The perils of Hiring a Guide
We were struggling through thorny scrub on some very sandy soil. ‘You stay here Mark [my name had seemingly proved impossible for my guide to pronounce] and I will call when I find more tracks. He is here very close.’ Trouble was, in the thicket of sharp-spined acacia, I could see little of the sandy ground around me. But what I could see was a tad troubling. Burrows in the sand dotted here and there where I stood. Burrows that seemed to be about 10 cm in diameter. For a moment I thought they might be the burrows of a mongoose or some other rodent. But no. Coming out or going into – several of these burrows was a tell-tale, body-smoothed and winding path as wide as the burrow itself pressed into the hessian-coloured soil. They were python tracks. And it was an Indian Python that my guide Satto Singh, in Rajasthan’s fabulous Keoladeo National Park, had just gone off to find.
I just hoped that he knew which way this python was slithering. Or how many pythons there might be. Standing there on my own, and not knowing very much about pythons, I started to wonder how fast one can move if it feels an urge to. And which direction might it come from? If one decided to come out of its burrow – in which, apparently, they lay their eggs – would it simply ignore me and slide away? Or start coiling around my legs and using its undoubtedly substantial powers of constriction? Could I be fighting for my last breath by the time Satto returned?
I thought I should keep still and silent, just in case anything appeared. But do pythons have a good sense of smell? Actually, yes, I found out later; an acute sense of smell to make up for their relatively poor eyesight and hearing. So I stood no chance if one came close. My eyes scanned one hole in the ground after another for what seemed an interminable length of time. I was looking for any movement at any one of those burrows. Maybe 20 minutes later, I heard a call, distant at first, then closer. ‘Over here Mark. He is lying here. Come quietly.’ What a relief!
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A couple of arm-scratching minutes pushing through more acacia thorn and there it was, in a large loose coil in the shade. An Indian Python at least 3 metres long, a rather attractive pattern of golden and mud brown, head up with tongue doing the in and out routine to sense who is about. The snake was an impressive sight. Slowly it slid off into deeper shade. It had been worth the scratched arms. As Satto was quick to point out, this was a small python. They can be over 6 metres long. Killing by squeezing their prey to death, they have been known to kill deer. And devour them whole.
But do they ever kill people? ‘Yes, oh yes can kill people,’ said Satto with such a degree of certainty that I disbelieved him instantly. I didn’t question him too closely but checked up some weeks later. Seemingly, there are recorded cases of humans killed by pythons, though very few, but these are by larger Reticulated Pythons. And there are doubts about whether any such victim has subsequently been eaten by the snake. There are various claims, some lurid photos and much likelihood of hoaxes. But it was a better story for Satto to tell his customers.
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