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Bangkok firefighters on front line of city's snake scourge

Last Updated Nov 14, 2017 at 7:20 pm PST

In this Oct. 6, 2017, photo, fireman Phinyo Pukphinyo, left, holds a sunbeam snake after catching at a house in Bangkok, Thailand. When the latest distress call came into Phinyo Pukphinyo's fire station in Bangkok, it was not about a burning home or office building. Instead, the caller needed urgent help with a far more common problem facing Thailand's capital: snakes. City authorities say the number of snakes caught in Bangkok homes has risen exponentially in recent years, from 16,000 reported cases in 2013 to about 29,000 in 2016. Figures for the first half of 2017 are over 30 percent higher than last year. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK – When the latest distress call came into Phinyo Pukphinyo’s fire station in Bangkok, it was not about a burning home or office building. Instead, the caller needed urgent help with a far more common problem facing Thailand’s capital: snakes.

A 2-meter-long (10-foot-long) python was dangling from the caller’s garage roof, and after rushing to the scene, it took Phinyo less than a minute to remove the slithering reptile.

The number of snakes ending up in urban homes is on the rise in Bangkok, apparently in part because of development pains in the vast metropolis of about 10 million people.

Tara Buakamsri, Thailand country director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said the city is seeing more snakes because it sits on a “flood plain with a wetland ecosystem which is a habitat for amphibians, including snakes,” and housing expansions in recent years have curtailed their land.

Bangkok’s low-lying landscape makes it prone to floods during the rainy season, which also invites snakes and other reptiles such as monitor lizards.

The huge python Phinyo’s team caught was not the first of the day, or the last. Hours later, the station was called to remove a green snake found in the bathroom of another Bangkok resident, who apologized to the firefighters for calling them for the third time this year.

“I’ve been living in this house for 20 years and we would very rarely see any snakes,” said the caller and homeowner, Chanun Chisa. “But this year, it seems like we see one every few months.”

Phinyo said his fire station gets more calls to catch snakes than to put out fires.

“In a day, we can get several calls to catch snakes,” he said. “I think people have just started to become aware that they can call officials up to deal with it. Beforehand, people used to handle the snakes themselves, using sticks to hit them and that kind of thing.”

He said he can now identify most types of snakes and has become an in-house instructor who teaches other firefighters how to safely capture the wriggly reptiles.

“We have no choice but to learn how to handle them,” Phinyo said.

Piya Saereerak, a veterinarian who works for the Thai government’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, said Bangkok’s snake invasion is sustained by the city’s growing piles of trash, which subsequently leads to more rats and birds — favoured prey for serpents.

The Thai capital is producing more trash every year, which it has struggled to rid of. The city has produced around 10,454 tons of trash per day this year, up from 8,943 tons daily in 2011, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

“In the wild, you’d have eagles and big birds that eat snakes, and their eggs are food for other reptiles,” Piya said. “But in a big city like Bangkok, there is nothing hunting them.”

Piya heads a wildlife clinic that takes in around 300 to 400 snakes a month from rescuers such as firefighters in Bangkok. Every week, the staff from his clinic releases truckloads of snakes caught in the city into the jungle.

City authorities say the number of snakes caught in Bangkok homes has risen exponentially in recent years, from 16,000 reported cases in 2013 to about 29,000 in 2016. Figures for the first half of 2017 are over 30 per cent higher than last year.

Penchom Saetang, director of the environmental foundation Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand, said Bangkok is producing more trash each year because the city is quickly expanding under an insufficient waste management system.

A July 2017 Greenpeace report said that in Thailand “there are 2,490 waste management centres around the country and only 466 of them manage waste accordingly …”

Piya’s advice to Bangkok’s residents is to keep the city clean in order to keep the snakes away. He said most snakes found in Bangkok homes and apartments are harmless, “but if you spot a venomous one, firemen will be there to help.”

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Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed to this report.