RAS AL KHAIMAH // When Ahmed Mohamed al Bakhiti left for work on Tuesday the last thing he expected to find was a 1.5-metre snake just outside his front door.
He might have been even more surprised had he realised the reptile in front of him was a rare but harmless African ball python, which is on the international list of threatened species.
Had he known that, he might not have done what he did next. Fearing for his children's safety, he reached for a stick and beat the hissing animal, hammering its head for 10 minutes until he was sure it was dead.
"My son, Mohammed, was waiting outside for the school bus, and then he came inside because he forgot his pocket money," Mr al Bakhiti said.
"Just when he came inside, I went out to go to work, and then saw two crows fighting on top of my bin.
"I thought maybe they are fighting over a rat or something, so I went to see what was going on.
"I was horrified when I found the snake there with its mouth wide open and hissing so loudly."
Sparing its life was out of the question, he said, as he did not know whether it was poisonous or not.
According to experts, it was not. "It's a non-venomous, nearly harmless snake called the African ball python," said Dr Reza Khan, a specialist in the Wildlife and Zoo Management Department at Dubai Municipality, when shown a picture of the deceased reptile.
Originally from the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, the snakes were often kept as pets, and did not bite unless mauled or manhandled, he said. Even if it did bite, he said, it would be like being poked by a sharp object.
The ball python, also known as the royal python, or Python regius, is included in Appendix II of Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Appendix II lists species that may become endangered in the future, unless trade is closely controlled. The UAE joined Cites in 1990.
Farshid Mehrdadfar, an animal expert at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, said that ball pythons were constrictors, meaning that they wrap themselves around their prey to crush it to death.
In the wild, the snake preys on amphibians, lizards, birds and rodents.
Johannes Els, a reptile expert at the Sharjah Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, said the ball python was the smallest of the African pythons, none of which grow to more than 1.8m.
He said the snakes could escape if not kept carefully. "A large number of exotic reptiles enter the UAE for the pet trade and unfortunately most buyers have no understanding about husbandry or the responsibilities that go with keeping a reptile as a pet.
"Snakes will never attack and chase humans, even those that have been labelled by the media internationally to be aggressive, such as the black mamba.
"All snakes will always attempt to move away from an approaching human. They will only defend themselves by delivering a bite when cornered or captured."
Mr al Bakhiti said it was not his first tangle with a snake. "Two months ago I killed another, but it was small," he said. "That is why I am not afraid of them, just the shock of seeing it. We live in a mountain area, so there are a few snakes that can be found."
The ones that are venomous
The most commonly encountered venomous snakes in the UAE are the Arabian horned viper (Cerastes gasperettii) and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus sockureki). The Oman carpet viper (Echis omanensis) can also be found in the rocky mountain ranges in the east.
Other local species are non venomous and harmless to humans. Common ones include the wadi racer (Platyceps rhodorachis), Diadem snake (Spalerosophis diadema cliffordi), the leaf-nosed snake (Lytorhynchus diadema), the false cobra (Malpolon moilensis), the sand snake (Psammophis schokari) and the Arabian sand boa (Eryx jayakari).
Many snakes are found in RAK because it is more mountainous than the flatter emirates to the west.
* Ola Salem