PAPUA NEW GUINEA 2013

Central Province
Magi Highway: Port Moresby to Kupiano
(Rigo Road)

Dave and Owen were planning a 4-5 hour trip down the coast to Kupiano on Marshall Lagoon, to look for Papuan taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus canni) and then a slow drive back, spot-lighting the roads for snakes. Originally I had planned to do specimen work through the day but the field trip was too enticing.

By the time Dave came down stairs I had my field kit in the Pajero (the hire vehicle I had been given when I got back from Oro) and both Ben and Julious onboard. Owen and Jasper would ride with Dave in the Snakebite Rescue Ambulance. At 11:00 we set off, refueled at a service station, and headed south down the Magi Highway.

Map of the Magi Highway from Port Moresby to Moreguina
Mouse-over for Google Earth satellite map and click for enlarged view of topographic map

For the first couple of hours we drove hard on good roads (much improved since the 90s when they were pot-holed dirt roads), slowing only for a police road-block before Kwikila. The other side of Kwikila, near the village of Lebagolo, we stopped at a forested creek and while Dave and I talked about the plans for the day the guys took off into the bush to search for snakes.

A short while later there was a shout of "snake, taipan, taipan" which spurred me to dash into the bush with my M1 tongs, although I was driving in sandals rather than boots - not the best footwear for a taipan chase in dense vegetation. After a short dash up and over a hill I found Owen and Julious in the bottom of a creek, a 1.9 m Papuan taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus canni) held firmly in Owen's M1 tongs, although it was Julious who had caught it. The snake was returned to the vehicles and bagged, not a bad start to the day, made more interesting when Jasper returned from up the road to say he had missed a taipan which had pulled its tail out of his tongs and disappeared.

The two vehicles at the creek-stop Habitat where the taipan was sighted and caught
Julious with his bagged Papuan taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus canni

Then just around the best we encountered a third taipan, this time dead on the road, dead of bush knife injuries from a close-encounter with a Papuan villager. As we examined and GPSed the snake people came over to see what we were doing and Owen dropped into education mode, talking about how this species is the one responsible for 90% of the snakebite deaths and serious snakebites in PNG, many to people chasing taipan to kill them. Owen handed out some plastic cards showing correct snakebite first aid in Tok Pisin and Motu languages. Dave was keen to get moving on to Kupiano so we dropped the dead taipan in the roadside grass and got back into the vehicles. We move dead snakes off the road, a mark of respect, but also so we don't stop for them on the way back.

Jasper examines tbe dead taipan and when the villagers arrive Owen and the boys slip into educatuonal mode

We always examine DOR (dead on road) snakes. Note I did not say road-kill because many are not killed on the roads but killed in the bush or gardens and thrown on the roads. The reason for stopping is to confirm identification and recover anything useful for science, the entire carcase if it is not too large or too ripe and we are heading home (a large, smelly dead snake in a hot car on a long journey is not a popular choice). We plot the GPS because a dead snake is a useful record of their presence for distribution even though it may have come from the bush 100 m off to the side and be dumped on the road. Only by examining the cadaver can we tell if it was hit and killed by a vehicle or it died of a clubbed head or bush knife slashes. Even if we are not collecting the specimen as a voucher we may measure it (snout-vent length, total length, note its sex, scale count it) and we often take a live sample for DNA, again if decomposition is not advanced. Finally, for freshly killed venomous snakes we extract the venom glands and place them in a soluton called RNAlater. So what for a herper collecting only live snakes might seen as a sad waste, can still provide valuable data for a field herpetologist.

A little further on we came to an area where previously there had been a mass of abandoned metal sheeting, an excellent place to search for snakes as any herper knows. Sadly the sheeting appeared to have been salvaged and apart from a few overgrown pieces all that remained were rows of old oil drums, under which we only found Cane toads (Rhinella marina), Pelagic geckos (Nactus pelagicus) and a few Solomons skinks (Sphenomorphus solomonis).

The oil drums Another bridge over another 'croc river'

We drove on southeast, curving a round the north of Marshall Lagoon and then dropping down its eastern side to turn west again to reach Kupiano. The road by now had deteriorated much from the tarmac of earlier and we bounced around in the vehicles as we dodged or hit pot-holes.

Marshall Lagoon with the stilt village in the distance Our vehicles parked on the shore-front

Owen dropped into the Kupiano Clinic to provide the Snakebite Clinic's contact phone numbers and then we stopped for lunch and a rest on the shores of the lagoon, gazing out at the stilt-village in the distance, the one where the locals defended themselves against all comers in the tribal wars by fighting their battles out in the middle of the lagoon.

 

Jasper Gabugabu
What has he got in his pocketsez?

Buai!