“Herping” and other Nocturnal Adventures in Taiwan’s Forests

Ryan Hevern
Tao Night Hike Taipei.

The island is a great place to view many different species of snakes.

When the temperature rises and rain falls, the life forms that inhabit Taiwan’s forests become more active. Some expatriates might loathe Taiwan’s sultry summers, but for snake aficionados Bill Murphy, Hans Breuer, and Dane Harris, the season has definite advantages. All three spent many years in Taiwan before they began to appreciate the size and diversity of the island’s serpentine population.

“I’ve been interested in wildlife my whole life, ever since my grandmother used to explain the flora and fauna during hikes,” says Wisconsin-born Bill Murphy. “For the first decade I was in Taiwan, I’d occasionally see a snake, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them to the exclusion of other wildlife. Taiwan is an area of unusually fecund biodiversity. In the hills, I’ve come across flying squirrels, ferret badgers, pangolins, giant moths, glass lizards, rhinoceros beetles, barking deer, and Swinhoe’s pheasants.”

One day, Murphy was walking his dog, Ulysses, on Tiger Head Mountain in Taoyuan, the city where he has lived for most of the past quarter century. “I came across a large snake eating a toad. I had a video camera with me and recorded the incident,” recalls Murphy. He posted the video on the discussion website forumosa.com, where it caught the attention of Hans Breuer, a German then living near Sanzhi in New Taipei City.

“Hans asked me if I wanted to go out ‘herping’ with him some time. I’d never even heard the term before! He explained what it meant, and soon enough I joined him for a hike on a local hill, and then later we went road-cruising at night,” says Murphy. “A whole new world opened up for me!”

Unlike Murphy, Breuer was fascinated by snakes as a youngster. But, readily admitting to being the type of person who has “obsessions, not hobbies,” he says that his interest fell by the wayside when he discovered blues guitar at the age of 15.

The businessman, who first arrived in Taiwan in 1989, traces his adult mania for snakes to a revelatory experience a decade ago. “From 2000, I got into carnivorous pitcher plants. At one point, I had about 300 of them in my greenhouse. Then, in 2007, I went to Kuching [in Sarawak, Malaysia] to attend a pitcher-plant conference. While there, we went out to the jungle to see the plants in a natural setting.”

Breuer had never before seen pitcher plants in their natural habitat. “Seeing something in the wild, rather than a zoo or a greenhouse, is massively different,” he says. He got rid of his pitcher-plant collection and took up nature photography. Soon afterward, a professional herpetologist belonging to the same photography club invited Breuer to go out and look for snakes. His enthusiasm for serpents was immediately rekindled, and between 2007 and 2011, when he relocated to Kuching on a semi-permanent basis, Breuer went out herping up to five nights each week, often with his sons. (The oldest was aged eight in 2007.)

The best months for herping are May to late October, and not just because the temperatures are higher. Rain brings out insects, insects bring out frogs, and frogs bring out snakes. According to Breuer, damp ditches are especially good places to search for snakes.

Inside Yangmingshan National Park, Breuer was once confronted by a park ranger. “I managed to convince him I wasn’t catching snakes so I could sell them to collectors in Europe,” he remembers.

On several occasions, he came across Taiwanese people catching snakes for profit. Breuer points out that when such people are asked about the size of snakes they have seen, the answer usually comes in terms of girth, not length, “because they see the snakes as food.”

The reaction of Taiwanese hikers to snakes sometimes dismays Breuer. “I remember one family who saw me photographing a snake. The mother screamed, and the father started looking around for a stick he could use against the snake. The teenage boy looked terrified, but his young sister showed curiosity rather than fear,” he says. After several such experiences, and seeing the strongly negative attitudes toward snakes in rural Sanzhi, he decided he should try to educate the next generation. By the time many Taiwanese reach their teens, he says, they have been “brainwashed” into fearing snakes.

Pitching his presentation as a safety lecture, he reached out to scores of schools and spoke to about 12,000 students before leaving for Malaysia. In a 90-minute program, he explained the role of snakes in forest ecosystems, then brought out a couple of non-venomous snakes which the youngsters were allowed to handle.

“There’s no margin for error with potentially venomous snakes,” stresses Breuer. A good rule of thumb, he says, is to never get within two snake-lengths of the creature you are trying to photograph, in case it lunges at you.

He once made a mistake that could have cost him very dearly. Soon after moving to Malaysia, in Bako National Park he handled what turned out to be a Malayan Striped Coral Snake (Calliophis intestinalis), a species his field-guide described as “a small but deadly species of elapid.”

In the past, Breuer says he was “so fixed on snakes, I didn’t pay attention to the Formosan gem-faced civets [Paguma larvata taivana], of which there are lots around Sanzhi.” His focus on snakes has broadened into a more general interest in nature. “I’m even getting into birding!” he jokes.

Aware that English-language information about Taiwanese snakes was lacking, Murphy and Breuer set up Snakes of Taiwan. Besides excellent photos (many by Breuer) and bilingual profiles of common snake species, the site has an Amazon link for Breuer’s book, A Cobra Hijacked My Camera Bag! Snakes and Stories from Taiwan.

Do you bring your dog?

Dog-owners wondering whether they should take their pets with them on night rambles may be interested to know that Murphy finds his canine more of an asset than a liability. “He’s curious, and often sees or smells a snake before I do. Also, he seems to have a natural ability to know a venomous snake from a non-threatening one,” says the American. “He sticks his nose right up against the non-venomous ones…but as for the vipers and elapids, he seems to know they’re not to be trifled with. On one hike, he was staring intently into the side of the path clearly alert to some kind of danger. I stared for the longest time at the side of the path, and couldn’t figure out what he was looking at. It turned out to be a cobra.”

That said, Murphy does not usually take his dog with him when he looks for snakes at Baling on the North Cross-Island Highway. “There are simply far too many venomous snakes along that road. I’ve seen over a hundred vipers on a single night, and cobras as well. On a rainy night up there, you can see them festooned on the hill like ornaments on a Christmas tree.”

“I love handling snakes, but only non-venomous species. And I don’t handle them all that often, and never for any extended period of time. It’s stressful for the animals,” says Murphy.

He warns against complacency: “I know a few people here in Taiwan who have lost digits. Some local Taiwanese are very cavalier when it comes to handling ‘hots’ [venomous species]. I’ve seen deadly snakes handled like worms! Usually the reason is photography – they’re trying to ‘pose’ the snake.”

Tainan-based Dane Harris often handles snakes, but still has 10 fingers. He first arrived in Taiwan in 1999, two weeks before the 9-21 Earthquake, but did not begin his nocturnal adventures until 2010.

“I was at a party at a friend’s house, right on the edge of Kenting National Park. I got bored, and a friend of mine also got bored, so we went for a walk on a trail into the park. Soon enough, we spotted a snake in a tree. When we moved to get a closer look at the first snake, we discovered two more snakes,” says Harris.

The duo had no idea which species they had stumbled across, “but after that everything became tremendously interesting,” Harris says. He was hooked, especially after discovering Breuer and Murphy’s website.

Getting a close-up of a Zhiming Cobra. Photo Credit: Hans Breuer

Harris grew up in Florida. “There were always snakes around, and I was always very interested in them,” he says. Seeing any snake in Florida was noteworthy, he remembers, but when he goes out herping in the woodlands of Tainan City’s Xinhua District, “with a decent flashlight, you might see a dozen individuals of seven different species. And more than half of them would be venomous.”

In Xinhua, the many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus), often described as the most venomous snake species outside Australia, is frequently found near bamboo roots. But the bamboo viper (Trimeresurus stejnegeri stejnegeri) is almost never seen among bamboo, Harris says.

“There’s so much around Xinhua above and beyond snakes,” he adds. “Giant red flying squirrels (Petaurista petaurista), civets, as well as some really interesting – and quite horrifying – bugs.”

One of these bugs is a mildly poisonous centipede, the Chinese red head (Scolpendra subspinipes mutilans). Another is the Golden orb weaver spider (Nephila pilipes), sometimes called the Giant wood spider. In Chinese it is called the “manfaced spider” (renmian zhizhu, 人面蜘蛛), but you have to get very close indeed to see the dark dots that represent the eyes, and the mouth-shaped semi-circle. Vinegaroons are quite easy to find, and to some people rather repulsive. Harris describes the Giant Malaysian cave centipede (Thereuopoda clunifera) as “one of the most horrifying looking creatures existing in Taiwan.”

The Golden Orb Weaver Spider. Photo Credit: Hans Breuer

Harris spent a few months living in and exploring Jiupeng in the far southeast of Pingtung County. “At night around there, what I had to worry about weren’t the snakes or the centipedes, but the water buffalo. In the hills where I used to wander, there were groups of wild water buffalo that didn’t want me around, especially in calving season,” he says, advising people who come across one at night to “politely turn around and walk the other way.”

Harris admits to being especially afraid of hornets – Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia). “If I see just one or two, I’ll remove myself to a different place to play with snakes. There’s no defence against those things.”

“I’ve never been bitten by a snake which I didn’t let bite me. It’s a lot easier if you handle a snake with the intention of allowing it to bite you. Holding it in a way that prevents it from biting you puts a lot of stress on the animal. It’s not even going to hurt very much. It’s less serious than a cat bite,” says Harris.

A Red Flying Squirrel.

Asked what defensive precautions he takes when he is in the forest, Harris replies: “Your defense is to be really, really observant. You have to know what’s around you. That’s really what it comes down to. Move slowly and keep looking. When I take people out to the forest, I tell them the number-one rule is to always know what you’re about to put your foot down on. That means I never walk in tall grass or leaf litter that could hide a snake.”

But he agrees that following this rule is not always easy, especially when you are scanning the canopy for squirrels or owls. “When I bring people to Xinhua, I stress the ‘look before you step’ principle, and tell them to be conscious of branches hanging over the trail,” he adds.

Leading friends through the forest, and pointing out creatures to them, is a particular pleasure for Harris, who says: “I take people out of their ordered, urban lives, to a place where things are disordered, and try to show them a certain joy in that. It’s joy that’s not associated with a competition or a game with rules.”

Residents of north Taiwan keen to join a guided nighttime ramble can contact Taiwan Adventure Outings (TAO) through Facebook. During the warmer months, TAO organizes expeditions in Taipei or New Taipei most weekends. These are free, but limited to eight people each time. Apart from good shoes, the only equipment needed is a decent flashlight, ideally a hiker’s headlamp.

Handling a snake.

For Harris, herping brings both serenity and excitement. “In Kenting, getting views of jungle-covered mountains, and being cognizant of being the only human for some miles around, to me feels… graceful, in the very old religious sense of the word,” he says. “But there’s also an adrenalin side to it when I decide I’m going to handle a venomous animal, especially a species I haven’t handled before.”

By handling snakes, Harris gets to see them close-up. But he does not pretend to be making a contribution to science, and does not keep a detailed log of sightings. He struggles to articulate the appeal of such experiences: “It takes you that much closer to the… eternal? There’s a certain moment, when you’re doing something like that, at which you feel almost transparent.”