African rock python

The African Rock Python

I’ve been a ranger for a long time, but I’ve never been a fan of snakes. They don’t necessarily frighten me, they just creep me out a little – especially if I need to touch them. It’s inevitable to come across them from time to time in the bush. Sometimes it’s a deadly black mamba and sometimes it’s a harmless spotted bush snake, but of all the snakes in South Africa, the one I mind the least is the African rock python.

We’ve been very fortunate with African rock python sightings at Kapama over the last few months. A young, half-metre-long one was spotted on a recent night drive, sluggishly crossing the road in front of a ranger and his guests, and another, much larger one was observed cooling off in the waterhole near camp. My best African rock python sighting was of a two-metre-long snake basking in a sunny patch in a tree, lying so still that a turtledove landed right in front of it. The snake struck out so quickly we barely had time to blink, and within seconds it had wound its muscular form round and round its prey, squeezing the life out of it before swallowing it down.

African rock pythons are one of the six largest snake species in the world, the largest in Africa, and can grow to a length of six metres (19 feet). Their long, stout bodies are beautifully patterned with blotches of brown, olive, chestnut or yellow, often joining up in a broad, irregular stripe, and their triangular heads are marked on top with a dark brown ‘spear-head’ outlined in yellow. They’re usually found near water, preferring evergreen forests or moist, open savannahs, and they eat anything from birds and rodents to monkeys or fish. Fully-grown pythons have been known to hunt small antelope and even crocodiles. Being non-venomous constrictors, they strike and grab with the help of many small, backward-curved teeth and crush their prey by winding tighter and tighter with each exhalation.

Like all snakes, they’re ectothermic (or cold-blooded), and therefore depend on their environment to regulate their body temperature. This explains why the small one spotted at night took its time to cross the road and why the large one near camp needed to cool off in the water in the heat of the day. The fact that they can get big enough to consider a human child a convenient snack can be quite frightening, but it’s also their size that makes them vulnerable to hunting for food and leather.

I may not like snakes all that much, but finding an African rock python (even a small one) is always a treat – especially if they keep their distance…

Written by: Pieter Barwise
Kapama River Lodge