You know that post-Christmas lunch stupor – slumped in an armchair, feeling as though you’ve swallowed a whole turkey? Well, welcome to the world of the African rock python (Python sebae). This voracious reptile would happily down a turkey in one – and perhaps a couple more, if available. This, after all, is a snake that can swallow a warthog.
But how does it manage? Granted, this is a very big snake – the continent’s largest, by some distance, exceptionally exceeding 5m in length and weighing over 50kg (the northern subspecies being larger than the southern). But even outsized individuals have a head little bigger than a man’s hand.
The trick lies in the snake’s ability to dislocate its jaws, enabling it to engulf huge prey and work it down the oesophagus using rhythmic muscular contractions and copious lubricating saliva. Prey is swallowed headfirst and whole, hooves, horns and all. Digestion involves powerful gastric fluids – and, with really big meals, many weeks of lying around doing little else.
Before you swallow your hog non-roast, of course, you must first catch it. Pythons are ambush specialists, their elaborate camouflage allowing them to lurk unseen beside a game trail then strike with a lightning lunge when prey comes within range. Using special heat-sensitive scales around the mouth, they can also detect the body warmth of prey, even in darkness, and slide silently to within striking distance.
Once a strike hits home, the wickedly back-curved teeth cling on while the deadly coils slip into place. Then constriction begins, the snake tightening its coils every time the victim breathes. Death comes not by asphyxiation or crushing but by cardiac arrest. Small pythons kill rodents and birds in this way. The largest have been known to take lion cubs, crocodiles and, in one 2017 record, a 68kg adult spotted hyena. Such a formidable predator must have required serious strength to subdue.
When it comes to human victims, we must separate rare fact from abundant fiction. There is no authenticated record of a person consumed, but there have been numerous attacks and a handful of known fatalities – including a 13-year old boy killed by a 4.8m python in South Africa’s Limpopo Province in 1979. Captive pythons should also not be trusted: in 2017, one pet killed its owner in Hampshire, UK.
Such horror stories should not distract from the fact that this is a fascinating and beautiful animal, and a good sighting is a real safari bonus. Though widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, and often surviving close to suburbia (cats and chickens beware), it is hard to find. The camouflage is extraordinary: I once stepped unwittingly over a huge python lying across a game trail beside Jozini Dam, in KwaZulu-Natal. Only the yells of my more vigilant wife, a few metres behind, alerted me to what was beneath my feet.
Night drives can be productive: pythons are most active after dark. By day, look out for the broad straight track (pythons generally move in caterpillar fashion) across a trail, which may lead to where one is coiled. Otherwise, scan likely habitat with your binoculars: rocky kopjes and low branches overhanging water are both good bets. A gleam of burnished coil, in good light, may give one away – as may the agitated mobbing of squirrels, birds and other small creatures with eyes sharper than yours. The rainy season is better than the dry season, when the snakes remain dormant for long periods.
And if you’re lucky enough to find a python with prey, keep your distance: approach too close, and the snake may release or regurgitate the hard-won prize in order to escape. Either way, it’s a sighting you won’t forget in a hurry. Next Christmas you may prefer to stick to Brussels sprouts.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.