The Last Defense: Snake Venom is Everywhere

0914_snake111It is one of the longest living and most feared creatures in the world. It is also an important symbol of Chinese culture and history. Nüwa, in myth, was the original ancestor of the Chinese nation. Depicted as a woman with the body of a snake, a human head and the virtue of a divine being, she was the goddess who separated heaven from earth, creating China, the “Divine Land.”

In Dongguan, speaking of snakes is a reminder, to some at least, of tasty and nutritious snake soup. In this subtropic locale, snakes are still more active in the summer, but don’t worry, while we do have cobras, kraits and moccasins (all worthy of their own radiation fueled sci-fi films), they don’t ordinarily prey on humans. Unless startled or injured, most snakes prefer to avoid contact.

That being said—run for your lives! For those who like to trek into the local wilderness, there is still the possibility of getting snake bit. For most, this idea entices a rightfully liberal dose of dread, fear and calculated preparations for revenge, but for Chen Shanjia, a snake hunter in Houjie Town, the fears of mortal men are not but the whining of small children.

Discontent to be known merely as a snake handler, the 69-year-old Chen has his own secret recipe for anti-venom. His career as wild fang wrangler, which started 39 years ago, has garnered him the neighborhood nickname “Snake King,” after treating more than 800 snakebite victims.

The Hunt

Chen Shanjia, local snake handler-supreme shows of one of his many snakes at his home in Houjie Town.

Chen Shanjia, local snake handler-supreme shows of one of his many snakes at his home in Houjie Town.

In his rural Xinwei Village, a nearly forty-minute drive from downtown Houjie that backs up against the Dalingshan Mountain Park, the lush vegetation and reservoirs provide a perfect home to the slithering plotters of unknown schemes.

“Dalingshan Mountain is rich with snakes, and the species in this area are typical in Dongguan,” Chen said. The cobra and the krait are the most common venom bags to snake their snaky bodies through the brush of Dongguan. And Chen’s family has made them their business for three generations.

Starting at 16, Chen followed his grandfather and father into the depths of the mountain to track the snakes, to know their habits, to become a master huntsman (and from our best guess, to learn the whereabouts of their spies in the city).

Chen gradually learned his family’s skill by studying living habits and their shedding skins. But catching a snake is still no easy task. He has to wait until the snake returns to its home. And even with his years of study, at the moment the trigger is pulled, the fight with the frightened snakes is a still a life threatening venture.

“I cannot remember how many times I’ve been bitten,” said Chen. He is thin and of average height; his hair is white and his normally shirtless chest is bronzed with rough hands at the end of his upper-appendages. From his battles with the belly dancers of evil, his fingers are covered in nicks and wounds.

The first time Chen suffered a bite, he recalls the sudden racing of his heartbeat. His breathing became strained, and the pain made him feel like he was in hell. Fortunately, using his family’s “secret recipe,” he was saved.

“Each of my fingers has been bitten, and after various venoms went into my blood, now I feel nothing from some moderately venomous snakebites,” Chen said. “Probably, I have produced the antibody in my body.” Venoms are important in making the medicines that cure snakebites, so Chen supposes that his blood has the self-healing elements.

The Secret Identity

After catching a snake, he will squeeze the venoms into a cup. This is what he calls “disarming” the snake. And Chen has made a living by selling snakes of all kinds. He lives in a two-story house with a basement containing two locked rooms (of horror).

Venomous on one side, and the deceivingly non-poisonous pythons and snakes on the other, the snakes sleep inside terracotta pots. Inside the hall of less dangerous (but equally untrustworthy) reptiles, Chen is at peace with his temporary pets slithering upon his shoulders.

Mr. Chen’s famous snake serum is heavily saught after by villagers and the local government alike.

Mr. Chen’s famous snake serum is heavily saught after by villagers and the local government alike.

“When you hold a snake, don’t try to be forceful or touch its head, and it will follow your lead,” he said. While Chen displays his abilities to tame the tongue-flicking ground humpers (Does this make him one of them?), he says, “The snakes sell for about RMB 200 per kilogram, and the venomous ones, around 300.”

In Chinese medicinal theory, eating snake has the pharmaceutical effects of warming the heart, expelling dampness and increasing one’s strength, with each part of the snake having a special and useful function. Cantonese snake soup and snake wine are consumed in local markets popularly in autumn to warm up in preparation of the coming cold.

In the classics of Chinese traditional medicine, the use of snake is recorded in detail. For instance, Li Shizhen’s famous Compendium of Materia Medica narrates 17 kinds of medicines derived from snake venom. Some are said to have the ability to reanimate life and health (Nothing needs to be said here—creepy).

However, Chen’s business is becoming endangered, hampered by the fact that wild snakes are decreasing. He said that he now has only around 100 kilograms of snakes. Two decades ago, he could easily trap several 100s of kilograms of snakes, one month Chen gathered an entire ton.

As snakes decrease in the wild, Chen has begun to re-release young snakes.

And he says that he would never dare to capture the boas that are protected by law in the region. “I had the idea of raising the little snakes up, but I failed every time,” Chen said. At times, he trapped pregnant snakes. But he didn’t have the skills to raise the baby snakes up because they are very vulnerable to disease (and unlovable). In their natural setting, the snakes are more healthy and strong (must attack while they’re weak).

And though, Chen has a deep respect for the animals, his ancestors’ anti-venom recipe is a growing business. “Every year, around 20 people suffering from snakebites come to me for help,” he said. One of his neighbors and a victim of the viciousness-that-knows-no-bounds, vouches for the speed and effectiveness of the medicine.

And though, Chen has a deep respect for the animals, his ancestors’ antivenom recipe is a growing business.

With these untested (and likely coerced) testimonials Chen’s fame has spread throughout the village. His remedy, once purchased for RMB 150 per dose, has jumped to RMB 500. But Chen says one shot will do ya’.

Over his nearly four-decade career of curing the unlucky (or foolish) Chen says he has treated over 800 patients and that he occasionally gets referrals from local doctors. This prestige is not enough, however, to advance the family business into the coming generation. Because his son is looking to other careers, Chen said, “I will consider donating the secret recipe to the nation before I pass.”

He also disclosed that experts from the agricultural department have already tried to convince him of teaching youngster to hunt snakes and to donate his secret recipe to help more people (and to ensure that doomsday is held off for at least another generation).

Snake Emergency Know-How

Warmer weather means that people are more active outdoors, so are snakes. Doctors from Dongguan People’s Hospital said that about 200 people are bitten by snakes every year in Dongguan, with a fatality rate of 10 percent. So getting the know-how for dealing with snake emergencies might save your life (and your soul).

Places of Evil

Knowing where to look is the key to protection. Mr. Liu, a staff member at Tangxia Town’s Dapingzuhang Forest Park, told HERE! that snake’s habitats vary with species. But mostly, he warns that the parks, mountaineous regions, areas surrounding the reservoirs, where humans are separated from nature, are the most active. However, residential areas with large green spaces can also attract snakes.

“If you’re walking around, be aware of what’s down there,” Liu said. The forests, bushes, under stones, and around tombs (see what I’m telling you) are common homes for snakes. In the summer, the weather could be sweltering, leading snakes to escape the sun. After the rain is the time watch out for their reemergence.

Liu said that snakes are almost blind and deaf so they rely heavily on their tongues to feel the external world. Before stepping in an uncertain place, make noise or bang a stick. Moreover, wearing clothes with long sleeves and long trousers is a good idea.

Surviving Evil

“Our hospital receives more than one hundred patients with this injury annually,” said Gao Yuanmei, a doctor from the Dongguan People’s Hospital Pneumology Department. If bitten,
follow these steps:

1. Note the snake’s appearance and be ready to describe it
to emergency staff.

2. Protect the patient. While waiting for medical help, move them from beyond striking distance; have them lie down with the wound below the heart; keep them still to prevent spreading of the venom.

3. Use clean water on the wound and squeeze some blood out. Cover it with loose, sterile bandages, but remember to loosen it for several minutes every half hour.

DO NOT: Cut the bite and attempt to suck out the venom, apply a tourniquet or ice, give the victim alcohol or caffeine.

ACCORDING TO OUR LAWYERS, SNAKES ARE NOT EVIL, AND THERE IS NO SINISTER PLOT TO TURN THE PEOPLE OF DONGGUAN INTO MINDLESS REPTILIAN SLAVES. (BUT WE ALSO CAN’T PROVE IT ISN’T TRUE.)

Grades of Evilness

Venomous

0914_snake_Chinese CobraChinese Cobra – 眼镜蛇 (yǎn jìng shé)
Known locally as the snake with a hood (from the ‘hood?) because of their talent for spreading upper ribs to brag of lethality, they are considered the kings of the snake world.

 

 

 

0914_snake_Banded KraitBanded Krait – 银环蛇 (yín huán shé)
Sneaking out at night to cause trouble on mountain slopes and agricultural areas, this nocturnal snake is the most venomous in China.

 

 

 

0914_snake_Chinese MoccasinChinese Moccasin – 蝮蛇 (fù shé)
This pit viper is also known as the “hundred pacer” because it is said that after one bite, its victims will only be able to flee for 100 paces before collapse and death.

 

 

 

NON-Venomous (Perfect for espionage)

0914_snake_Striped KeelbackStriped Keelback – 草花蛇 (cǎo huā shé)
This guy is active during the day, but also hunts frogs by night. He is a bit aggressive and nervous upon approach. So it’s best to leave him alone, too.

 

 

 

0914_snake_Big-Eyed Rat SnakeBig-Eyed Rat Snake – 水律蛇 (shuǐ Lǜ shé)
This little snake, which sleeps in the trees for paratrooper fear tactics, is the fastest in Asia. It also has large, strong eyes, making it very difficult to capture.

 

 

 

0914_snake_Green SnakeGreen Snake – 竹叶青蛇 (zhú yè qīng)
Bringing death and destruction to earthworms and insect larvae in the wet forests of Dongguan, this little green terror hides, shamed from its day of mad killing, in trees and shrubs.