"Snake killed after eating woman"
Louke Nieman talks to snake expert Roel Wouters about the recent reporting on an incident where a snake ate a woman. He sought to soothe the sensation surrounding the snake by posting an informative Instagram story. Should this happen more often?
The title of this story paints a completely different picture as displayed in the news at the end of last October. A woman was eaten by a python on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This is obviously horrible news that indeed needs to be shared. Unfortunately, the snake and all of its fellow snakes are mostly slandered in the process. News is portrayed as if incidents like this happen very often, or that all snake species are similarly dangerous to humans.
Some of these news articles talk about an hour-long struggle that was incredibly painful for the victim, and the snake is painted as a heartless beast that robs a grandmother of her life. A chief of a village nearby, who wasn’t there and of whom no more credentials are being given, gladly confirms these stories.
And yes, the snake did attack and eventually ate a woman, but this isn’t some psychopath that consciously targeted a grandmother. It was simply an animal that was hungry and found some prey.
Roel Wouters, a master student at Leiden University, was also not happy with the way the news was brought. He posted a story on Instagram in which he talked about his frustrations. He mostly spoke about the sensationalization of these incidents and how fear is being fueled by nonsense stories. An Instagram story disappears after 24 hours, so I wanted to immortalize his words and asked him for an interview.
His answer as to why he posted it as a disappearing story and not as an infamous ‘reel’ he answered: “Instagram posts are for nice pictures. Instagram stories are looked at more often and are more for everybody who wants to know whatever I’m doing now. This specific story was for whatever fool wanted to listen, and a little bit for the journalists that follow me. Reels are annoying so I’m not participating in that trend.”. He’s already had many responses to his story, and was happy with this interview. “Usually I’ll write a column that won’t be published, so I’m happy that at least one journalist picked it up.”
The importance of snakes
In his story Roel talked about the role of snakes in their ecosystem and how they could help people. “It is of the utmost importance to understand the ecology behind these type of animal. Unfortunately, not enough research has been done. The Lancet did publish an article in 2020 about the importance of this topic.”
This article was placed in the medical context: by understanding the ecology of snakes we can prevent snakebites more. For humans, there is another positive thing that snakes can bring. Wouters helped to research the influence of snakes on the harvest of plantations in the area of the incident. It hasn’t been published yet, but he can give some spoilers: “We either took away snakes from plantations or added them, and we also put down fake snakes. On plantations without (fake) snakes the harvest often failed because of rats eating it.”
The snakes thus ensure that there are less rats. This happens by predation, but also by simply being present. Prey will often become scared of the idea of a predator, causing the population to remain in control without a predator doing anything. So you could say it is even beneficial for farmers when there are snakes on their plantations.
Fear and beauty
However, most people will still be afraid of snakes. Wouters is still optimistic: “I have given workshops to show that snakes aren’t that scary. A 16-year-old boy that has been afraid of snakes his entire life held a snake after only 15 minutes of talking to him.” Wouters hopes that these workshops will cause people to be less afraid and thus make them less likely to attack snakes. He also hopes that people will be attacked less if they understand snakes better: “The difference between fear and beauty is knowledge.”.
Wouters himself has snakes as pets, so he doesn’t fear snakes at all. He also doesn’t lack knowledge. Facts about the snake that killed the woman, probably a python species, were easy for him to come up with. “It is the most basal group of snakes, with a large area as their habitat. Pythons are the only snake species that have two rudimentary nails that are left over from historical legs. And they have two grooves at the front of their heads with which they can sense infrared. This way they can perceive their warm-blooded prey.”
Although pythons are the largest snake species in the world, humans are usually not on the menu. Rats and mice are simply easier to catch. In the future, Wouters would rather want the media to call a snake expert to talk about the snake when covering these incidents. “I don’t want to slander the media, but there is a severe lack of expertise from time to time.”
Snakes are interesting animals that haven’t been researched enough. To add fuel to the fire is not very productive, certainly not when snakes could be beneficial for humans and the ecosystem. The fact that these incidents have happened is horrible, but hopefully we will gather more knowledge to be able to appreciate snakes and ensure that incidents like these won’t happen again.