra for camera’s here and the trail’s haven’t been destroyed by sponsored signage. Moral of the story, go to Rinca if you’ve a choice.

The following day we were up early and catching a boat back to Labuan Bajo on Flores. Upon arrival we checked into our new hotel before jumping on a bus which would take us deep into the country side so we could trek to see a bat cave. 3 hours of the most back jarring, bouncy and stupidly dangerous bus journey I’ve ever been on and we arrived at our drop off point. Locally the cave is called Istana Ular meaning snake cave. It was here we were hoping to find reticulated pythons (Python reticulatus). A trek through jungle followed, giving us a chance to practice our new survey skills. A painted bronzeback  (Dendrelaphis pictus), a common wolf snake (Lycodon capucinus), a common mock viper (Psammodynastes pulverulentus) and more green tree vipers were our reward. Once we got to the cave we found a reticulated python almost immediately. Well known for their aggressive nature these snakes should be approached with extreme caution. Just this once however we found the most well behaved python possible. Now to the cave to find more. Some of our less adventurous group members elected to stay outside. Having seen this cave on a couple of documentaries (see video) I was keen to get in there and found the entire experience hilarious. Looking for aggressive snakes in a cave with slippy guano (bat excrement) up past your knees might not be everyone’s cup of tea to be fair. The large numbers of bats were disturbed by the 7 or so idiotic humans wandering around their cave. They got plenty of target practice shall we say. Some advice to anyone planning a career in field work, invest in an extremely good head torch. Walking in a slippery cave full of guano holding a snake hook in one hand and a torch in the other is neither sensible or safe. Sadly we found only one python and going too far into the cave without an oxygen supply is extremely dangerous so we headed out and back to the bus after a quick wash in the river.

The following morning we flew back to Bali for a couple of days of being normal tourists. Over all I have to say the trip was very well organised and pretty cheap considering the wide range of thing we got to do. I gained valuable field experience in a pretty wide variety of habitats as well as learning an awful lot from the people on the trip. I couldn’t recommend a trip like this enough. For anyone seeking field experience I would highly recommend you look into the projects and volunteer opportunities run by the Gerry Martin Project. Not only will you gain experience and you’ll make contacts, you’ll almost certainly have the experience of a life time.

Over and out.

Colin Keane


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