A 69-year-old monk named Wilatha has created a refuge for snakes at Seikta Thukha TetOo monastery in the bustling commercial city of Yangon, taking in various species from pythons to vipers and cobras.
Since its launch five years ago, residents and government agencies, including the fire department, have been bringing captured snakes to the monk.
Snakes were frequently caught in houses or after they strayed too close to human settlements. The snakes will most likely be sold to traders in the black market who will then export them overseas, said Wilatha, who describes his reptilian charges as his “sons and daughters”
The monk said residents in mainly-Buddhist Myanmar hope to gain ‘merit’ by giving captured snakes to a monk rather than killing or selling them.
“If you kill a snake, you will suffer bad luck to your family, have a broken family, cause deadly disease and destroy business. That’s why I request my followers not to kill the snakes and hand over to me. I will shelter them temporarily on my hand to release these snakes to the wild forest later,” said Wilatha.
As he used his saffron robe to gently rub and clean the snake, the monk said he hopes his conservation efforts will help to balance the natural ecological cycle.
“I believe that losing even one animal species will cause problems to nature. Even though we don’t know specifically about their benefit to nature, the species are helping our environment,” Wilatha said.
Despite being considered an invasive species in some parts of the world, the Burmese python has been listed as “vulnerable” in its native Southeast Asia by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The Southeast Asian country has become a global hub in the illegal wildlife trade with snakes often smuggled to neighbouring countries like China and Thailand, according to conservationists.
“They are safe, well fed and taken care of at this shelter but to actually save them is to let them go into the wild forest as soon as possible,” said Kalyar Platt, a Herpetologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The snakes are kept at the monastery until the forest authority sets a date to release them into protected sanctuaries. In the meantime, the snakes, which are used to hunting live prey, have to be manually fed fish or other meat, two or three times a month by Wilatha, who relies on donations of roughly $300 a month for all the snakes.
During a recent release at the Hlawga national park, he said he was happy to see the reptiles slither into freedom but remained worried in case they were caught again.
“They would be sold to the black market if they are caught by bad people.”