Oenpellis

Help Support AUSSIE PYTHONS:

Status
Not open for further replies.
F

FAY

Guest
THE AUSTRALIAN APRIL 27, 2013

DEEP in a suburban Darwin back yard, two snakes lie coiled and sleeping. Each bears the distinctive skin colouration that marks it out as an oenpelli python, one of Australia's largest and rarest snakes, and a creature some regard as the Rainbow Serpent of Aboriginal mythology.

This species, endemic to the harsh rock country of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, is threatened by invasive animals such as cats and cane toads, sought after by poachers, and occasionally killed or eaten by locals. It is so rare that not even experts know how many are left in the wild: one scientist spotted only a single animal in more than 2000 hours of searching.

Yet these two precious females are not wild and free but are being cared for by a herpetologist who intends to breed them. Their offspring will be sold as pets as soon as suitable mates can be found.

To breed or not to breed native species in captivity has long been a topic of debate. Sceptics question whether some animals reproduce properly in captivity, if their offspring can be safely reintroduced to their natural habitat and what should happen once the species is extinct in the wild.


With governments ultimately responsible for preserving Australia's natural heritage, breeding by zoos and wildlife parks under government supervision generally has been seen as a plus. Breeding threatened native species commercially, however, is far more controversial.

Traditionalists, animal-welfare campaigners and many eco-warriors argue that what's wild should remain wild, and yards are no places for building new Noah's arks. They say Australians have enough trouble looking after dogs, cats and guinea pigs, and fear private breeders would go after unnatural pedigree.

But a growing number of conservationists, scientists and some indigenous people disagree. They argue that the conventional "lock it and leave it" approach to conservation is failing, with native species declining in record numbers. How can parks authorities stop threats such as fire, invasive weeds, cane toads and feral animals at their gates? And, in any case, why let people keep cats that kill native species but not the species themselves?

If the extinct thylacine had been bred in captivity, perhaps Tasmanians would now be able to enjoy their namesake tiger in its natural habitat, instead of just in books and museums, the reasoning goes. In an era of declining conservation budgets and increasing ecological pressure, private organisations are coming to the fore. But many complain that, despite their expertise and good intentions, the government is holding them back. Australia, for many thousands of years a vast, isolated island continent, is comparatively unique. Most of its plants and animals are found nowhere else. Yet sadly, in the 20 years since federal legislation was enacted to protect threatened species, only one vertebrate has increased in numbers sufficiently to be taken off the threatened list: the saltwater crocodile.

Experts fear Australia is facing a wave of extinctions and population declines that will empty vast swaths of northern Australia that have hitherto been relatively unscathed. "We are losing native animal species at an incredible rate, and most people have never heard of them," says Rosie Cooney, global chairwoman of the sustainable use and livelihoods specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

A landmark 2010 study found the abundance of some small mammals in Kakadu had declined by about 70 per cent between 1996 and 2009; one-third of the species surveyed in 1996 reportedly can no longer be found. On or about August 26, 2009, the last Christmas Island pipistrelle - a bat - dropped from its perch. It was monitored from abundance to extinction, but none was saved.

Some of Australia's best-known landscapes are in Kakadu. Its 20,000sq km of rugged bushland and picturesque waterways are managed jointly by federal agency Parks Australia and traditional owners; the idea is to maximise indigenous engagement and draw on indigenous knowledge, while delivering visitors a cultural experience and enhancing conservation.

But things have been tough. Visitor numbers are down from their mid-90s peak of 250,000 a year to 198,000, and negotiations to sign the next joint management plan are going badly.

Some traditional owners have threatened to walk out, on the basis their concerns are not being listened to. The park's former manager Chris Haynes, now a research fellow at the University of Western Australia, says relations broke down because of the "heavy-handedness of bureaucracy". Moreover, a growing chorus of experts and locals argue that federal park managers are not looking after native animals and plants properly.

"Kakadu just happens to be home to a whole range of animals and plants that are found nowhere else, and many of them are going down the gurgler," says Greg Miles, a former Kakadu chief ranger with 20 years' experience. "The federal government seems to be content to sit there and watch."

A recent audit of performance against Kakadu's joint management plan picked out declining native plant and animal numbers as an area of critical concern, recommending a complete overhaul of the park's approach. Miles and others would like to see this include leveraging private expertise and capital to build businesses that improve conservation, but he and others argue that park managers are resistant to change.

Renowned python breeder Gavin Bedford, in whose garden the two precious oenpelli pythons sleep, first submitted his plan to breed the snakes commercially as a means of conserving them in 2008. The animal had been listed as threatened in 2006, following revelations of a precipitous decline in small-mammal populations, the snake's food. Under the proposal, four animals would be captured in a joint venture with Kakadu traditional owners. Some of the snakes' offspring would be sold - for anything up to about $15,000 a pair - to fund the project and pay royalties back to indigenous people, and others returned to the wild.

Bedford is perhaps best known as curator of reptiles at Darwin's Crocosaurus Cove. He argues that the plan would give Parks Australia the conservation benefits plus "everything I know" for nothing, a win-win. But it has been stuck in bureaucratic red tape for years.

Parks Australia issued a research permit instead of a commercial one soon after The Australian published a brief story last year, but it came with conditions that would have made the project unviable. "Parks Australia just don't want it to happen. They're putting every obstacle in front of me," Bedford says.

Spokespeople for Parks Australia have told The Australian the plan was handled appropriately and the delays were legitimate. Having sunk tens of thousands of dollars of his own money into the project, Bedford handed the permit back in disgust.

It was only after Arnhem Land traditional owners brought him a large female oenpelli python, in addition to a smaller one he had got with the help of the Territory government, that he realised he had to continue. Beford has permission from the government in Darwin to collect a small number of the snakes from an area bordering Kakadu, but says he needs specimens from inside the park to ensure genetic diversity.

Perhaps the best-known example of a threatened native species recovered with the help of private enterprise is that of the Wollemi pine. Soon after the tree was first discovered, west of Sydney in 1994, it was feared to be on the brink of extinction. Now it is readily available in garden centres around the country, and a broad gene-pool exists in parks and back yards, although fewer than 100 mature specimens are known to survive in the wild.

The rare rough-scaled python, bred at the Australian Reptile Park on the NSW central coast, is now prized among herpetology enthusiasts and there are several thousand in private collections. Proponents argue the snake is "extinction-proofed", at no cost to government. But not everyone agrees captive breeding offers a real solution.

Australia-wide, RSPCA shelters receive more than 150,000 animals every year for rescue, rehabilitation and adoption. The organisation's chief scientist, Bidda Jones, says people already have trouble caring for traditional pets. She worries that there is not enough expertise in the community to care for native animals.

Jones argues that animals bred in captivity will develop different habits to those in the wild, which will reduce their conservation value. "If you get to the point where the only way to prevent a species from going extinct is to keep it as pets, then you've lost the plot. That's not going to save it."

But Mike Archer, professor of zoology at the University of NSW, says close to one-third of current knowledge about reptiles, for example, comes from people who have kept them as pets. "Most of the expertise is in the private sector," Archer says.

A recent study into keeping sugar gliders found "none of the hypothesised problems were substantiated", he says. "This idea that the welfare of animals is paramount is going to lead to extinctions. A lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of organisations that argue humans shouldn't have anything to do with wildlife."

Archer and others would like to see governments take more of a supervisory role in conserving popular species, ceding the ground to business.

Victoria recently broke new ground by announcing plans to allow citizens to keep rare native mammals as pets. But most other states and territories have tough restrictions on breeding and keeping wildlife, and federal rules make exporting of captive-bred endangered species impossible.

In Bedford's yard, the smaller female oenpelli python is eating well and will soon be ready to breed. The larger one is still "sulking". "We'll bring her round," he says confidently. But he still needs to find the pair a mate.

While he searches areas outside Kakadu, parks authorities continue to monitor, manage and count; cane toads continue their inexorable, destructive march; and more small mammals and other species succumb to feral animals, weeds and wildfire.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

SteveNT

Very Well-Known Member
Joined
Nov 27, 2010
Messages
2,736
Reaction score
3
Location
Darwin NT
If you look at fire scar maps for the Top End for the last 12 years (which I do) the only place burnt every single year is Kakadu. And not just the woodland but also the floodplains and escarpment. Escarpment heath environments should not burn more than once every decade. It is no wonder things are disappearing. Simply appalling management. While driving out to north Arnhem Land last year in November (worst time for lighting fires), Parks Rangers were lighting fires along the base of the northern escarpment which was burning up through the gullies onto the escarpment. Madness!
DSC_0350_edited-1.jpg

Also Mr Bedford would do well to cast his net a bit wider. The oenpellis are more widely distributed than he seems to think.
 
Last edited:

Brodie

Very Well-Known Member
Joined
May 22, 2003
Messages
1,319
Reaction score
2
Location
FNQ
Last time I went to Kakadu, most of the park was burnt out. I think you have a point there Steve.
 
F

FAY

Guest
Park people think they 'know it all' and no one can tell them any different. Shame really. History has shown that they have made very detrimental mistakes over the years and are still making them.
 

Venomous_RBB

Very Well-Known Member
Joined
Mar 18, 2012
Messages
1,346
Reaction score
0
Location
Port Stephens, NSW
Thanks for the info Fay, such a stunning python, hope to see more of them in years to come. Preferably in the wild as they are such a rare species however experienced captive breeders would help on the way to making this rare snake more common I guess.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.

Latest posts

Top