Halloween is here, so in honour of all the things that can scare us, here’s our list of 10 things to know about Singapore’s snakes.
#1 Snakes in Singapore?! How many?
It might be a relatively small place, but Singapore has lots of snakes – around 70 species – ranging from small, blind, burrowing snakes you’ll never see to those scarily long snakes that sometimes turn up in city drains or in the backyards of black-and-white houses.
#2 Notable names
Among this long list are some interesting and colourful names: puff-faced water snake, red-necked keelback, dog-toothed cat snake, ornate flying snake, whitespotted slug snake and common Malayan racer.
#3 The ones to watch
Singapore has around six or seven of the snakes that are potentially dangerous. Here are a few you should avoid stepping on…
King cobra: The king cobra is the largest venomous snake in the world; it can grow up to six metres. While rarely seen, in May 2020 there was a very public sighting of a four-metre specimen near Marsiling MRT. The video of its capture by team members from wildlife organisation ACRES went viral on social media.
Banded krait: This snake has black and white bands and a distinctive triangular cross section. It’s usually seen in coastal areas – one turned up at the opening of the Chek Jawa boardwalk on Pulau Ubin in 2007.
Equatorial spitting cobra: Also referred to as the black spitting cobra, this snake has a highly venomous bite; plus, as it says on the lid, it will also spit venom at a perceived attacker’s eyes. Charming.
Wagler’s pit viper: This is the most commonly seen pit viper in Singapore (it’s the one below); you’ll also see it called the temple pit viper. The males and females have quite difference appearances and markings.
#4 The good news
Despite all these snakes, instances of people getting bitten is rare here – and deaths are even rarer. It’s difficult to get a precise figure, but one five-year study from 2004 to 2008, for example, documented 52 bites – around 10 a year – but no deaths. The last report we could find of a death was an 80-year-old man killed by a cobra bite in 1995.
#5 The big one
The reticulated python is the longest snake in the world, and there are plenty in Singapore. Apparently, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (wrs.com.sg) receives around 50 captured pythons every month. If it’s any consolation, while this snake can grow up to 10 metres in other places, here it averages a more “modest” 2.3 metres.
Pythons like eating rats, so they do encroach on urban areas – drains and parks, for instance – and you’ll occasionally read a newspaper report of a public sighting. One example from a couple of years ago featured a python fighting a king cobra on a trail in MacRitchie Reservoir, in front of onlooking walkers and joggers. (The python lost.)
#6 How to learn more
Whether you’re a snake enthusiast or you just happen to have seen a snake and you’d like to know which one, several organisations can help with more details. These include Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), National Parks Board (NPARKS), ACRES and National University of Singapore (NUS).
#7 Year of the Snake
In the Chinese zodiac, the Snake is considered an enigmatic animal, variously described as wise, humorous, sophisticated and goal-oriented. The next Snake “year” is 2025. Famous Snakes include Pablo Picasso (born in 1881 and therefore a Gold Snake), Mao Zedong (1893, Water Snake) and John F Kennedy (1917, Fire Snake). Also Slytherin her way onto the list – see what we did there? – is JK Rowling (1965, Wood Snake).
If you’re a Snake, your lucky numbers are 2, 8 and 9, and your lucky colours are black, red and yellow.
#8 Not everyone’s cup of … soup
Snake soup is a popular dish in Hong Kong and mainland China. It’s considered a “warming” dish that can relieve arthritis; preparation involves adding snake meat and bones to a broth of ham, black fungus, ginger and mandarin peel.
The soup is unavailable in Singapore and illegal to prepare or sell. It may soon be a thing of the past in other places, too, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 and the associated stigma around exotic animals. Famous Hong Kong snake-soup restaurant She Wong Yee, which once received a Michelin star, closed in April.
#9 Hater or lover?
If you have a fear of snakes (it’s called ophidiophobia, by the way), then maybe take up your next expat posting in Ireland or Iceland. Both countries have no natives snake species at all! If, on the other hand, you love snakes so much you’d keep one as a pet, unfortunately that’s forbidden Singapore (the same goes for iguanas and bearded dragons).
#10 What to do if you encounter a snake
First rule: don’t panic. (Easy for us to say, right?) Don’t try to handle a snake yourself. Instead, take a photo on your phone and get in touch with the Singapore Zoo at email@example.com; or, if you feel the matter is more urgent, call the Police on 999. As extremely unlikely as it is, if you do get bitten, call 995 for emergency services.