Where did all the donkeys go?

Although pythons are often misunderstood, Abré J Steyn had a close encounter with one whose intentions he understood quite clearly.

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John Mafokeng stood apologetically in my office with his hat in his hands, turning it round and round.

His job was to look after a sizeable herd of donkeys used as food for an unusual pair of captive leopards that both carried a rare recessive gene, leading to one in every four of their cubs being pitch black – highly sought after by zoos everywhere.

John took his task very seriously, but according to him there was a problem. He reported that another young donkey foal had been found without its mother. It was the third lactating mare that had disappeared in a matter of weeks, leaving an orphan behind to be hand-reared.

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They simply vanished without a trace. In all the cases no remains were found, which ruled out the wild leopards in the area.

The nearby huge irrigation dam was teeming with crocodiles, but with the lower part of the somewhat sloping donkey camp still a kilometre from the water, they could also be dismissed as the culprits.

The camp, however, included an extended fisheries project consisting of 18 dams. Due to constant seepage, a large and very dense, swampy wetland with extensive reed-beds had formed below the most lowlying dam.

It was a wild and intimidating place, inhabited by large numbers of bushbuck, bushpig and cane rats. People seldom ventured there.

The sighting
One day, while hunting on my Honda bike with my trained black sparrowhawk, Natasja, my pointer dog Karlinka unintentionally flushed a guineafowl too far ahead of us.

It headed straight for this wetland, about 500m away. Although flying flatout, the hawk was unable to overtake the guineafowl before it reached the sanctuary of the reeds.

From afar, I saw the hawk diving into cover after it. I knew it had to follow them. Upon arrival, I found Karlinka, who ran ahead, rigidly on point at the edge of the reeds.

Hearing the hawk’s bells and wondering whether it had caught the guineafowl, I prepared to enter the dense vegetation, when a slight movement to the right caught my eye.

Even today I find it hard to believe what I saw. It was the biggest python I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty.

The enormous snake, almost as thick as a grown man’s waist, was stealthily stalking my dog. I knew if it got within striking distance, it would be all over in seconds.

I had to act fast. I shouted the dog’s command to flush, whereupon she leapt forward into the reeds, causing the birds to erupt and fly off, while she struggled to follow through the dense vegetation – fortunately away from the snake.

When I moved, I was surprised and a little alarmed to see the huge snake, with a kink in its neck and its head at least 1m off the ground, turn its attention to me and advance in a most deliberate way.

For a moment I was mesmerised by its flicking tongue, searching for my scent and by its thick, flabby lips, overstretched by years of swallowing large prey.

Although I didn’t believe it would try to eat me, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I flipped the bike’s gear-lever into reverse and, with spinning wheels, retreated some distance.

Startled by the commotion, the snake swung round and moved off in the direction from which it had come. Still in awe, I could watch it at leisure.

My past experience as a herpetologist who studied pythons as well as their habit to travel in a straight line, allowed me a fair estimate of its length, which I’m convinced was around 7m.

A slap in the face
Whether the enigma of the disappearing donkeys must be blamed on the giant pythons of this particular place, I’ll never know, although a python swallowing adult sitatunga, reedbuck and sub-adult waterbuck has been recorded.

Neither will I know whether this snake was really 7m long, despite the fact that I later caught and measured a 6m specimen which repeatedly preyed on half-grown ostriches.

It’s significant that the Guiness Book of Records lists an incredible 9,81m monster, shot in 1932 on the grounds of a school in the Ivory Coast, nogals by a woman, as the largest African python on record.

Whether any of the school children went AWOL at the time was, however, not recorded. Even if we classify the python as dangerous, of the 180 snake species in Southern Africa, 152 are not dangerous to humans, and, of these, 69 are totally harmless, with no venom at all.

Due to the immense power of a very large python, it’s indeed capable of killing a human and even swallowing a small child, but because a python always swallows any prey head-first, the rigidity and unique square design of an adult’s protruding shoulders will represent an insurmountable obstacle.

With no irrefutable proof ever produced, I consider these stories fictitious. This donkey camp experience happened 25 years ago, at a place where snakes of all kinds occurred in abundance.

Such large snakes are not only very rare today, but during the last 15 years, the number of snakes of all kinds has dwindled significantly.

Apart from the reasons for their apparent demise on a global scale, I think our general attitude towards the natural world, and snakes in particular, has much to do, not only with their decline, but with that of other species too.

We live in a time when we should realise that nothing in nature is redundant. Our wise Creator made everything for a purpose, which we, with our shortsightedness, can’t always fathom.

The beauty of function and design in nature takes my breath away. And snakes are one of His masterpieces. To label them as vile and repugnant and kill them on sight, is nothing but a slap in His face. To me snakes are neither evil nor ugly.

Instead, most are very beautiful and all are marvellously designed for their life’s function on earth. To some other vulnerable species, such as ground hornbills, secretary birds, several species of snake eagle and bateleurs, snakes form a significant part of their diet.

Maybe even more important is that most snakes, including young pythons, are rodent predators par excellence, able to slide down rodent holes and consume entire broods in a single sitting.

Without them, the world will soon be overrun by rats and mice.

Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 253 4822 or email [email protected].

Although this is a 6,7m reticulated python from Asia, its length and girth is about the same, but the size of its head is much smaller than the python I encountered.