In the early morning we drove out to the huge LNG Plant Site - part of the PNG LNG Project operated by Exxon-Mobil, 30-minutes west of Port Moresbyto meet the site's "snake man"Jim Buckley, a colleague of Dave Matthews who I had met previously at Frog Pond. Jim, whose job it is to manage and conserve the site's snake population, was waiting for us the gate, and he passed us through Security. You cannot just walk onto an oil instalation saying "Hey we would like to come in to catch some snakes!" There are a great many arrangments and permissions that have to be obtained beforehand, even if you are planning to be removing highly venomous snakes from the site.
Jim had made all the necessarry arrangements and we were expected, and after receiving visitor passes we drove our two vehicles, Dave's Troopie and my Patrol, to the Snake Removal office. In his small office Dave showed us cages containing Papuan carpet pythons (Morelia spilota) awaiting release off-site, one of the commonest snakes encountered on-site. He also showed us a freezer containing some of the less fortunate pythons and other snakes that had been accidentally killed on this huge site bustling with heavy plant and other vehicles.
Snake catchers (l-r): Owen Paiva (AVRU),
Maraga Lohia (EHL), Mark O'Shea (AVRU),
David Williams (AVRU), Jim Buckley (EHL), Charlie Nou (EHL), Ben Bande (AVRU)
and Julious Jacobs(AVRU).
He then took us on a tour of the huge facility, pointing out where he had encountered memorable snakes, a big taipan here, a Papuan blacksnake there. Some of the best snake locations included the Plant's Golf Course, a 9-hole course for staff which had the off-putting reputation of being home to numerous snakes, and one particular corner where 17 of the 18 Papuan blacksnakes (Pseudechis papuanus) seen in the last three years had been found. This was where the female that succumbed to her injuries had come from, but Jim assured is he had seen a larger specimen out there several times. It was this wetland corner of the site that particularly interested us. We only had two Papuan blacksnakes in the Snek Haus, both males, one from the Edevu road and one from Varirata National Park, and with so many having been sighted on the LNG Plant Site we were anxious to capture at least one, unjured and healthy. The only herps in evidence now it was getting hot were Dusky skinks (Emoia obscura).
Dusky skink, Emoia obscura
After the tour we went back to Jim's offices where we met with ExxonMobil's Communications Coordinator Paula Noseworthy and Stakeholder Engagement Lead Andrew Glasson who wanted to interview Dave and myself about our research and get some photographs of the snake men in action. We then set off to go herping, although the morning was getting late and the day warm, in five vehicles: Jim's pick-up, Dave's Troopie Ambulance, my Patrol, the ExxonMobil Ambulance and Paula from PR's pick-up - five vehicles and twelve out on a mission to catch snakes, and then Jim got a call, a snake in a ditch. Five vehicles and 12 people turned up and we caught, a juvenile Eastern common keelback (Tropidonophis mairii mairii) small enough to curl up on my hand. Paula and her colleagues got some photographs and then they left to work on a story.
Eastern common keelback,
Tropidonophis mairii mairii
Jim also gave me three Ground snakes (Stegonotus sp.) rescued from the site, two from the sewerage treatment plant. I have yet to identifythese snakes to species, they are quite unusual since they have brown dorsums and white labials, not regular patterning for Papuan members of this genus.
Ground snake, Stegonotus sp.
We then got another call and caught a slightly more exciting, and venomous, Lesser black whipsnake (Demansia vestigiata) under one of the accomodation blocks. I pinned it and picked it up so that Jim could switch into education mode with the rapidly gathering ExxonMobil team. There are 54 nationalities inside this compound, most of whom fear snakes, so Jim has his work cut out for him to win them over and educate them about snake safety.
The whipsnake was seen going under one of the accommodation blocks
so it must be under here somwhere
Yep, here it is
Mark and Jim engage in some snake education
and demonstrate the front-fangs of the whipsnake
A snake man's reward on a hot day
Black whipsnake, Demansia vestigiata
After we let the Exxon-Mobil instalation we explored one of the dirt roads running inland towards the mountains. Here there is a huge grassy black-soil plain which was previously a cattle ranch and we figured it might be productive for snakes. We were also seeking the source of the creek that ran through the Exxon-Mobil site and down to the Frog Pond area we had searched several weeks ago.
Views of the black soil grass plains and eucalypt woodlands
Once this was a huge cattle ranch
The boys could not resist checking this old pick-up bed for snakes - nothing found
Dave proudly standing next to his Snakebite Rescue Ambulance
We did not find any snakes and even lizards were only briefly glimpsed.