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 Post subject: Sri Lanka Python Tales
 Post Posted: Sat May 07, 2005 3:17 pm 
[quote] Sri Lanka Python

(Python molurus pimbura)
Sinhala: pimbura

The Sri Lanka python, the largest snake to be found on the island, mostly inhabits the jungles of the low country, occasionally the lower hills, but often near water. It is light brown with dark brown markings. The body is considerably thicker than in most snakes, and the snake can attain a length of 7 metres, although the average is 5 metres.

Python Tales

@ by Richard Boyle
Source: © 2005 Resource Asia Network (Private) Limited.

The first account of the python in English literature concerning the island is by Robert Knox in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681). He uses the common Sinhala name pimberah (pimbura). Knox’s account contains an ancient and universal misconception - that the small appendages on the tail (anal spurs in fact) are hooks to either secure prey or to hold the snake to the ground while striking. He also mentions an incident where a python had its tail coiled around a tree while consuming a deer. Many authors of the period state that such anchorage is a prerequisite for constriction or consumption of prey. This is not generally the case, although pythons may occasionally exhibit such behaviour.

“ . . . the Pimberah, the body of whereof is as big as a man’s middle, and of a length proportionable,” Knox begins. “It is not swift, but by subtlety will catch his prey; which are Deer or other Cattel; He lyes in the path where the Deer use to pass, and as they go, he claps hold of them by a kind of peg that growes on his tayl, with which he strikes them. He will swallow a Roe Buck whole, horns and all; so that it happens sometimes the horns run thro his belly, and kill him.

“A Stag was caught by one of these Pimberahs, which seized him by the buttock, and held him so fast, that he could not get away, but ran a few steps this way and that way. An Indian, seeing the Stag run thus, supposed him in a snare, and having a Gun shot him; at which the Stag gave so strong a jerk, that it pulled the Serpent’s head off, while his tayl was encompassing a Tree to hold the Stag the better.”

Some 170 years after Knox, the belief that the anal spurs acted as hooks was still prevalent. For instance, Charles Henry Sirr states in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850): “The creature has two horny excrescences, or spurs, near the tail, and these enable the reptile to cling with greater security to the branches of the trees, from which it will swing, ready to seize upon and entwine around any animal that may come within its reach.”

It is believed that the Indian python sometimes attains the awesome length of 20 feet, which places it, along with the anaconda, in the zoological category of giant snake. According to several early English writers, the Sinhalese were convinced that it grew to such a length. James Cordiner claims in A Description of Ceylon (1807): “The Cingalese . . . positively assert that there is a snake 30 feet in length, and ten inches in diameter: one which has been taken with a hog in its belly; and in another has been found the horn of a buffalo.” Cordiner does not name the species of snake, but there is little doubt that he refers to the python.

John Davy, in An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821), echoes Cordiner’s account and identifies the snake he describes as a python. “It is said by the natives . . . to be found occasionally 25 and 30 feet long, and of the thickness of a common-sized man,” he remarks.

Sirr (1850) is more conservative, yet nevertheless supports the contention that pythons can exceed 20 feet. “A full grown snake will measure from 17 to 20 feet, and we have heard it asserted that one 25 feet long, and whose body was two and a half feet in circumference, was killed by our informant,” he asserts.

Edward Sullivan, writing in The Bungalow and the Tent, or a Visit to Ceylon (1854), is another who mentions 30 feet as a probable maximum length: “Though I heard of several that within the memory or tradition of men had been killed, measuring 30 feet, I never heard that size exceeded; but this by no means proves that their growth is limited to that length, or that they may not exist in large numbers.”

These references, though, are all based on hearsay. The largest specimen on record in Sri Lanka is considered to be that documented by Robert Percival in An Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803). Percival was the first of many 19th century writers to refer to the Ceylon python as the rock-snake: “The rock-snake is an immense animal . . . I have myself seen one 22 feet long, and about the thickness of a man’s thigh: and I was told that much larger ones were to be found in the island. I had a transient glimpse of another as he glided past me through the bushes in the neighbourhood of Colombo; in size he seemed to exceed the one I had formerly seen.”

Second place goes to a 17-foot specimen that, as Sir James Emerson Tennent reports in Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon (1861), was easy to measure as it was secured to a pole. “But,” Tennent continues, in much the same manner as Percival, “one more fully grown, which crossed my path at Pusilawa, considerably exceeded these dimensions. Another which I watched in the garden at Elie House, near Colombo, surprised me by the ease with which it erected itself almost perpendicularly in order to scale a wall upwards of 10 feet high.”

In Sir William Gregory’s An Autobiography (1894) can be found the following anecdote: “One evening at dinner we had a surprise. The subject of conversation was snakes, and Mr Twynam mentioned that the huge python was not uncommon in the forests. I happened to say I should like to see one. ‘That is easily managed,’ he said; and gave an order to his servant, who brought in a box, opened it, and out glided a monstrous snake, at least 16 feet long. Everyone, and the party was large, sprung on tables and chairs, but Mr Twynam exhorted us to dismiss our fears as the reptile was harmless, indeed very friendly.

“He amused himself by gliding about the room till it was thought high time to get rid of him, when a hen was brought in. He did not seem to notice it at first. At last he turned suddenly on it, and threw all his coils round it with the rapidity of lightning, and extended it by this squeezing process to at least a yard in length. He slowly, very slowly, began to swallow it. And was carried off with two long legs sticking out of its mouth.”

Of all the references to the python in 18th and 19th century English literature concerning Sri Lanka, one eclipses all others due to its dramatic nature. Taking into consideration the monstrous qualities of the python, and the many reports of dramatic encounters with pythons elsewhere in the world (as well as with similarly monstrous anacondas in South America), it is surprising to discover that the following account stands alone.

Jacob Haafner, in his Travels on Foot through the Island of Ceylon (Eng. trans.1821) claims a giant 50-foot python attacked him. The Dutchman was on a trek to Jaffna when he heard a loud hissing accompanied by an “uncommon motion” in a nearby tree. He fled in terror and eventually summoned up the courage to look round. Horrified, he saw “a monstrous serpent” pursuing him. “At this sight the earth seemed to open under my feet; I uttered a horrible yell, and courage and hope instantly forsaking me, I stood as if thunderstruck. I saw the terrific monster ready to swallow me; I saw his eyes glaring, and his throat swelling with fury.”

He decided that the best course of action was to scale an almost sheer rock nearby. “During this anxious struggle, I expected every moment to be devoured by the monster,” he relates. “Fortunately it was not one of the species that crawl upon their tails, with their heads erect, like the cobra.

“The monster made several circuits round the place, raising up the sand with its long tail, and still continuing the same terrible hissing. At last it departed. I gazed with horror upon its enormous body, covered with yellow and black spotted scales; it sometimes raised its terrific head, and crept with a slow and regular motion. It appeared to be 50 feet long, and its body was considerably thicker than mine.”

Wall (1921) points out that the python’s exceptionally large girth makes it difficult to estimate its length: “It seems probable that many of the great lengths given by travellers and sportsmen were guessed at, and the snake not actually measured,” he comments. “The creature is very thick relative to its length, perhaps three of four times the girth of a Russell’s viper of similar length. If a python’s length were judged from its girth, the estimate would grossly exceed the real measurement.”

Guessing the length of a python may be difficult due to Wall’s theory of proportional illusion. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the python has achieved 20 feet or more in Sri Lanka in the past. Whether the species is able to do so now is another matter altogether, for the reduction of the python’s aquatic and forest habitat has meant that very few specimens are able to reach full maturity. I hope I am wrong. Perhaps there is an undisturbed patch of jungle on the island where some giant pythons are able to reside safe from human discovery.

Source: © 2005

Resource Asia Network (Private) Limited

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