THE Papuan black snake, thought to have become extinct due to cane toads, is alive and well in parts of the Central province, according to snake expert David Williams.
However, Mr Williams said it was unlikely to bite people like the deadly Papuan taipan, and should be protected and preserved as part of Papua New Guinea’s natural heritage.
“It is important that people also be told that our studies of the behaviour of this snake suggest that it is very shy, extremely reluctant to bite, even when handled, and combined with the knowledge that none of the patients has seen at Port Moresby General Hospital in the past five years, had been bitten by black snakes, it is very unlikely to cause snakebites,” he told The National.
“As a potentially threatened species, and one that is well-known to all Papua New Guineans and expats alike as a native animal symbol of PNG, it should be protected and preserved as an important part of PNG’s natural heritage.
“In January 2006, we were finally able to confirm the presence of Papuan black snakes in Central province, with the discovery of a freshly-killed specimen on the Magi Highway about 45km out of Port Moresby.
“On dissection, we found that the snake in question had been feeding on rodents, which offered a possible explanation for the survival of the species in an area that was heavily infested with cane toads.
“The snake was also found close to a forested area that backed onto swamplands: undisturbed natural habitat.
“A second specimen was given to us by staff from the ExxonMobil LNG project, last June, after it was killed near one of their buildings at the project site along the Lealea road.
“This was followed in December by the discovery of another adult specimen from the same area, which died from injuries incurred when it was caught by LNG workers.
“These two snakes are strong evidence that a population of these very shy snakes still exists in the Boera-Papa-Lealea area.
“Then just before Christmas, we were given a live juvenile black snake by Andrew Taplin, a biologist working with Department of Environment and Conservation.
“Andrew caught the snake while bushwalking near Sogeri in thick rainforest at an altitude of around 950m.”
Mr Williams said this was a very important discovery, because it was the first time that this species had been discovered living in forest in mountainous country, and opened the possibility that the species might be much more widely distributed than had ever been thought before (it was always believed to be restricted to low-lying areas along the southern side of PNG, typically in areas of scrub, grassland or swampland), and could perhaps even occur on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range in Oro or Milne Bay provinces where the mountain ranges are below 1,000m.
“We have heard stories from Oro and Milne Bay people about ‘blacksnakes’ being found there, and this now seems very possible, since the discovery of this snake at Sogeri means that mountains below 1,000m are not a barrier confining their distribution,” he said.
“The other important thing is that until these four specimens were found, this species had not been positively identified in Central province since 1992 and was considered to be at risk of local extinction east of Gulf province (it is still common in the South and Middle Fly districts of Western province).
“The discovery of these four snakes proves that there are at least three different populations of Papuan black snake in Central province, and probably many more,” Mr Williams said.