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CYP Press: The snake men of Cyprus

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Posted by: W von Papineu at Thu Nov 4 07:41:54 2010  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papineu ]  

CYPRUS MAIL (Nicosia) 21 November 10 The snake men of Cyprus (Eleni Antoniou)
When someone tells you they spent five years tracking down every amphibian and reptile Cyprus’ hills, fields and lakes have to offer, two possibilities come to mind: either this person has a questionable adventurous streak or they’re doing it in the name of research. For David J. Sparrow, who has indeed spent the last five years trekking the island in search of snakes and lizards, research was the reason. A passionate photographer, David is fascinated by snakes, an interest that has helped lead to the publication of The Amphibians and Reptiles of Cyprus, a handbook that is the first of its kind for the island.
“After I retired from the chemistry industry in 2003, I decided to take up photography. I had been given all sorts of advice by friends who were professionals and one thing they all said was ‘Don’t take up wildlife photography!’” he says. Known to be nerve-wracking and extremely time-consuming, David found out the hard way soon after he offered to help Hans-Jörg Wiedl, aka Snake George, with a book he was preparing on the amphibians and reptiles of Cyprus. “He suggested I do the photographs for the book and explained that Cyprus has 23 terrestrial reptiles and two turtles. I reckoned it would take about eight days.” The first photo shoot he set out to do, of the spiny-footed lizard, did not come to fruition until two years later, when he finally managed to capture the elusive creature on camera. “At that point I realised how much time and effort would have to be put into this project.”
The definitive guide to Cyprus’ amphibians and reptiles also called for a third person to help. “Nothing has been written about this part of Cyprus’ wildlife and so Felix Baier, a young German biology student from Munich University, was added to the project to pull together papers going back 250 years on the scientific content of reptiles and amphibians.”
But can it help the plight of these creatures? The lack of knowledge and understanding of snakes’ place in the ecosystem has resulted in one subspecies being on the brink of extinction. The Grass snake (or water snake), a sub-endemic species, thought to be extinct for many years was recently rediscovered by Snake George. The stocking up in one of the island’s dams for sport fishing once endangered this species since the fish eat the small grass snakes and amphibians, the snake’s primary source of food. “Snake George was doing all he could for the survival of the grass snake but his park was shut down and that was a huge shame since snakes are part of the ecosystem and destroying the balance for no reason whatsoever is dangerous,” says David. In the case of the grass snake, things seem to be looking up as the Department of Fisheries has agreed to allow breeding to take place and furthermore, fish will be removed from the Xyliatos dam with the help of the bass’ only enemy, fishermen. In this way, the grass snake should replenish its numbers.
However, the fate of the rest lies in the hands of humans. “Destructors of their habitat are snakes’ worst enemies,” says David. “Fishermen and hunters kill them while the rest think they’re so dangerous, they should, if they see one.” So aren’t they? “Most of our snakes are non aggressive but they will try to defend themselves and will bite if they feel they are in danger.” The Blunt-nosed viper is one of only three venomous snakes found on the island – the other two are the cat snake and the Montpellier snake. “These are not naturally aggressive but if you step on one or touch one when gardening, for instance, it will bite. However, if you are bitten, the nature of the toxin means that you have plenty of time to get medical attention.”
David and the rest of the team are hoping that this definitive guide will finally debunk the many myths surrounding these creatures and their habits and the fascinating information and pictures will be viewed as a huge contribution to the conservation of nature. “This is a highly threatened group and we should be doing something about the difficult future they’re facing,” says David.
The Amphibians and Reptiles of Cyprus is available from Diachroniki Gallery, 84, Arsinois Street in Nicosia – Moufflon Bookshops in Nicosia and Paphos and Hearns Bookshop in Paphos
The snake men of Cyprus


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