Science

On the Plate

As climate and environmental conditions worsen, we’d do well to remember we’re vulnerable to the chaos of nature too.

Large snake in a ruined environment ominously approaching a human standing silhouetted by the moon.
Franco Zacharzewski

On Sunday, March 26, 2017, Akbar Salubiro, a 25-year-old farmer, set off to work. Salubiro lived in the remote Indonesian village of Salubiro (many Indonesians go by only one name and take the name of the local town as a last name) in West Sulawesi. He worked on a palm oil plantation on the island, a common occupation for villagers, and that morning, he was alone. His wife was out of town visiting her parents, in another village.

It is not clear when an alarm was raised regarding Salubiro’s disappearance. Several reports suggest that the search for him began as early as Monday night. After two days and still no trace, local villagers notified Salubiro’s uncle about his disappearance. Equally concerned, the uncle went to Salubiro’s house and found the doors locked, the house empty. The uncle and villagers then went to the local police, who issued a manhunt to look for Salubiro, searching the palm oil plantation and nearby area. They did not find him, but they did find a boot, a farming tool, and scattered palm oil at the plantation.

Nearby Salubiro’s remaining boot and tool, villagers noticed the presence of a 23-foot engorged reticulated python in a ditch, struggling to move. One villager noticed shoe-shaped indentations visible in the distended body of the snake. Hoping to be wrong, the group got together and killed the python. By this time, it was late Tuesday night. There is a gruesome video posted by the local police where, in just under six blood-curdling minutes, witnesses watch as one man wielding an 18-inch-long knife cuts open the belly of the snake. The video is dark and blurry, with cellphone cameras and flashlights flickering, as men shuffle uncomfortably around the dead python. The long, engorged body of the snake is lifeless but daunting, uncanny.

At first, you see what could possibly be a boot. Soon after, it is undeniable. Those are clothed human legs, feet. The snake’s belly is cut open, further and further. Minute by minute, you see the presence of two fully clothed, lifeless human legs. Then a torso, shirted. By the time they get to the top of the torso, it’s very clear what you’re looking at.

Salubiro’s death is one of the few reports of reticulated pythons intentionally eating an adult human being, but it’s perhaps more useful to think of it as one of the first recorded death of this—life went on before such tragedies could be recorded on cellphones, so who knows how many snake-caused deaths have occurred over time in the remote villages of Indonesia, or anywhere else.

Just the next year, on the night of June 14, 2018, a 54-year-old woman named Wa Tiba went out to check on her cornfield, about half a mile from her home, in the far Southeast Sulawesi province on Muna Island. Flashlight in hand, Tiba was concerned because wild boars had been raiding her corn, according to the village chief, Faris.

The next day, her children realized she hadn’t returned. They searched for her that morning and found her footprints, sandals, a machete, and torch near ruffled bushes. Then they found, within 50 yards of her belongings, an enormous, bloated snake. They called the police and soon hundreds of villagers gathered. Expecting the worst, they killed the snake and carried it back to the village, where they cut it open and found Tiba, fully clothed, swallowed headfirst by the snake. Like Salubiro, Tiba was killed by a 23-foot reticulated python.

You can also watch the nightmarish footage of the villagers removing Tiba’s slime-covered, fully intact body from the snake on several websites. Witnesses cry and stand by in disbelief and horror as the snake’s bloated body is ripped open.

Snakes, the carnivorous reptiles of the suborder Serpentes, are universally sinister-looking amniote vertebrates. With their long, scaly, leg-less, slithering, jaw-expanding bodies, it is not surprising that snakes represent the devil in more than one religion. Many people worry, especially in warmer seasons, about a poisonous bite by a venomous snake, but most species, like reticulated pythons, are nonvenomous. Instead of relying on venom to kill their prey, most snakes swallow prey alive (whole) or kill by constriction first, followed by whole consumption.

Reticulated pythons tend to kill their prey by first biting it with their sharp, curled teeth. Then, they stop, or rather, constrict the prey’s blood flow by tightly winding themselves around the victim’s body. Once the victim is dead, the jaws of the python’s mouth muscles expand, joints loosening, to adjust to the much-wider girth of their prey, and the victim is slowly swallowed whole as stomach juices help slide the dead victim down the throat and through the belly of the snake. Reticulated pythons, the longest snakes in the world, are not nearly as thick and meaty as anacondas or boa constrictors, so they are quick-moving (when not digesting a fresh meal). They sneak up on their prey for a surprise attack and are often able to strike a deadly enough blow to injure their prey sufficiently before hastily beginning the constricting and digesting process.

Like much of Indonesia, Sulawesi is an island, with miles of wetlands and mountains interspersed with cities and villages that live alongside the forest-occupying wildlife. Most reports of wildlife harming humans have one thing in common, which is to place blame on deforestation and climate change. The continued deforestation across the globe—everywhere, but also specifically in Indonesia—is destroying the environments that large predators live in, and this shows up in problems throughout the food chain. The elimination of ecosystems, species, and forests causes changes in animal behavior. After all, survival is the primary instinct. Both of the 23-foot now-deceased pythons most likely slithered their way out of their forest homes because they couldn’t find anything else to eat. Snakes don’t need to feed often. Large snakes don’t need to feed for months on end and usually are satisfied by smaller rodents, dogs, pigs, or cows. Maybe the pythons were desperate and had no other option but to leave their usual hunting grounds to take on a riskier, bigger, bipedal kind of prey. We’ll never know for sure.

In 2015, when several shark attacks were reported along the Carolina coastlines, Veronica-Pooh Nash-Poleate posted a funny YouTube video in which she lectures listeners on messing with sharks. The ocean, she reminds us, is “the shark’s house,” and if you go in, you should know you may end up as a meal, just like a chicken coming in her house would end up “on the plate.” We tend to consider the Earth our home. But it’s home to every other living being as well. We’re the ones responsible for the destruction of countless living creatures (including fellow human beings). We’re the ones destroying their habitats and endangering so many species. And yet, we’re not used to ending up “on the plate” ourselves.

Death is horrifying enough as it is. But being consumed by another living creature? Even though we kill and eat animals ourselves, when it comes to the other way around, it starts to get uncomfortable. The stress of survival in this specific form is alien to us, certainly to those of us living in big, industrialized cities. Still, headlines with “death by animal” come along a few times every year, like the toddler that was dragged into the lagoon by an alligator at a Disney resort in the summer of 2016. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Shark attacks, python attacks, headlines that include “Australia” or “Florida.” It’s a topic Gary Larson understood so well. These cases are extremely rare (which is why they make the news), but still, disturbing.

Salubiro’s and Tiba’s deaths are a reminder that we share the Earth with other living animals that kill and eat other animals, just like most of us do. It’s a grim reminder that we are of flesh and blood, and that our superior placement at the top of the food chain is fallible. The instinctive, animalistic part of us is a much larger variable in our existence than we ever want to admit or accept. Our species has ended up as dinner (“on the plate”) before, and as we continue to degrade the circumstances of the planet around us, we should realize that a return to more primal circumstances might naturally follow. We should try to stop this degradation as quickly as we can—not only for the sake of the planet and its creatures, but also for our own.

Correction, Aug. 6, 2019: This post originally misstated that the man who cut open the snake had an 18-foot-long knife. It was 18 inches.