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African Python Nabs Vervet Monkey

by Scotch Macaskill

It's not often one gets to see an African Rock Python in the wild and it's even rarer to see one of these huge snakes - the largest in Africa - with its victim.

So we were doubly lucky on a trip to South Africa's Kruger National Park to find a python close to the side of the road, coiled round a big male vervet monkey (easily identified by the characteristic bright blue testicles).

Of course it's not just luck - sharp eyes and bush knowledge also played a part. Two of our party spotted the python after they were alerted that something was amiss by the frantic alarm call of birds in the vicinity.

When we arrived (3.28pm), the python had two full coils round the monkey's torso (right). There were no signs of life from the victim. But it had clearly not succumbed without a fight, for we could see bloody wounds on the python's body, inflicted by the desperate monkey's sharp teeth.

Python wrapped round monkey Click on any picture to see larger version
Restricted View
Although we could get a reasonable view from our vehicles, it was unfortunately one-dimensional as it's strictly forbidden to leave the road (or your vehicle) in the park.

African Rock Python Python and victim
As we watched (3.43pm), the python started untangling itself (above) until it was completely uncoiled and lying full-length in the grass.

Python with victim Rock Python, close-up of head
The python then slithered back towards the monkey (3.59pm), apparantly looking for a way to start swallowing it (above). The close-up (above right) of the python's head with the monkey in the foreground clearly shows blood around the python's mouth, possibly from when it first sank its teeth into the monkey before squeezing it to death.

At this stage (3.59pm) the python seemed unsure of what to do and, to our disappointment, slithered away and disappeared into its hole in an old tree stump nearby, leaving the body of the monkey lying prone in the grass (right).

So we headed off in search of other animals, only to return at dusk - about two hours later - drawn back to this unusual spectacle.

Dead Monkey

Rock Python with monkey

And once more luck was on our side, as the python was back (6.08pm), again coiled round the monkey, very slowly starting to swallow the monkey (left).

From our position, we weren't able to get a clear view of this, but could see that the python had started literally to squeeze the monkey down its throat.

Unfortunately we had to leave almost immediately to get back to camp before the gates closed at 6.30pm.

Although we returned in the morning, there was no sign whatsoever of python or monkey, so we were left to ponder whether the snake had managed to swallow its prey unhindered, or whether possibly those cunning scavengers, the spotted hyenas, had robbed it of its meal.

African Rock Python Fact File

Scientific name: Python sebae
Length: averages 18 - 20' (3-5m); maximum of 28-30'
Habitat: grasslands/savannah; near water, occasionally forest edges
Incubation: pythons lay as many as 75 eggs, which hatch in 2-3 months.
Range: south of Sahara to central southern Africa

General: The rock python is a constrictor, killing its prey by squeezing; it does not have any venom.

Pythons are ambush predators, typically staying camouflaged before suddenly striking at passing prey. They then grasp the victim in their teeth while coiling their body round the prey, before killing by constriction. Death is usually a result of suffocation or heart failure rather than crushing.

Big pythons can kill fairly large animals such as antelopes (see picture), pigs, jackals and monkeys, but will not usually attack humans unless startled or provoked.

Pythons have jaws with special hinges that can be "unfolded" and they have an elastic joint at the front of the jaw, enabling them to stretch their jaws around prey larger than themselves.

The rock python's main enemy is man, who kills it for its skin and meat.

Images © Scotch Macaskill

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