Thursday, April 12, 2007

Article: Giants of Los Llanos

My younger brother had a room full of snakes when we were kids. Our mom struggled against this at first. Rules were well defined: small species only, nothing poisonous and all animals securely caged. Stephen broke all of these rules at one time or another. I can still remember the look on Mom’s face when she asked him if his “water boa” wasn’t the same thing as an anaconda. It would have broken his heart to give up Annie, as he called the snake, but luckily Mom wasn’t as good at enforcing rules as she was at making them.

One of the goals of my recent trip to Venezuela was an encounter with a giant snake in the wild. As my brother’s euphemism implied, anacondas live in the water, including the vast marshes of Los Llanos. This is one of the best places to view the largest of the anaconda species, the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). Even so, cruising around Los Llanos in a small boat, or even driving along the raised dirt roads that serve as levies, you’re not likely to see one. But you can easily spot both their predators and their prey.

The most obvious item on the anaconda menu is the capybara. It makes sense that the world’s largest snake would eat the world’s largest rodent. You can’t expect a snake weighing in the hundreds of pounds to be content with a rat. Capybaras look like enormous, big-headed, coarse-furred, web-toed guinea pigs. The males top out at around 140 lbs, a good meal for even a large female anaconda. The smaller female capybaras provide tasty treats for the smaller male anacondas or for juveniles.

It is impossible not to notice the large numbers of caiman sharing the water with the capybara. The caiman are not as large as many crocodilians, generally smaller than six or seven feet in length. While anacondas of all sizes consume appropriately proportioned caiman, the converse is also true: caiman eat appropriately proportioned anacondas. I guess they probably resort to this mutual predation when they get bored of an endless diet of capybara.

Another giant shares the swamps of Los Llanos, the Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius). These large crocodiles reach fifteen feet and are much bulkier and have nastier looking teeth than their caiman cousins. They look like caiman on steroids. Since there are so few left in the wild, it’s not easy to determine who is predator and who prey in their interaction with the anacondas.

Surprisingly, I found my first anaconda at a crocodile breeding station. It was actually in an enclosure with several large crocodiles. We strained to see it through the dense vegetation. It appeared to be sleeping. Our guide pointed to a place where a circular opening had been made in the wire mesh allowing the anaconda, a regular visitor, easy access. Even though the snake was free to go, this hardly fulfilled my dream of a wild anaconda spotting.

About a week later in another part of Los Llanos, we came across an anaconda basking in the evening sun. The snake was only seven or eight feet long, typical size for a male. I snapped several photos and then posed with the snake after capture. It didn’t seem particularly large or dangerous. When released, it took its time sliding its heavy body into the tall grass.

I guess I expected more from my wild anaconda experience. It was great seeing how they live and everything but, well, Annie was only a little smaller and a lot more vicious than her wild con-specific. Our guide had insisted that only he was qualified to catch the wild anaconda yet, in one of those common breaches of the rules, even my mom caught Annie when she escaped from her cage one time when Stephen and I weren’t home.

Photo: Green anaconda at Hato El FioPhoto: Coral, Philip and me holding the 7' anaconda we saw at Hato El Frio
Photo: Capybara family swiming
Photo: Male capybara at water's edge
Photo: Coral with one of the Orinoco crododiles that was in the enclosure with the anaconda.
Photo: Head of an Orinoco crocodile. This one attacked Coral but luckily couldn't get through the fence.

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