Category Archives: Wildlife of the World

The Snakemaster Speaks: A Conversation with Austin Stevens

No one knows snakes like Austin Stevens.

When his program Austin Steven’s “Snakemaster” debuted on Animal Planet a decade ago, wildlife enthusiasts around the world were mesmerized not only with the serpents he encountered on film, but of Steven’s deep passion and knowledge of the subject matter.

Stevens has just released his latest book Austin Stevens: Snakemaster-Wildlife Adventures with the World’s Most Dangerous Reptiles.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Stevens who is currently residing in Australia. From here in the swamps of East Texas to the great expanse of Down Under we have traded emails, exploring all things snakes.

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A recent proliferation of cottonmouth photos on social media as well as a well-publicized incident with a young man being bitten while talking a “selfie” inspired a question about this infamous southern species.

“The cottonmouth, or water moccasin as it is also known is indeed reputed to be a bad-tempered snake when approached. Generally speaking I have found this to be true, though one must also take into account that though a species may have earned a particular reputation, individual snakes may differ within a species,” Stevens said.

“In Florida, in one morning, I came across two specimens within 50 feet of each other. The first immediately deployed the typical defense strategy, with head pulled back into its body coils, mouth wide open with tongue flickering in and out while its tail vibrated noisily amongst leaf litter, producing a sound almost like a rattler. Moving closer with my camera, the snake immediately responded with numerous short, quick strikes in my direction.”

“Not 20 minutes later and just a little further along, I came across a smaller specimen of the same species, basking on a log. This cottonmouth showed little interest in my approach and only moved when I attempted to pick it up with my snake tongs, which I eventually did with little complaint on the part of the snake. Two completely different displays of attitude, but generally speaking, cottonmouths are quick to show their displeasure when approached.”

 

Another common social media-fueled controversy are photos and videos purporting to show massive anacondas and reticulated pythons-usually dead ones. While it is commonly known these are the planet’s largest snakes, the size of specimens living today is open to debate.

“The largest anaconda I have ever come across in the wild was close to 18 feet in length, and the largest reticulated python I have ever come across in the wild measured around 21 feet. The longest reticulated python I have ever seen, however, was a 24 foot specimen raised in captivity. This was a true monster of a snake,” Stevens said.

 

He went on to explain there have over the years been numerous reports of these giant snakes found to be much bigger than this, but no proof has been offered, other than, in a few cases, poorly faked photographs.

“As mentioned before, snakes grow throughout their lives, thus allowing for the possibility that there might be some larger specimens yet undiscovered deep in the jungles of Borneo, or the tributaries of the Amazon. It is unfortunate that such specimens might only be discovered when humans encroach deeper into wilderness regions and the result is usually to the detriment of the snake.”

Stevens is a world-renowned wildlife photographer and has used his skills to show the beauty, behavior and unique attributes of snakes. His favorite species is a bit of a show-off.

“I have a special fondness for numerous snake species, but the one I most enjoy, especially from a photographic point of view, is the black and yellow Asian mangrove snake,” he said.

“This snake grows up to 8 feet in length, is brightly colored in shiny black and startling yellow, and is ever ready to enthusiastically display its discontent when approached. This snake is a photographer’s dream, as it dramatically inflates its throat, opens its mouth wide and coils its body into a series of S-bends in preparation to strike out in self-defense if the need arises”.

 

The mouth is kept wide open for long periods, showing a pure white interior, allowing for plenty of time to trigger off a number of impressive photographs. The snake is back-fanged, but in spite of its size, not considered dangerously venomous to humans,” he added.

Stevens said habitat destruction through agricultural development, urbanization, mineral extraction, erosion, and pollution, are amongst the most important causes that have brought about a decline in reptile species on top of persecution based out of fear.

A prime example is the case of the timber rattlesnake, a species that is on the threatened list in Texas and numerous other states.

“Probably the first snakes encountered by America’s Founding Fathers, and a symbol of defiance ever since, the timber rattlesnake has been persecuted throughout much of its range in the USA,” he said.

In the broader picture, Stevens said if a single person throws down a piece of paper it’s of little consequence. When a million people each throw down a piece of paper it is pollution.

“So, with this in mind, if just one conservation minded person starts the ball rolling, millions can follow, and conservation of the planet as a whole could be achieved,” Stevens said.

“Nature and wildlife education and awareness plays a key role and should be included in the curriculum of every school around the world.”

And what would a world be without chances to encounter amazing animals? At the end of the day that is what Stevens brings across in his broadcasts, writings and photography.

The finest example from his experience is his now famous encounter with a massive king cobra.

“When confronted by this 14 foot specimen in India, it became immediately apparent to me that it possessed a higher intelligence. By comparison, it was like facing an adult, where all snakes before had been children,” he said.

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“At first the snake had charged at me with hood raised, ready to defend its territory, stopping just short of me, where it eyed me out with some apparent curiosity. This curiosity became even more evident when I slowly lowered my camera bag from my shoulder, and the snake did something I had never seen before with any other snake.”

“It focused its eyes on my movement as I bent down to drop the camera bag and it tilted its head, not forward but to the side, at an angle, as though directing its nearest eye for a better look, much like a hawk might do when taking note of potential prey. Carefully it watched my movements, and, when once again the snake looked up directly into my eyes, I realized without any shadow of doubt, as far as snake species were concerned, I was in the presence of higher intelligence.”

Stevens said although he was clearly within its domain, and within striking distance, with every movement being watched and calculated by this giant cobra, it never advanced towards him.

“Instead it released a long, almost continuous rumble from its throat, as though a gentle warning not to push my luck.”

“And when a short while later, while attempting to photograph the snake from multiple angles, I tripped and fell crashing to the ground, startling the cobra into thinking it was under threat, it immediately reacted by lunging forward raising its head to loom over me where I lay in the leaf litter on the forest floor,” Stevens said.

“When it realized that I was in fact not threatening it, it simply gazed down at me with tilted head, more, it seemed, out of curiosity than anger. And as I slowly raised myself up again, the great snake slowly moved back to allow me space. I have never experienced anything like it before.”

These are the kinds of encounters that make Austin Steven’s accounts in his new book a must read for wildlife enthusiasts and that inspire others to respect nature.

Yes, even its most feared and misunderstood creatures.

To purchase the book click here.

You can follow Austin Stevens on Facebook here.

World’s Scariest Animals Pt. 2

A few days ago we looked at some of the world’s scariest animals and the response was great, so I thought it would be fun to look at some more creatures that inspire goosebumps.

Spotted hyena—Hyenas have a reputation of being sort of a “funny” animal with their strange, “laughing” vocalizations. In reality, however, hyenas are dangerous predators that will gather in packs and taken on animals as large as lions and will attack people.

Hyenas have extremely powerful jaws that can snap bones in a single bite and will eat every single piece of an animal. When a pack of hyenas gets through with a carcass, there is only some blood left and most of the time they lap that up.

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons
Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

Parts of Africa, particularly Somaliland, are seeing a huge increase in hyena attacks on people according to Softpedia news.

“People have become so afraid of them, that families in Ainabo district, situated 300 kilometers away from the Somaliland capital, Hargesia, have been sleeping with guns near to them in order to protect themselves and their relatives. Officials have added that hyenas live in tremendously large packs in this district and have launched attacks on livestock in the past, but moved to humans, mostly women and children, in the last few years.”

”People from Eritrea, also situated in the Horn of Africa, have also reported the fact that large packs of hyenas have made several attacks within the capital, Asmara, which prompted people to form committees to develop a plan to defend themselves and the city against what seem to be predator hyenas,” they reported.

Tiger shark—Garnering its name from the faint stripes that line its body, the tiger shark has more in common with its namesake than coloration. According to the 1961 book, Dangerous Creatures of the World’s Oceans, tiger sharks like the feared cats of the Asian jungles are actual man-eaters.

“Tiger sharks kill a greater proportion of their human victims than do great whites. Whereas whites often spit out their prey after they realize it’s not a seal or some other natural prey, the tiger shark will be quite happy with eating a person and in fact seem to relish it.”

Tigers are second only to great whites in the size department among predatory sharks. There is great dispute among shark experts about the size potential for the species. Most texts list the species as growing up to 18 feet in length and weighing more than 2,000 pounds. Still, there are figures all over the board for their size, including one I found that said “Tiger sharks range in size from 8.8 to 24 feet long. The largest found weighed 6,800 lb.”

That figure seems a bit high as the International Game Fish Association lists a 1,780-pounder caught by Walter Maxwell off the coast of South Carolina in 1964 as the largest caught by an angler. That far shy of the above estimate, but still massive for an oceanic predator.

Fans of the movie “Jaws” will remember the scene where actors Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider’s characters dissect a big tiger shark caught by angler seeking the reward for the man-eater that had terrorized their community.

They pull out a mackerel, a small tuna and a Louisiana license plate that says “Sportsman’s Paradise”. That was a very accurate portrayal of the tiger shark’s eating habits. They are the garbage collectors of the ocean and will eat anything, including people sometimes. And yes, I do mean eat people. Many shark species attack people but tiger sharks are known for actually eating the humans they occasionally attack.

Saltwater crocodile—These super aggressive reptiles were made famous by “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin who frequently tangled with them in his native land of Australia.

Size alone makes these creatures scary as the largest on record according to National Geographic is 28 feet long and was killed by a schoolteacher in 1958. Specimens over 20 feet long are fairly common among the 200,000-300,000 known to exist in the Pacific region.

According to National Geographic, “Classic opportunistic predators, they lurk patiently beneath the surface near water’s edge waiting for potential prey to stop for a sip of water. They’ll feed on anything they can get their jaws on, including water buffalo, monkeys, wild boar, and even sharks. Without warning, they explode from the water with a thrash of their powerful tails, grasp their victim, and drag it back in, holding it under until the animal drowns.”

Chester Moore, Jr.

World’s Scariest Animals Pt. 1

This week, I thought it would be fun to check out some of the animals you would least want to encounter on a cool, autumn night when the wind is howling and the moonlight barely illuminates your surroundings.

Polar Bear—Most bear species kill people out of territorial instincts or to protect their young but polar bears often”do so for dining purposes. Yes, polar bears are maneaters. There aren`t many easy meals in their icy habitat so any human showing up is fair game. Arcticwebsite.com has a great article called “How to Survive a Bear Attack” and it does a great job summing up why the polar bear is so scary.

“The polar bear is the most deadly of all. While his normal food is seal, they have been known, for centuries, to attack humans. Until the introduction of firearms, the native people of the north have lived in fear of them. Many early explorers have told horror stories of polar bear attacks. These bears are known to stalk and hunt humans. If you are in polar bear country carry a firearm or avoid the area.”

Cape Buffalo—Any animal that routinely beats down lions and charges vehicles, hunters and anything else it feels like is scary. These truly bad-ass bovines will actually lie in wait for the hunters who have shot them and according to some professional guides, they have an uncanny ability to pick the shooter out of a group. I once had a run-in with a cape at a 40,000-acre game ranch in Central Texas.

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My wife and I were driving out of the ranch and spotted a herd of zebra feeding in a meadow, so I grabbed my camera and tried to sneak up for a closer shot. When I came up to a patch of cedar trees, I heard something moving through the brush toward me. I was hoping it would be a zebra so I could get a point blank shot, but as it turned out, the animal was a Cape Buffalo! I had no idea they had any on the ranch, but I was looking at one at a distance of 10 feet and the car was about 75 yards away. I`m here to tell the story, so I obviously made it out safely but the buffalo followed me toward the car and made me question my mortality. Scary, indeed!

King Cobra—The king cobra is the world`s longest poisonous snake, reaching lengths of up to 18 feet and can inject enough of its deadly venom to kill an elephant within three hours it strikes it in the trunk. On top of that when coiled up in a strike position, a maximum size specimen can look a grown man in the eye. If that`s not enough to scare you, consider that snake experts consider it the most intelligent of snakes that can recognize their caregivers and according to legend send out distress calls for other cobras to help it in moments of danger. True or not, that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Candiru Fish—Ever heard the stories of the tiny catfish that can swim up a stream of urine into the bladder? Did you think that was a myth? Well, it`s at least partially true. There have been a number of documented cases of this tiny parasitic fish entering both men and women through openings in the body. They can`t swim up a stream of urine but they can and do get into people`s bodies. The good news is they can`t survive long there.

On second thought, that isn`t much of a consolation, is it?

Chester Moore, Jr.