DEBORAH SMITH June 20, 2012
Just what the doctor ordered … the Oenpelli python is one of the world's rarest snakes and the only legally unobtainable python species. Photo: Glenn Campbell
CAPTURING the Holy Grail of Australian reptiles turned out to be something of an anti-climax for Gavin Bedford.
The Northern Territory herpetologist had spent almost a decade trying to get permission to collect and breed the elegant Oenpelli python, one of the world's rarest snakes and the only legally unobtainable python species.
He had spent more than 1100 hours searching for it, dropped by helicopter into remote and rugged sandstone country near the East Alligator River in Arnhem Land.
In the end, he stumbled upon one of the elusive serpents, which turn a shimmery silver at night-time, lying placidly on the ground.
''I walked past it to start with, and something registered in my brain that it wasn't right. And there it was, stretched out like a big stick,'' Dr Bedford said. His euphoria lasted a few minutes, before it dawned on him that finding a second one could take just as long.
But the python expert is determined to breed the vulnerable species, which is sacred to some Aboriginal people, in a bid to help preserve it.
Dr Bedford is the first person to get permission from the territory government to collect the snakes, in collaboration with traditional owners in western Arnhem Land, who will receive royalties for animals collected and sold.
Even though the elegant female, dubbed Ester, which was captured in March, is still on her own, 10 prospective hatchlings, at $15,000 a pair, have already been pre-sold to supporters of the project.
It is unlikely owners would ever keep the reptiles around the house, Dr Bedford said. ''Not many people would want a five-metre pet,'' he said.
Dr Bedford, who displays and sells reptiles in Darwin, said that the small mammals the pythons eat in the wild are in steep decline, putting pressure on the few snakes left.
He likens the python's plight to that of the thylacine a century ago. ''Who wouldn't like to go back and say, let's keep 10 pairs of these?''
Given their rarity and mystique, the pythons, which are found only on Aboriginal homelands, have also been the target of illegal hunting and smuggling. Making them commercially available would help prevent this, he said.
The breeding program will be tightly controlled with all offspring having their DNA kept on a register.
A similar bid to collect the pythons from Kakadu National Park has so far been blocked by the park's board of management.
Meanwhile, Ester, in her isolation, has been feasting on dead ducklings and rats.