The reticulated python is one of the strongest and longest snakes in the world. The snake coils around its prey and squeezes it to death, then swallows its prey whole. Rather worryingly, it has been involved in two attacks on humans in Indonesia in the last year. However, while they certainly make headlines, attacks by reticulated pythons on humans are actually fairly rare. Furthermore, the snake’s attacks on humans may be the result of human activity.
“Forests are the world’s air-conditioning system – the lungs of the planet – and we are on the verge of switching it off.” — Prince Charles
On September 30th, Robert Nababan was riding home from his job at a palm oil tree farm when he happened upon a massive reticulated python in the road. According to some reports, Nababan tried to move the snake while other reports say that he tried to capture the snake. Whatever happened, the python attacked Nababan, latching itself onto his arm and even biting his head. Nababan was able to pry the snake loose somehow, and made it to a hospital where his injuries were treated.
Nababan was lucky to survive, as earlier this year on the island of Sulawesi, a man was attacked by a python near a palm oil fruit harvest and was killed and eaten by the snake. Why have reticulated pythons begun attacking humans more often?
The Cost of Palm Oil Plants
Some scientists think the reason has to do with the fruit of the palm oil plant. Palm oil is very valuable, with almost half of all products currently found in grocery stores using palm oil in some fashion. Palm oil is used in products like pizza dough, ice cream, chocolate, shampoo, and even biodiesel. The majority of the world’s palm oil comes from land in Indonesia and Malaysia. Much of the area used to grow palm oil happens to be the same land where reticulated pythons typically live and thrive. Thanks to the high demand for palm oil and the related fact that it is so profitable, places like Indonesia have cut down large tracts of rainforest to erect palm oil farms.
The devastation of rainforests in favor of palm oil farms have kicked off an environmental crisis in Indonesia, whose many islands and rainforests are home to an incredible amount of biodiversity. A paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change estimates that in 2012 the amount of deforestation in Indonesia was higher than all the deforestation in Brazil.
Doug Boucher, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains that the deforestation of Indonesia increases the chances that people will be attacked by reticulated pythons. Palm oil plant farms are often homes to small animals like rodents that like to feed on the palm oil fruit. The snakes come in to hunt these rats and run into humans unexpectedly.
“You have these sudden encounters. It’s not that the snakes are attacking. They’re just not expecting people.”
Boucher says its more complicated than snakes just attacking people. By cutting down rainforest and moving in on the territory reticulated pythons once called home, we’ve forced them to try and adapt to their environment by moving into palm oil farms.
“They’re not coming after us. In various ways, either directly or by our actions with changing land use, we’re coming after them,” says Boucher.
Mass Deforestation in Indonesia
Earlier this year, a court in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan filed a case against the government, demanding the review of permits granted to palm oil companies. The companies were associated with massive fires in the forests and peatlands of Indonesia during the year 2015. The Central Kalimantan government agreed to review and revise permits for all plantation companies in the area and to penalize those who were implicated in the fires. The decision was hailed as a victory by groups of environmental activists.
“One thing leads to the other. Deforestation leads to climate change, which leads to ecosystem losses, which negatively impacts our livelihoods – it’s a vicious cycle.” — Giselle Bundchen
“While many of the world’s largest palm oil producers have pledged to voluntarily address the massive environmental and human rights impacts of their business, it’s clear that legal action is required to hold them accountable,” explained senior campaigner with Friends of the Earth U.S., Jeff Conan. “This decision by the court in Central Kalimantan is a historic step in ensuring the government does what’s needed to limit the damage from this sector.”
However, despite the verdict, the Indonesian government has been unable to collect the fines. This fact has made environmental campaigners demand tougher, harsher sanctions against those engaging in illegal logging operations. Campaigners have called for asset seizures of the equipment owned by logging companies, which would be a “better disincentive” than just fines. Fines can often be challenged in court, or ignored by companies too small to pay them.
“Consistent and systematic law enforcement is urgently needed to send a serious warning that other destructive plantation companies should heed: deforestation has consequences,” said the head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia forest campaign, Kiki Taufik. “The government must take more serious measures when companies break the law, including revoking licenses or seizing assets.”
More Animal Attacks?
Attacks by reticulated pythons are not the only incidents of animal attacks linked to deforestation and climate change. Indonesia also saw a recent attack by a sun bear that killed a woman and injured her husband, and habitat loss is also thought to be a cause of increased attacks by sun bears.
“We depend on the forest, and the forest depends on us.” — Nito Uvenibo
Researchers also think that climate change may also be pushing the more aggressive polar bears toward human-inhabited areas. Around 61% of the polar bears that attack humans suffer from below-average health due to not finding as much food thanks to sea ice melting. Throughout most of the 20th century, polar bears attacks on people averaged around eight every 10 years, but from 2010 to 2014 alone there were a recorded 15 attacks on humans. Likewise, the human development and pollution of coastal areas are thought to be responsible for increased attacks by sharks.
As humans change the world through deforestation and climate change, not only do threats from severe weather events increase, so do threats from animal attacks. As our relationship with the climate and environment changes so does our relationship with the animals who share the environment with us.