The 46-year-old resurfaces moments later on the paved trail with a multi-banded krait, also known as Bungarus multicinctus, a species covered in zebra-like black and white stripes that is one of the most venomous snakes in the world.
“This is a real beauty, it’s breathtaking,” Sargent says, sweating on his forehead as he struggles to keep the lively reptile from slipping from his grasp. “If there was an elite snake model, this would be right there. But this is the one you really don’t want to get bitten by. If you don’t get treated, you could have breathing problems and die.”
Since 2017, Sargent, a police-approved snake expert, has been conducting nighttime so-called “Snake Safaris” through Hong Kong’s green, biodiverse terrains, such as Tai Mo Shan Country Park – home to the city’s tallest mountain in the north. New Territories region — which takes hundreds of daring visitors every year.
The Briton moved to the city at the age of two and developed a passion for herpetology — the study of amphibians and reptiles — while exploring Hong Kong’s lush subtropical landscapes as a teenager. In addition to fulfilling his own interests, for Sargent the tours are a way to fight stigma, raise awareness and build an appreciation for snakes.
“The vast majority of snakes that show up in your house don’t want to live there. It’s just because of circumstances, like a fish jumping into your boat,” he says. “If you’re sensible, there’s nothing to be afraid of. But unfortunately many snakes are killed out of fear.’
Although Hong Kong is a global metropolis almost as big as Los Angeles, with some of the most populous districts in the world, about 40% of its landmass is made up of protected parks, meaning its 7.3 million residents often come into contact with wildlife including more than 50 species of snakes in the city – from the potentially deadly King Cobra to the Burmese Python, which can grow over 26 feet.
One of the non-snakes you may encounter on a safari is a brown tree frog.
Dale de la Rey/South China Morning Post/Getty Images
“Given its size, Hong Kong has a disproportionately high number of snakes,” said Dr. Sung Yik-hei, a professor at Lingnan University and one of the city’s foremost reptile experts. “That’s because of the city’s wide variety of habitats: mountains, coastal areas, lowlands, wetlands and freshwater streams.”
Despite this wealth of reptiles, there are no more than 100 snakebites in Hong Kong each year — the equivalent chance of about one in 50,000 — and the latest death was of a shopkeeper who taunted a non-native snake for which there was no antidote in 1988.
“The chances of encountering a snake are not slim,” Sung adds. “But the chances of getting bitten are very slim. Even if you are, Hong Kong is one of the safest places in the world for snake bites because of its quality and proximity to hospitals.”
For his part, Sargent receives calls every week to catch snakes everywhere from schools to prisons to homes, and once, a beach on Lantau Island to catch a 15-foot python. As of August, he is the first expert to participate in a “Rapid Release Program” – meaning that instead of going through a days-long, bureaucratic procedure to send a captured snake to a police station and other facilities, he can be released. it in the nearest rural park, reducing the workload and keeping the snakes much healthier.
This policy change has proved an uphill battle in a complex cultural context.
In Hong Kong, snakes are eaten in a soup, used in traditional Chinese medicine, or otherwise simply seen as a threat. As a result, across China, nearly all larger snake species are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which lists the conservation status of the world’s plant and animal species. keeps track.
A visitor to the tour and member of the Facebook group, Michelle Yu, who moved to Hong Kong from Washington DC nine years ago, says her perception of snakes has completely changed thanks to the community. “You go from disgust to actively looking for these beautiful creatures,” she explains.
For others, the experience underscores the unique contrasts available in Hong Kong: towering skyscrapers next to exotic nature. “You get the great feeling of being able to escape the city,” said Loïc Sorgho, a 42-year-old French banker. “Where else can you go from a 50-story building to a tropical jungle so quickly?”
Over the course of a few hours, the group encounters nine different snakes: three bamboo pit vipers; two diamondback water hoses; a two-tone power hose; a fake viper; a larger green; and the multi-banded krait, whose translucent soft midriff Sargent invites attendees to pet. “Please don’t touch more than halfway down his body,” he jokes. “It won’t do my insurance any good.”
And there are plenty of other wildlife to spot on the tour: barking deer, leopard cats, porcupines, swamp eels, birds of prey, frogs of all kinds, and fire-bellied salamanders, whose dark undersides are dotted with bright orange and red spots.
Towards the end of the winding route along rocky bamboo-lined paths and over babbling streams, Sargent glimpses a baby diamondback water snake coiled on a plant and picks it up. “He’s trying to get his back teeth into me,” he says, just before being bitten on a fingertip. ‘Ow! It’s pretty toxic to geckos, but I’ll be fine.’
Once released, the snake, which has white-yellow diamond markings the length of its scaly body, glides above the moonlit water surface amid a chorus of crickets and into the perfectly still Hong Kong night.
Photo: William Sargent wielding a snake. Image by Adam Francis.