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'Dr. Snake' fights to save both people and snakes

Xinhua, 10 12, 2017
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At the gate of Mangshan Museum of Natural History stands a statue of an old man with a snake wrapped around his shoulders.

 

During the National Day holiday, crowds of tourists visited the museum in Chenzhou, central China's Hunan Province, to see the Mangshan pitviper, a species endemic to China and more endangered than giant pandas.

 

They were also attracted by the story of the man in the statue -- curator Chen Yuanhui, a 68-year-old former doctor who has gone from saving people bitten by snakes to saving the poisonous snake from extinction.

 

Last month, the museum received media attention after Chen's team observed ten snakes hatch in a simulated wild situation for the first time.

 

It marked an important step in understanding the species and increasing its wild population, which currently stands at between 400 and 500.

 

SURPRISING DISCOVERY

 

In 1984, Chen, a doctor at the staff hospital of Mangshan Forest Farm, treated a worker who had been bitten by a snake.

 

The patient described the snake as "thicker than beer bottle" with "green markings and a white tail."

 

"I had never heard of such a snake," Chen said. However, it reminded him of the totem of the local Yao ethnic group -- a small green dragon, making him wonder if that dragon was really an unknown species of snake.

 

Chen began to search for the snake in the dense primeval forest surrounding Mang Mountain, known in Chinese as Mangshan.

 

In 1989, he heard that two villagers were selling rare snakes.

 

Chen found them and discovered that the snakes matched the description given by his patient years before. He spent 400 yuan (around 61 U.S. dollars), which he had set aside to buy a refrigerator for his home, to purchase the snakes.

 

"I was very excited because I thought it might be a new species, but nobody would believe me," Chen recalled.

 

He sent photos to provincial wildlife experts, but the black-and-white pictures were not enough to confirm the new species.

 

Chen took the snakes on a two-day train to meet prominent zoologist Zhao Ermi in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.

 

In 1990, they issued a paper announcing the confirmation of a new species of snake to the world. It was named Trimeresurus Mangshanensis, commonly known as the Mangshan pitviper, after the mountain where it was discovered.

 

 

DANGEROUS OBSESSION

 

Chen was not satisfied by just discovering the species, he wanted to protect it at a time when environmental awareness was not great.

 

He realized protection required scientific research. So he started a small-scale artificial breeding program in his home.

 

This put the whole family in danger. A bite from a Mangshan pitviper can kill within two hours if the patient does not receive treatment.

 

Chen has survived more than 20 bites over the past three decades. In 2003, he was bitten as he tried to release a young snake he had treated for an injury. He was unconsciousness for three days and lost a finger.

 

There is a Chinese saying: "Once bitten by a snake, the mere sight of a rope will scare you for the rest of your life." Chen has defied this by continuing to work with the snakes after his injury.

 

During the past decades, he has published over 40 papers on the species, calculated the wild population and their distribution area.

 

There are fewer than 500 Mangshan pitvipers in the wild, much less than the population of wild giant pandas.

 

Fame can bring trouble for men and snakes alike. As the existence of the rare species became known, smugglers tried to buy the snakes from Chen, but he refused.

 

"I needed money but I knew if started selling the snakes, the species could disappear within three to five years," he said.

 

Chen also refused the help of a foreign zoologist who offered to set up a breeding program outside China. "I told him that China is able to protect the species," he said.

 

As China's wildlife conservation efforts and public environmental awareness have improved, Chen is no longer alone in protecting the endangered species.

 

Mangshan Mountain National Nature Reserve was set up in 1993. The species was listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species in 1996.

 

In 2004, the Mangshan Museum of Natural History was established, which is dedicated to the conservation of Mangshan pitvipers.

 

A rare snowfall in 2008, which killed more than 100 pitvipers, forced Chen and his colleagues to speed up research on artificial breeding. So far, over 100 snakes have been born through the breeding program and most have been released into the wild.

 

Around 200,000 tourists visit the area annually, attracted by the rare pitvipers and the natural scenery of Mang Mountain, providing more jobs and higher incomes for local residents.

 

"I have never expected that protecting the snake would also benefit the local people, but it is also very important to me," Chen said.

 

With his silver hair and whiskers, Chen is easily recognized by tourists who often want to take a photo with him. He is always open to meeting those who come to see his snakes.

 

"Snakes are a cold-blooded animal. My late wife used to joke I am also cold-blooded. But my heart is warm. I love the Mangshan pitvipers more than myself," Chen said.

 

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