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Reptile Park

Elke Raaijmakers



The last stretch of my flight to Hoedspruit was on a plane which resembled the "flying doctors" with space for 20 passengers. I never enjoy flying, so this was not my cup of tea. But as we landed, a herd of Impala's ran off the landingstrip, this made it all okay, and it was the proof that I indeed had arrived in South Africa!
As I approached the airport building I was amazed to see how small and informal the airport was; Nothing more than a farm house, devided in two parts; arrivals and departures. That was it! The suitcases were brought with a tractor to the small parking lot in front of arrivals, and after I found my bag, I got in Linda's Landrover (Linda is from Kameleon Adventures) and off we went. While driving and talking, Linda all of a sudden hits the breaks and I got a fright. Turns out there was a Giraffe on the side of the road. Awesome, first the impala's, then a giraffe. A good start of my stay in Africa!

Linda dropped me off at the Reptile Park. This Park is like a zoo for reptiles, research is done here as well. I stayed at the Park as a volunteer for 4 weeks.

Before I joined the team at the Reptile Park, I have never in my life touched a snake. I thought I would be afraid to handle them, not knowing what to expect. I therefore expected it to be a while before I was allowed to touch and handle them. The opposite was true. As soon as the introduction was finished, the curator put a 40 kg python around my neck, saying: "That's great, you can help us with the hold-a-python-photos. So before I even had the chance to get scared, there was the snake. I was not afraid at all, in fact, I was amazed at the muscle strength of this snake.

During the first week of my stay at the Reptile Park, I learned a lot about husbandry of reptiles. How to clean cages, what to feed which snake and what to do and not to do when working with venomous snakes. But one of the greatest jobs was learning how to do a demonstration. In order to do this, you first have to learn how to handle a puff adder, a cobra and a boomslang (tree snake). And of course, you have to learn what to say during a demo.

After this I did my first demo. There was supposed to be only a couple of persons, but no less than 30 persons joined and watched. Quite a challenge. Fortunately, as a teacher I am used to speaking in front of large groups. All went well and afterwards a lot of the spectators wanted to have their picture taken with a python.
Especially a lot of black South Africans are afraid of snakes. But still, a lot of them wanted to have their picture taken with 'Jake the Snake'.

The Reptile Park also offers a call-out service. This means that people who have a snake in their house, for example, can call the Park and they will then catch the snake and release it somewhere safe. On one very hot Thursday, there was a call-out from a wildlife resort 20 km away. If there is a call-out the curators decide who is coming with that time. So off we went with the 'rescue-bakkie' (small pick-up).
Upon arriving at the resort we had to drive another 10 km on a dirt road. The road was bad and we were almost shaking apart, but nobody really minded, because we saw so many reptiles along the road. We couldn't believe this huge variety: skinks, flat lizards, plated lizards and a tortoise (land 'turtle'). Besides reptiles, we also saw many other animals: impala, birds, a warthog with babies...
When we got to the house, it turned out there was a small mozambique spitting cobra hiding behind the stove. It was supposed to be my turn to catch the snake, but due to the difficulty of the hiding place of the snake, I had to let Chris (one of the curators) do the capture. It took a long time, as the cobra was lying in a hole in the wall. A big relief once we caught the snake. The owner offered us some cool drinks, and after a short conversation he made a wonderful donation to the Reptile Park.
The resort also agreed that the Reptile Park team will be allowed to do research on the reptile fauna in the resort!

The strangest call-out, however, happened at another wildlife resort. A cobra had eaten the foam of a tv-headset. If the owner had not witnessed and filmed this, we would not have believed him. Because the snake had swallowed the foam, it could not be released straight away. The cobra would not be able to digest the foam or get it out of its system, it would have died. We took the snake back to the Reptile Park, where we tubed it to feed it parafine. Parafine promotes regurgitation. Fortunately, the cobra regurgitated the foam and we were able to release it.

The main reason for my stay at the Reptile Park is to do reseach on reptiles, more specifically agames. After my first introductory week at the Park, it was about time to focus on my research. I tought I could start catching agames right away, but the curators advised me not to. The agames were in the middle of their breeding season, and it isn't a good idea to upset them during this time. We decided to focus my research on skinks.

photo courtesy of David Allen


It sounds easy, but I had to do a lot of reading up on the topic. This took a lot of time. Fortunately, Johan Marais (a welknown author of reptile books) sent me a whole lot of scientific articles and gave me plenty hints as to how to catch skinks. I was luckky he visited the Reptile Park during my stay there, because not everybody has a chance to meet one of the leading herpetologists, let alone joining him on excursions to catch skinks for ones own research. And of course, like a real groupie, have my own copy of his book signed!

Besides helping me with my research, Johan came to the Reptile Park to do a photoshoot on snakes. As volunteers, we were allowed to participate and take our own pics. What a great experience! Check my picture of the spitting cobra. I must say I was a little disillusioned afterwards; I thought that wildlife photographers would sit in the bush for ages to shoot the perfect picture, but that is not always true. Often, a photographer will visit a Reptile Park and it's al being set up.

Anyway, after reading up on skinks and the hints of Johan, the curators gave me 2 hours a day to catch skinks in and around the Park. And I can tell you, this is not as easy as it sounds. You use a long stick with a loop at the end. You've got to carefully approach the skink and try and get the loop to go over its head and pull the loop tight. After a couple of trial runs, the curators organized some excursions in order to catch skinks. In the bush, this is even more difficult as there are a lot of obstacles such as trees and rocks. It is easier for the lizards to hide. The first two excursions - to Zandspruit and Olifantsrivier - weren't very successful, but I tried.

Besides catching skinks while on excursion, the plan was to build a trap. Unfortunately, we did not have the right materials to do it properly. We gave it a try though, but the traplines collapsed all the time.
There was a lot of pressure for me to catch enough lizards for my research. Especially for me two more excursions - to Lissataba and Trackers - were organised. This went much better than previously.
While at Trackers we witnessed a yellow bellied sandsnake eating a baby puff adder. Awesome! It is quite rare to see a snake eating another snake in the wild (or seeing a snake eating anything for that matter). We caught both snakes and took them back to the Reptile Park for research.

In the end I collected data of 20 samples, skinks, to work on my research. The last day of my stay at the Park, I took the time to take some more photos of the Park, the people I've worked with and the reptiles. And of course to pack my bag and make sure I was ready for departure the next morning. At night a farewell party was organized for me. We went to the 'Trading Post', a local restaurant and bush pub.

The morning of my departure there was a call-out. Chris asked if I wanted to join. Of course I do! One more opportunity to catch a snake.

As we were busy with this capture, another call-out came in. Hmmm, will I make that flight?? With a bit of creative planning it worked out perfectly. What a great way to end my stay at the Reptile Park. I made it just in time to board the plane... Ah well, how long does it actually take to check in 20 passengers:)



Elke Raaijmakers
The Netherlands

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