Python Hunters: Death by Viper


Photograph by NGT


Written by Phil Desjardins, Series Producer

Shawn has been to Costa Rica many times before, but it’s a first for both Greg and Michael – so I expect there’s going to be a great deal of wonderment and non-stop ‘wow factors’ from them – and there is, almost at every turn. We arrived the previous afternoon at San Jose Airport and met up with Quetzal Dwyer.  He’s an American ex-pat from New York city who has been living down near Dominical on the Pacific side of the country.  He started up a reptile breeding and display facility that is also open to the public year-round.  Quetzal drove the four hours from his home into San Jose only to lead us back again down the winding narrow hardtop highway to Dominical – which was the become our base of operations.

On the drive to Dominical we stopped for a fish supper beside the famous Tempisque River bridge where tourists gather to throw food down to legions of waiting American crocodiles.  Costa Rica has a huge healthy population of these animals.  They’re protected and have become a principal tourist attraction for operators up and down the river system. We’ll be getting up-close-and personal with them on the last day of this four day trip.

In addition to 113 reptile species, Costa Rica is home to several species of venomous pit vipers. Unlike other species, a viper’s fangs retract until ready to inject venom like hypodermic syringes.  The guys are especially anxious to meet up with local viper species – the Bushmaster, Fer-de-lance, and Eyelash viper.

When we finally arrived in Dominical, we were checked into an amazing facility built into the hillside of the local rainforest. Costa Rica has some of the most pristine rainforest habitats in the world, and the national government protects it fiercely.  We each had our own private cabana – but Shawn, Greg and Michael had the greatest views looking out over the forest canopy to the ocean about a half-mile in the distance.

The day started at 8am with a trip to survey Quetzal’s facility known as REPTILANDIA. The guys wanted to get an overview of the key native snake species in the area and Quetzal was more than ready to oblige.  He let the guys get their hands on a pair of Bushmasters, Eyelash vipers, Fer-de-lance (aka Lancehead viper) as well as the native Tiger Rat snake which comes in two color phases – a yellow one that blends in with the rainforest tree and ground, and a duller green colored one for camouflage in more open habitats.

Getting so close to some of these venomous was made easier by having the guys operate the high definition ‘snake cam’ to great effect.  The guys taped it onto the end of a long snake hook as they handled dangerous snakes.  It prevented Harald, our director/cameraman from having to get too close and risk getting bit by anything venomous.

The highlight of the day was seeing Shawn closely examine a Fer-de-lance.  He was bitten (aka ‘tagged’ in snake talk) by one six years ago in Peru’s Amazon basin and the bite could easily have cost him a limb or even his life.  He tells the story of what happened and for sure that will be in the show.  But since we’re also headed to Peru right after this trip – we’re going to get many more details about Shawnn’s Fer-de-lance bite where it actually happened.  We spent about five hours today on the Reptilandia property filming not only snakes but also a hummingbird nest, a couple of bats hanging out under some huge palm leaves and cane toad – surprisingly, they are native to Costa Rica and fit in nicely with the ecosystem, unlike in Florida or even Australia.  Just before we broke for supper Quertzal asked if we wanted to watch the daily feeding of his crocodiles and Komodo dragon.  It was live chickens and not a pretty sight.  The crocs are efficient killers. They grab the chicken and drag it underwater to drown it.  The Komodo relies on its powerful bite to disable and injure its prey, but it’s the bacteria in its mouth that process actually kills and that can take a long time.  Quetzal humanely wrung this hen’s neck to put it out of its misery. Needless to say this footage will never be used in the show.

The daily monsoon started at about 5 pm just as we were saddling up to drive three hours (mostly in the dark) on narrow roads up and down mountains to a mangrove area.  We were about to do some night herping from boats looking for the Central American Treeboa.  It was a tough shoot.  Rain made it very difficult for Harald to get his shots but it was a very successful night inspite of the challenges.  The guys caught three specimens, each one bigger than the last.  We came home quite late and everybody made a mad dash to their cabanas to try and get a couple of hours of shut-eye because we’d foolishly planned an early start the next morning.


Tune in to the premiere of Python Hunters tonight, Friday, May 25th at 10P et/pt.