World's longest snake goes on show at Indonesian zoo
December 30, 2003
JAKARTA : A primitive zoo in Indonesia is holding a 49-foot-python captured in a forest in Sumatra, a report said on Monday.
Click and drag photo to resize. Script from The Java Script Source
The reptile, which measures 14.85 metres and weighs in at 447 kilogrammes, the Suara Merdeka regional newspaper reported.
The serpent, which staff in the small recreation park have christened Kembang Wangi or Fragrant Flower, was found in a forest in Jambi on Sumatra island and was purchased from its captor before being put on show and could be the largest snake found in nearly 100 years.
According to the Guiness Book of Records, the world's longest snake ever captured was a reticulated python, which was 10-metres-long, and shot in Celebes Indonesia in 1912.
The breed of snake indigenous to Southeast Asia, is commonly found in Indonesia and the Philippines and regularly tops 20 feet.
The head of the Kendal district tourism office, Agus Rivai, says the python on show district's Curug Sewu park is the region's largest, paper reported.
The reptile had been examined by researchers from the state Institute of Sciences of Indonesia, the state Gajah Mada University and the state Institute of Agriculture at Bogor, the report said. -
AFP Copyright © 2003 MCN International Pte Ltd
Last week the reptile world was rocked by the news that a 14-metre python had been discovered in Indonesia. Could a snake really be so long? There was only one way to find out - we sent John Aglionby along with a tape measure.
"Look, you must understand that a python's length is not constant," explains Darmanto, the owner and handler of Fragrant Flower. Fragrant Flower is the reticulated python found living in a tourism park in central Java which was last week touted as the longest and heaviest snake ever captured - 14.85m and 447kg.
"Depending on the weather, on how recently he has eaten and when he last shed his skin, Fragrant can stretch and contract a great deal. A few days ago he stretched himself out halfway round the cage."
This hurried explanation by the man whose large buck teeth, sparkling eyes and animated face lend him more than a passing resemblance to Bugs Bunny is in response to the remarkably unsmelly Fragrant, as he is commonly known, coming up well short when I step into his cage, tape measure in hand.
Indeed, "coming up well short" does not do justice to the disparity between the claimed length and the length I measured. If Fragrant ever extends to 14.85m long he will be the most mind-boggling animal on earth because I measured him at somewhere between 6.5 and 7m.
The imprecise estimate is due to my reluctance to grab hold of his tail and stretch out the beautiful body that is a patchwork of brown, dark yellow and black scales even though Fragrant seems docile enough when his face is hugged, kissed and petted by the unfazed Darmanto.
The snake's unfriendly yellow eyes and the hissing forked tongue that darts in and out of his deceptively small-looking jaws, not to mention my desire to see my wife and four-month-old daughter again and the distance to the nearest competent hospital, mean my courage only extends so far.
Weighing the python is impossible. Judging by a tentative feel of his body while his attention is distracted by children poking their fingers through his cage, I would put it at perhaps 100kg but no more.
"The reason he is not that large now is because he has not eaten for about six weeks and has just shed his skin so his body is quite firm at the moment," explains Darmanto, pushing his index finger hard into the body.
"When he's at his full length he's much softer and I can push my finger in much further. And his body is much fatter too, perhaps up to 50cm in diameter."
I poke the body: it seems pretty squidgey and closer to 20 cm across. But locked inside a cage with what is undoubtedly a mammoth and extremely dangerous snake, even if it is not a record-breaker, is neither the time nor the place, I reckon, to tell his protective owner I think he is talking baloney.
So I play along and measure the halfway-round-the-cage stretch instead. This comes to 13.1m. "Are you sure you saw both ends at once and that perhaps he hadn't just moved in a few seconds?" I ask.
Mr Darmanto, who says he can get so close to Fragrant's head because he has inherited "inner strength" from his great-great-grandfather, Nasi Ibrahim, is adamant. "Oh, yes. I was cleaning the floor at the other end so I could see him all," he said. "Fragrant then slipped off the rail and into the pool."
Fragrant's age is the next subject I broach. "Probably around 150," is Darmanto's reply. "Although to be honest I don't know this for certain because it was calculated by an expert from Madiun [a small town in east Java] and I just have to take his word for it."
Fragrant Flower's enclosure is the antithesis of what I had expected this alleged world-record obliterator's home to be. Even though he is kept in a crumbling, under-funded government-owned tourism park 2,300ft up a mountain in central Java, I had imagined a setting worthy of his status. Perhaps a smartly uniformed gateman or two holding doors to a newly built, or at least freshly painted, compound. Certainly voluble staff distributing brochures detailing every aspect of the snake's slither to stardom. But initially I can't even see the pen, even when I followed the signs pointing to the home of "Asia's longest snake".
Sandwiched between a creaky roller-coaster and a public swimming pool in the 16-acre park in Curug Sewu, a village 40 miles south of the city of Semarang surrounded by stunning rice terracing and clove tree plantations, Fragrant lives in a rusting 9.5m by 4.5m cage behind unpainted corrugated iron.
Curious gawpers have to pay a scruffy employee 2,500 rupiah (17p) to enter the muddy enclosure, which is also home to a few mangy-looking monkeys chained to bamboo poles and two slothful mongrels that would most appropriately be named Fragrant's Breakfast and Fragrant's Lunch, as three or four canines a month are Fragrant's diet.
Onlookers are ostensibly kept back from the cage by a rickety bamboo fence. But many, wanting a closer inspection, put their faces up to the wire mesh.
Darmanto's hitherto detailed descriptions suddenly became vague when he is asked to recount when and by whom Fragrant's record-breaking length and weight were measured.
"It was a guy called Mr Alek from a laboratory at Gadjah Mada University," he says, referring to one of Indonesia's most prestigious centres of learning. "He did it some months ago. Unfortunately I don't have any photos with me."
So why have Fragrant's record-breaking statistics been kept secret until last week - 19 months after Darmanto says he caught the python in Sumatra, by hypnotising him into a deep sleep. "Don't ask me," he says. "I'm just the owner. That's for the government to decide."
Agus Rifai, the head of the local government tourism office, who has come with me to meet Fragrant, says his department only acquired the snake a couple of weeks ago from elsewhere in Java. "We're still checking the verification," he says.
Once beyond the range of Fragrant Flower's mighty coils and Darmanto's inner power, I decide to find out exactly how much of a wild python chase I have been on. "Essentially, a python's body size is as unflexible as ours is," explains Richard Shine, professor of evolutionary biology at Sydney University and a world python expert. "[Darmanto's story] is exceedingly consistent. These giant pythons always shrink whenever a tape measure turns up."
Shine says that when he conducted the allegedly first and only detailed field study of reticulated pythons, he examined 2,000 snakes in two locations in Sumatra; the females were much bigger than the males but none measured even seven metres long.
"The longest male was only four and a half metres, plus 10% for the tail," he says. "He's undoubtedly got a monster snake there but it's almost certainly a female, not a male. It's impossible to tell from the photos."
Shine says that despite having seen the insides of numerous specimens during his research, he has never encountered any reticulated python that eats dogs. "We found monkeys, pigs and even porcupines but no dogs," he says. Most of the pythons were empty though, corroborating Darmanto's claim that Fragrant has not eaten for weeks. None of the pythons Shine has encountered weighed more than 100kg; he described the allegation that Fragrant weighs up to 447kg as "delightful".
Dave Barker, from Texas, who says his claim to have the world's largest python collection of 2,000 snakes has never been contested, is also doubtful about Fragrant's age.
"There's no real way to age snakes but by the number of scars and from the proportion of the size of the head to the body [on photographs of Fragrant on the internet], I would guess it's a young big snake, perhaps five to eight years old." He says the longevity record is probably about 50 years for a python kept in a zoo in St Louis, Missouri.
Apart from the obvious explanation that the Fragrant Flower record is completely untrue and made up to boost visitor numbers to the park, which Agus says have risen 60% in the two weeks since the python's arrival, Barker has two theories to account for the evolution of the record claim.
They both centre on an allegation by Darmanto that Fragrant is in fact the spiritual ruler of the Kubu, a remote Sumatran tribe that shuns the outside world, and it took a year of negotiations with the elders before he could take it away.
"If this is a spiritual ruler snake then perhaps it really can stretch and change size," Barker says. "The other is that the true giant snake remains in the jungle with the admiring tribe and it took them the year of negotiations to find another retic[ulated python] large enough to give to the government."
By Guardian Unlimited © Copyright Guardian Newspapers 2006 Published: 1/4/2004