Giant Pythons Are Attacking People In Indonesia, And Humans, Palm Oil Plantations Are Partly To Blame

The image of a giant python captured in Indonesia is the stuff of nightmares oftentimes brought to life in movies with the help of CGI. But the 25-foot python that killed a man in the Batang Gansal subdistrict of Sumatra island is very real, and more so the threat that now faces remote communities in the country.

Attacks reported this year

Robert Nababan encountered the deadly reptile while patrolling an oil palm plantation in the village. According to the Daily Mail, the 37-year-old attempted to catch the python and put it in the sack, but was overpowered when the snake fought back. The bite to Nababan's left arm nearly dismembered him.

Villagers rushed to Nababan's aid, hitting the snake with a log. He was treated at a hospital in a nearby town and he now lives to tell the tale. Perhaps it was a stroke of luck or some snake-handling skill, but another Indonesian man didn't survive a snake attack like Nababan.

In March this year, villagers in Sulawesi, Indonesia were in for a shock when they cut open a snake only to discover a man inside its belly. The man was identified as 25-year-old Akbar Salubiro, a palm oil farmer that had gone missing days prior. Local media reports said that Salubiro had been swallowed whole by the giant serpent, the Washington Post reported.

The suspect was a 23-foot-long reticulated python and authorities said it must have attacked Akbar from behind due to the wound found on his neck.

Do pythons eat humans?

It's easy to pin the serpent as the cold-hearted villain, but humans actually aren't part of the python's normal diet. The reticulated python is one of the world's longest and heaviest snakes, growing up to 30 feet. The giant pythons that attacked Nababan and Salubiro were two of the largest recorded in the country. It usually preys on mammals, and kills its victim by constricting it to death and ingesting it whole.
According to Emily Taylor, a biological sciences professor at California Polytechnic State University, it's extremely rare for pythons to attack humans and the chances of being swallowed whole by a giant snake are "lower than the chances of being struck by lightning."

The growing frequency of snake attacks is causing alarm among scientists and snake lovers. It's an unusual behavior for the reptiles, but the reason behind this shakeup may be attributed to a particular human activity.

Palm oil industry may be to blame

In both Nababan's and Salubiro's cases, the attacks took place at a palm oil plantation. Palm oil is a common ingredient in a wide variety of products in stores. It's cheap and has many uses. However, the plant that produces palm oil thrives in tropical areas which pythons and other snakes consider their homes.

According to the Washington Post, the palm oil industry has slashed a considerable portion of rainforests to plant the crop. It's especially crucial in Indonesia, which has the third largest rainforest around the world, next to Brazil and Congo. The country produces most of the world's supply of palm oil together with Malaysia.

A research paper published in Nature Climate Change suggested that the palm oil industry contributes to deforestation and the displacement of threatened species.

"Much of this palm oil is produced in ways that involve the destruction of tropical forests and peatlands, adding to global warming emissions and reducing habitat for many already threatened species."
The crop attracts rats and other small animals which snakes prey on. This increases the chances of farmers coming across them and getting attacked. Elinaryon, head of the Batang Gansal district that handled Nababan's case, told BBC that pythons were common in that area.
"[There are] at least 10 sightings of them a year. In the dry season they come out looking for a drink, in the wet they come out to take a bath in the rain."
He added that there are usually lots of mice in the plantations, and that's why pythons come out to hunt.

According to World Wildlife Organization, palm oil plantations cause devastating loss of habitat for endangered species. This results in conflict between human and wildlife populations as humans encroach on animals' territories and force the latter to live in smaller natural habitats.

It's not just pythons Indonesians are worrying about. Other snake species are also attacking unsuspecting humans. According to the International Society of Toxinology, Indonesia ranks second in terms of snakebites around the world, with more than 11,000 deaths recorded per year.

Writer Janaki Lenin, wife of herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, wrote that they found 12 cobras within 10 days of exploring a palm oil plantation in Central Kalimantan. She also said that two farm workers were reportedly spat with venom in the eyes by a cobra that hid in a tree.

Meanwhile, things didn't end well for Nababan's giant python. After being struck to death, it was chopped up and eaten by villagers. Locals believe that the blood of a python has healing qualities.

[Featured Image by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images]