Published: 02 September 2010
by JOSH LOEB
EXOTIC creatures out of place in cities are the stuff of folklore – and, of late, of reputable newspapers.
Earlier this month, local papers in east London reported that a potentially venomous snake was on the loose, then the broadsheets snapped up the story of an alligator found on the streets of New York. The next day, the New Journal carried an article about a man who had been rushed to the Royal Free Hospital after being bitten by a tropical spider.
Such animals do not normally last long in our midst: they either die or are captured. But walk along the Regent’s Canal and you may spot one of the completely harmless foreign snakes that have been quietly and unobtrusively breeding there for several years, their origin a mystery.
“The Camden Creature”, as it has become known, is an Aesculapian
snake (Elaphe longissima), a species native to the former Yugoslavia, and it is believed there are a few dozen such animals living by the canal.
For years, herpetologists have been photographing them. But how did they get there?
London Zoo, which is nearby, acknowledges the snakes’ existence but says it is unsure where they came from. Now one expert has claimed the key to the mystery lies with the now-defunct Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).
David Bird, a former zoo curator, says that in the 1980s the ILEA had a facility in the area and that snakes were kept there. “The ILEA had a building close to the zoo,” he says. “I believe these snakes either escaped from there or that someone released them.”
That they went on to establish a self-sustaining population is, he says, exciting. “It’s an alien species that has survived in the centre of London,” he explains. “They eat birds and eggs but the ones in Camden appear to be feeding on rodents. It’s amazing they have done so well as they are not really town dwellers.”
Professor Wolfgang Wüster, who has studied the only other colony of Aesculapian snakes in Britain – located close to the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay, North Wales – says they do no harm to the ecosystem.
“From what we’ve seen they are unlikely to have a deleterious impact,” he says. “They don’t carry parasites, they feed on rats and they don’t compete with any other populations. In the city there aren’t the dispersal corridors available for them to spread much further than where they are already.”
Another herpetologist, Will Atkins from The London, Essex and Hertfordshire Amphibian and Reptile Trust, who has been photographing the snakes for the past three years, says the population’s distribution is limited because of the scarcity of egg-laying sites.
“In my view this population is probably doomed to extinction,” he says, adding that people should leave the animals alone and not try and capture or kill them – because of the hazards of rummaging in bushes by the canal as much as anything.
“The banks of the canal can be dangerous,” he says. “Steep, slippery and with broken glass, dirty needles. Not a habitat to encourage people to explore, especially kids.”
The Aesculapian snake is associated with Greek mythology, from which it takes its name: Aesculapius, the god of healing, held a staff with a snake coiled around it. There are similar stories of healing snakes in the Old Testament.
This adds another layer of mystique to the animals, but speak to those who fish by the canal and they will tell you numerous tales of reptiles in the waterway. A caiman (a type of crocodile) was once found there, as was an iguana.
These stories could be nonsense, or they could be as true as that of the “Camden Creature”.
• The London, Essex and Hertfordshire Amphibian and Reptile Trust (LEHART) is a registered charity whose aim is to promote the conservation of native species of amphibian and reptile. For more details or to donate, www.lehart.org ">visit www.lehart.org
• Anyone wanting to report sightings of aesculapian snakes around the canal can contact Will Atkins at lehartrust@hotmail. com
EXOTIC SPECIES IN OUR MIDST:
• Muntjac deer: This small, Chinese species of deer – which has horns and “fangs” – has been recorded on Hampstead Heath, though few if any have seen them. They live in the densest parts of the Heath, are well camouflaged and very shy.
• Red-eared terrapins: As the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze drew to a close in the mid-1990s, scores of these rapacious creatures were released into lakes and canals across London. When part of the New River near Finsbury Park was drained recently, passers-by saw dozens of these large reptiles churning in the mud. They have now been removed.
• Ring-necked parakeets: Swarming over our rooftops, these birds are pretty but extremely noisy – and as our climate heats up, they are multiplying. Some residents of Hampstead believe they should be culled. Legend has it they escaped from Shepperton Studios in 1950 during the filming of The African Queen.