There are more than 3000 snake species on earth (137 of which are found in Costa Rica) and the vast majority represent absolutely no threat to a human being. That said, there is no denying that snakes and human beings do come into conflict, and will continue to do so as we change, takeover and destroy their habitats.
The average comfortable city dweller who lives in air conditioning and stares at a screen for a living has very little concept of what it means to live alongside snakes. Talk to a finquero in a place like Osa or Tortuguero and chances are high they know someone, if they haven’t been bitten themselves, who has been tagged by a venomous snake while tending cattle, cutting cane, or clearing brush. Perhaps they’re missing a chunk of a finger, or they have stories of dead pets and livestock to share.
Names like matabuey, matacaballo and podridora aren’t found throughout Latin American campesino culture for no reason. It is because of this, combined with a lack of credible snake information and education, as well as plenty of demonization in both popular culture and religion, that the philosophy of “a good snake is a dead snake” continues to be very common.
But despite the danger some snakes pose to humans, most people’s fear of them is completely unfounded. The myths and misinformation that inform our understanding of these incredibly important animals are very often laughably absurd.
As someone who has travelled the world looking for and photographing snakes for years, I have been told all manner of tales, from Costa Rica to Indonesia. Whistling snakes, snakes that stab with the tail, snakes that jump metres through the air, snakes that give chase, advice on stuffing my boots with garlic to ward off snakes.
My response is usually to gently correct while trying to avoid coming off as condescending and sanctimonious, but the fact of the matter is that this lack of information and abundance of misinformation result in the needless deaths of these disappearing predators far too often.
Over the past several years, however, enthusiasts and conservationists in Costa Rica and elsewhere have been harnessing the power of social media to step up education efforts, while simultaneously keeping people safe as they learn to live in harmony with the many completely harmless (and the handful of dangerous) snakes they share a country with.
One such group is “Snake Identification Costa Rica.” With some 23,000 members, the group is run by the Rainforest Animals Rescue Group, a Norweigan-based conservation organization with operations all over Costa Rica.
Every day, dozens of members, both ex-pats and Ticos, in English and Spanish, upload photos of snakes they have seen, are currently seeing and even ones they or their pets have been bitten by, asking for IDs. The group’s admins and knowledgeable members are always quick on the case, providing IDs, dispelling myths and sometimes even life-saving advice.
It is quite common to read people describing how the group has transformed their understanding of snakes, how they no longer needlessly fear them, and how they are now snake ambassadors, educating their friends, family, neighbours and other people in their communities on the realities of snakes and snake threats in Costa Rica.
In these groups and others like them around the world, people post photos, videos and locations and wait for experts to identify what they’ve seen or are seeing. In Costa Rica, what may have been wrongly identified as a terciopelo or a coral snake very often turns out to be a benign and exceptionally common cat-eye snake or a Lampropeltis species–a completely harmless, though very convincing coral snake mimic.
The groups are also frequented by fieldherpers–reptile and amphibian enthusiasts who enjoy venturing out into the wilderness looking for photo ops–who, in addition to helping with identification, also share high-resolution photographs with members who may never have seen snakes in such exquisite detail. It is always uplifting to read comments from people, especially rural Ticos, expressing wonder and amazement while acknowledging how fortunate they are to share a country with such beautiful creatures.
There are similar ID and photo-sharing groups in Thailand, East Africa, Colombia, and Panama. The group “Aliados de Las Serpientes de Colombia,” not only serves the same kind of educational and destigmatizing functions as the Costa Rican groups, but they also regularly host workshops where local people can get up close and personal with the snakes they live around.
Groups like these are undoubtedly responsible for sparing the lives of countless harmless, as well as potentially dangerous snakes, and they encourage friendly and non-judgemental discussion and education. Instead of a machetazo, the groups advocate brooms and dustbins or, if the member is comfortable with it, simply allowing snakes like boas and big colubrids like the ubiquitous tiger rat snake and neotropical bird snake to move on at their own pace–which they invariably do.
Their aim is to create stewards of the environment which, in a country as biologically rich and important as Costa Rica, and especially given the notable decline in snakes and their food sources over the 21st century, is of the utmost importance.
Group participants typically get not only a particular species’ ID but information about its natural history and ecological niche. Administrators and group experts stress the necessity of never handling a snake unless you are sure of its identity (and preferably not handling them at all), the uselessness of colour-based rhymes that purport to distinguish coral snakes from their mimics in countries like Costa Rica, and advise people on how to safely remove snakes from homes, barns, cars and other human habitation.
Through groups like these and the amplifying network effect of social media, grassroots conservation is being done. While impossible to assess the impact, every person who gets out of their car to sheppard a snake across a road, informs a neighbour that not everything is a coral snake or terciopelo, or accepts that most snakes are harmless and want nothing to do with human beings, makes a difference. And since the WWF is unlikely to be making a snake its mascot any time soon, saving our slithery friends is up to you and me.