Lies, damned lies and the statistics in Webb, Brook and Shine 2002 … the reality is that illegal snake collectors haven't exterminated Broad-headed Snakes (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) at Moreton National Park.

Raymond Hoser,
PO Box 599, Doncaster, Victoria, 3108
Email: XXX
Phone:+61 3 98123322 or +61 412 777 211

First published in hard copy in Boydii (Journal of the Herpetological Society of Queensland), Spring 2005.


The 2002 paper titled "Reptile collectors threaten Australia's most endangered snake, the broad-headed snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides." by Webb, Brook and Shine (Webb et. al. 2002), published in the UK-based journal Oryx and online at:


alleges that illegal snake collectors "seriously endanger the viability of this species". To back the claim the authors provide a jumbled collection of "facts" and "statistics", which even if assessed on face value and the criteria they themselves used, fail to support the bold claim made in the abstract of their paper. This paper objectively analyses the claims of Webb et. al. and finds them to be false and misleading and a gross misrepresentation of the reality. Of deeper ethical concern is that this paper also shows that the authors knew that some of their most serious claims to be false and misleading at the time they published them.


Broad-headed Snakes (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) have been a sought after species since European settlement (Hoser 1995). They have been listed as "Endangered" (See Hoser 1991) and in accordance with these parameters has remained a high-profile species throughout the final half of the 20th Century.

A detailed analysis of the species is contained in Hoser 1995 and is not repeated here.

That paper (Hoser 1995) also deals with earlier (pre 2002) claims that illegal private collectors have threatened the species and found the claims to be lacking in substance.

However some basic points are worth revisiting.

This elapid only lives on the sandstone escarpments within a 250 km radius of the Sydney CBD, in an arc from the north-west to the south of the city. Earliest known locations for the species are now fully urbansed (e.g. Randwick) and apparently have no snakes of any species, let alone H. bungaroides. Private collectors cannot possibly be blamed for this decline.

As a result of urbanisation (Sydney has about 4 million people) and total vegetation clearing for farming in some areas, the species remains only in bushland areas such as large national parks (e.g. Royal, Heathcote, Moreton and Blue Mountains), or water catchment areas (e.g. Woronora, Waragamba). Private collectors did reduce numbers of this snake in the 1960's in areas such as Waterfall (west of the train line) and numbers have not recovered to the original levels since. Those specimens did not survive in captivity due to ignorance in terms of husbandry at the time (Hoser 1991). However since the mid 1980's the species has routinely presented as an easy to maintain and breed captive.

In cooler months the snakes seek out the warmest locations in their habitat, which happens to be exposed rock-on-rock exfoliation's, under which they bask. In warmer months, the snakes migrate to alternative habitat to avoid excessive heat. Collectors find the snakes easily in winter, but rarely at other times of year. In warmer months the snakes appear to hide in deep otherwise inaccessible crevices, in trees and often disperse and travel some distance, sometimes being seen crossing roads if they transect nearby.

It appears that a limiting factor on Broad-headed Snake numbers is overwinter habitat in as much as Webb et. al. appear to think that the only suitable overwintering habitat is rock exfoliations.

Shine, Webb and Fitzgerald (1998), provide evidence of a decline in a population following the removal of surface bushrock from a specific study area (not Yalwal).

In captivity, these snakes do not have any special bond with sandstone and even in the wild, they will happily shelter under sheets of tin if they happen to be placed in an area they inhabit. This is in line with most other elapids, in as much as thermal requirements tend to override habitat ones.

At Linden in the mid-Blue Mountains, where habitat is degraded (rocks smashed or removed) and dumped rubbish abounds, it is not uncommon to find Broad-headed Snakes under sheets of tin.

The Shine statements … A change of tune.

Throughout the 1990's Richard Shine as Professor at the University of Sydney and persons working under his direction, including Webb (herein treated as "Shine", due to the expression of the same views as co-authors of the 2002 and other papers cited) have enjoyed large government hand-outs to study the species.

Shine in particular has received millions of dollars from government funding bodies for reptile-related activity (in his own words to "essentially to spend my time playing with reptiles") and his public statements at times appear to reflect a burning desire to maintain his good relationship with the funding bureaucrats in order to keep the flow of funds continuing.

While there are now numerous instances of Shine making statements that appear to reflect the wishes of bureaucrats he deals with rather than the reality, this paper will concentrate on the statements of himself and minions in relation to Broad-headed Snakes and within the context of the 2002 paper.

The basis of the 2002 paper is that in 1996, 1997, 1999 and later that private collectors attacked "a small isolated population of Broad-headed Snakes in Moreton National Park, 160 km south of Sydney, New South Wales" the result being the snakes were seriously endangered. This area is known as "Yalwal" or the "Yalwal Plateau".

The data as presented in 2002 paper is best summed up as follows:

·         The population was studied continuously from 1992 to 2000.

·         Prior to 1996, the population was "stable", but from then on, it fluctuated wildly as a result of removal of specimens by collectors and apparent repopulation from outside or regeneration.

·         The illegal collection of the snakes in 1996, 1997 and 1999 was as a result of publication of the "exact location of the sites" in the paper Hoser (1995), which is thus blamed for first alerting illegal collectors of the existence of these snakes.

·         The 2002 paper alleges "a large-scale illegal trade in broad-headed snakes in Australia and/or elsewhere" as the conduit for the large number of snakes allegedly removed from the study sites.

·         The paper blames a 1997 NPWS/NSW amnesty on illegally collected animals for fuelling the demand for these snakes and the short-term decline at the study sites.

·         The paper cites a total of 30 snakes declared by 15 private keepers in the 1997 amnesty as the final destination of the illegally collected snakes. No other specimens of this species are identified either interstate or outside Australia.

·         The paper notes that the 30 snakes would easily have been collected in the period preceding the 1997 amnesty due to it's announcement at a time of year when the snakes are easily found.

·         The paper cites a large number of still-born young in females as proof of inbreeding depression in the relevant population, but fails to provide exact data to support the ambit claim.

·         The 2002 paper recommends locked gates on the access fire trails at Moreton National Park, in order to prevent illegal collectors driving the several kilometers needed to access the ridge-tops where the snakes are found. Significantly no other recommendations are made.

Not everything in the Webb et. al. paper of 2002 is factually wrong, misinterpreted or incorrect.

Much of the information in the paper is correct, including some attributed to their other publications and this component in total reflects the earlier published findings of myself as detailed in Hoser 1991.

The key statement in that publication (Hoser 1991) was that illegal collecting of snakes could conceivably threaten local wild populations, but that there was no evidence of it in recent times, excluding those populations on the immediate southern fringe of the Sydney metropolitan area. That was not a statement saying no illegal collecting had occurred, but rather that no populations had been wiped out as a result of this activity. This was elaborated on in Hoser (1995), with specific case information given to substantiate the position.

Following is an appraisal of the Webb et. al. paper of 2002 with reference to the key points above.

·         The population was studied continuously from 1992 to 2000.

This is not disputed and earlier cited papers published in the period pre and post 2002, with data, support this claim.

·         Prior to 1996, the population was "stable", but from then on, it fluctuated wildly as a result of removal of specimens by collectors and apparent repopulation from outside or regeneration.

The author's claimed to be marking snakes by microchipping and alleged that short term (one or two season) declines measured were a result of collecting by illegal trappers. To substantiate the claim, they cited moved and smashed rocks.

These claims appear valid and are not disputed. However what does become a matter of dispute are the conclusions and claims made arising from this.

The author's claim that up to 30 live snakes were removed from the study area in 1997 (a number shown to be inflated shortly) in the period leading to an amnesty on illegally trapped snakes. They claim a population of about 600 along the entire ridgeline and note in the paper that other snakes could migrate into the area from adjacent bushland habitat, although correctly assumed such inward migration would not be substantial.

They note smashing of rocks and some being pushed off cliffs, but no wholesale removal of habitat rocks as compared to another study site at which no claims of illegal snake collecting are made.

Hence, there appears to be no critical long-term damage to habitat of the snakes, or their food, namely Lesueur's Geckos (Oedura lesueuri) allowing them the ability to recolonise suitable habitat.

The authors repeatedly state in their papers that the limiting factors on Broad-headed Snakes are number of geckos that they feed on, and that the limiting factor on their numbers is the number of suitable available rock-on-rock settings, which are exposed to the sun and allow the snakes to warm to a sufficient degree (near 30 C) in the cooler months. These claims are accepted as factually correct and reflect earlier publications of myself including Hoser 1991.

The figures provided by the authors in their 2002 paper actually show a recovery in numbers in the years following the illegal collecting, but they claim serious problems with the population due to alleged stillborn young and a preponderance in males in terms of the snakes being caught.

However logical explanations for these findings are ignored.

Firstly, at worst, it appears that illegal collectors have taken 30/600 or 5% of the total number of Broad-headed Snakes in the area in the 1996/7 seasons. Just under 600 is their own estimate. Even allowing for the low reproductive rate of 6 offspring (average as cited by Shine 1991), only one in three adult females reproducing in a given year as claimed by the authors, 1/3 of all snakes being female and 1/2 of all births being "stillborn" as per the worst case situation described in Webb et. al. 2002 then this would still give an annual recruitment of 200 snakes for this population alone!

If half the snake population at any given time are immature (as per the estimate of the 2002 paper), the 200 snake number could also be halved.

While young snakes are always vulnerable to predation, the fact is that in the wild state reptiles over-produce, the net result being that young are forced to colonise suboptimal habitat where predation risks increase or food supply decreases.

In the rare event that a snake in optimal habitat dies or is otherwise removed (such as by an illegal collector), an opening is created for another snake to move to a now unoccupied optimal resting place.

Hence the observation of other snakes moving to the rocks from where others were taken.

In fact the Webb and Shine papers note several snakes using the same rocks to shelter (at different times) and also that snakes will readily go under moved and disturbed rocks.

In terms of the preponderance of males in the population in the years following the collecting, Webb et. al. claim it signifies a serious problem for the long term welfare of the population.

However they appear to have ignored one of the fundamentals in terms of most Australian elapids.

That is that as adults males are the more mobile of the sexes. In other words, snakes moving in from elsewhere are more likely to be males.

As they find suitable habitat, not inhabited by competing snakes, they stay and hence it is logical that following removal of a group of snakes on a ridgeline, most of the first colonisers will be male.

The only other ambush-predator elapid from Sydney is the Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) and these snakes generally only move sizeable distances at night. In terms of adults, it is males that are most mobile and most often seen travelling across roads.

Webb et. al. also claimed the illegal collectors had a bias for taking females and against the more drab coloured Small-eyed Snake (Rhinoplocephalus nigrescens).

However their own data refutes this position.

Firstly, the shift in visible Broad-headed Snakes to become male (more of them) reflects the point made above. It reflects collectors taking all Broad-headed Snakes, not the mere collecting of females.

While there is a possibility of illegal collectors leaving the small-eyed snakes behind, this is not supported by the evidence, even in terms of how snakes recolonise disturbed ridges and the date of Webb et. al. post 1997.

Webb et. al. present a table (p. 177) listing all snakes claimed on licence in the 1997 NPWS Amnesty.

The basis on which the table is presented is to show a total of 15 keepers declaring a total of 30 Broad-headed Snakes, the obvious conclusion being that the snakes all came from the study area at Yalwal.

Assuming for a moment that this is the case and then referring to another table in the same paper (p. 176), it appears that the numbers of Small-eyed Snakes seen in the area at the relevant time (1996/7) was in fact far less than for Broad-headed Snakes. However in the p. 177 table we see a total of 14 keepers declaring a total of 28 Small-eyed Snakes, which is a figure comparable to the Broad-headed Snakes (15 and 30).

This clearly implies that all Small-eyed snakes seen by collectors at Yalwal were also caught and kept.

The authors correctly noted that the marked increase in Small-eyed snakes seen post 1997 resulted from specimens moving in from elsewhere to occupy the ridge-top habitat.

The failed however to note the reason for this.

That reason is as follows:

Snakes generally don't like their own kind. Different species often have a "stand-off" situation when they encounter one another and there appears to be a well defined hierarchy (Hoser unpublished data).

In terms of the two species here, Broad-headed Snakes are able to force small-eyed snakes away from their preferred habitat when they occupy it. This has also been observed in captives of the two species when placed in a cage togeather.

Both species have similar thermal preferences (as do all elapids), based on their physical need for warmth (about 30° C) to digest food eaten. When the Broad-headed Snakes occupy the limited number of optimal sites, the Small-eyed Snakes are forced to take up residence in less optimal sites away from the exposed rock-on-rock settings.

In areas without Broad-headed Snakes the Small-eyed Snakes can once again reclaim the best positions (provided no other snakes force them out either, as is the case at Yalwal).

Sure aggregations can and do occur, but the more common situation remains of snakes not liking their own kind.

In terms of the situation at Yalwal, there is another reason why the Broad-headed Snakes keep apart except for mating. That is for food. As an ambush predator under a rock, they have better chances of getting a feed if they are on their own. Sharing a rock with another snake may mean competition for the same gecko that moves under the rock.

Webb at. al. claim that Broad-headed Snakes and Small-eyed Snakes eat different food (geckos versus skinks) as a rule and this is not disputed. However it is clear that they both have the same thermal requirements (or very similar) and to that extent compete for habitat and can conceivably bite or eat one another.

For that matter it hasn't even been determined if the snakes are immune to each other's venom, but my guess is "probably not". Hence it'd make sense for the Broad-headed Snakes and Small-eyed Snakes to keep apart when they meet.

Based on the large number of Small-eyed snakes colonising the affected ridgeline versus the smaller number of Broad-headed Snakes the authors are correct in concluding that the Broad-headed Snakes have a much more restricted habitat range and by and large don't inhabit surrounding areas in numbers.

·         The illegal collection of the snakes in 1996, 1997 and 1999 was as a result of publication of the "exact location of the sites" in the paper Hoser (1995), which is blamed for first alerting illegal collectors of the existence of these snakes.

This is perhaps the most damning allegation in their paper and the rebuttal of this claim also rebuts the claim that the population at Yalwal was actually threatened by the illegal collecting in 1996/7.

Before progressing further I must state that I do not condone illegal collecting of snakes, especially such potentially vulnerable species as the Broad-headed Snake.

Webb et. al. are correct in repeating the point I made in 1991, that this species has attributes that make it more prone to serious decline than other elapid snakes.

These traits include specilized habitat requirements, limited distribution, strong home range (or rock) fidelity, slow rate of maturation, infrequent breeding and low fecundity.

However the collecting seen in 1996,1997 and 1999 must be seen for what it was, namely a short-term drop in the local population and not a long term crisis for the snakes as inferred by Webb et. al.

The fact of the matter is that Yalwal had been heavily collected for Broad-headed Snakes since at least 1974, which is when I first became aware of the area.

I personally told Shine of the area in the late 1970's and it was "common knowledge" to many Sydney-based reptile collectors throughout the period 1974-2005.

The fact is, that the Yalwal ridge population has been "taxed" by illegal collectors almost continually since at least 1974, with no discernable long-term impact on the population.

Why no long-term impact?

The percentage of snakes removed and habitat destroyed (rocks permanently removed or disabled) was not critical to the long term viability of the population.

As noted by Shine and Webb in their earlier papers, the limiting factor on the number of snakes here was the number of geckos as determined by the number of loose rock-on-rock formations.

In other words, the collectors had no significant long-term impact on the snakes.

From reading Webb et. al. 2002, it'd be fair to assume that these authors didn't know what I've just written.

But unfortunately they did.

It is for that reason that their ambit claims against myself and in terms of damage caused by illegal collectors is so incriminating for them. Their false claims also show a lack of ethics and scientific credibility on their part.

In 1998 Shine and Webb, along with junior authors Mark Fitzgerald and Joanna Sumner wrote a paper called "The Impact of bush-rock removal on an endangered species Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Serpentes: Elapidae)." In the CSIRO's journal "Wildlife Research" 25:285-295.

In that paper they wrote:

"Our main study area on the Yalwal Plateau supports many Broad-headed Snakes, despite considerable disturbance by reptile enthusiasts over many years".

In other words, they knew that their claim against the Hoser 1995 paper in terms of myself improperly being the first to disclose the location to illegal reptile collectors was a lie.

(For those not resident in NSW, it should be noted that all collecting of reptiles, save for scientific research under permit has been illegal since mid 1974). See Hoser (1989 and/or 1993).

The authors Webb et. al. would have known the claim would be repeated.

This can only lead to the logical question as to why they chose to make false and defamatory statements about me.

In fact one such example of the repeating of the lie by Webb et. al. was on the website of a newbie reptile enthusiast Bryan Fry, who recently acquired a degree in biochemistry and as of 2005 touts himself as "the venomdoc".

That post is reported unedited below.

"Joined: 03 Nov 2003

Posts: 1305

Location: Australia

Posted: Wed Mar 02, 2005 3:58 pm Post subject:

I think this scenario was a tragic combination of several events

- a badly designed amnesty that did not specifically exclude a highly threatened species that lives near a very high urban concentration

- and, most disturbingly, as detailed in the study above, the publication by an amateur of the exact research site (see page 178, the last reference of the first column). This was a despicable act that reflects extraordinarily badly upon this individual in question. This caused great harm to the populations of the snakes and I feel badly also for the researchers in question.

All the best


This brings us to two important facts that Webb et. al. have lied about and knowingly so.

1 - That illegal collecting of snakes has endangered Broad-headed Snakes on the Yalwal Plateau and

2 - That Raymond Hoser was "despicable" in that he first leaked to illegal collectors the exact location of these endangered snakes so that they could be poached.

We know these points are lies and yet they are apparently the main basis of the paper Webb et. al. 2002.

As for motive, because I can't read minds, I must to some extent speculate.

However the reasons appear to be obvious and they come to one simple thing… Money!

At the end of the paper Webb et. al. list the sources of their funding including the Australian Research Council and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

In 1976 I first exposed serious corruption in that department (NPWS), featuring on TV news broadcasts and the front pages of the all the major newspapers.

As a result of this, in 1982, the then deputy Director of NPWS, approached my university superiors (at Sydney University) and told them that they would lose ARC funding and NPWS permits if they allowed me to finish my science degree. Hence I was forced to discontinue.

This deputy director of NPWS was later sacked from his position as a result of his corrupt behavior.

I published two books (Smuggled and Smuggled-2) in 1993 and 1996 which exposed corruption in the NSW NPWS and the people adversely named unsuccessfully tried to ban both books. They also lost several defamation actions against me because all that was published in the book was true and verifiably so.

However, it appears to have become a mantra within sections of the funding authorities that scientists who peddle the official line of the authority with their "findings" will in turn get funding.

Hence, as I have pushed the line that in Australia private reptile collectors are not presently a threat to given species, the regulatory authorities have sought to create and manufacture evidence that they are.

To that extent the Webb et. al. paper makes "findings" of fact (that illegal collectors endanger a given species) that will guarantee them future funding at public expense.

The false attack on myself in terms of claiming I have somehow contributed to the decline in the species is gratuitous, but certainly doesn't harm the authors chances of getting further funding, even though it is clear that their assessment of facts is not objective and their findings demonstrably flawed.

·         The 2002 paper alleges "a large-scale illegal trade in broad-headed snakes in Australia and/or elsewhere" as the conduit for the large number of snakes allegedly removed from the study sites.

There are no Broad-headed Snakes captive outside of Australia. Hence the authors can make no claim of an international market in these snakes. It doesn't exist!

The use of these terms is wrong and misleading and the authors know this.

The claims do however lend their paper to repeat citation by bureaucrats who may seek to further regulate the non-government sector of herpetology.

In terms of an alleged but actually non-existent "large scale illegal trade in broad-headed snakes in Australia" as said by the authors, see below.

·         The paper blames a 1997 NPWS/NSW amnesty on illegally collected animals for fuelling the demand for these snakes and the short-term decline at the study sites.

Webb et. al., by their own admission say that the 1997 NSW NPWS amnesty was the perfect conduit for legalising illegally held Broad-headed snakes and the authors cite the NPWS figure of 30 snakes to back their claim of this happening.

Noting that the snake is only native to NSW and was at the time illegal on keeping schedules of most other states it is reasonable to assume that most demand for the snakes was in that state (NSW).

There is no evidence of illegal trade in the species outside NSW, although it is possible to assume limited illegal trade may have occurred.

·         The paper cites a total of 30 snakes declared by 15 private keepers in the 1997 amnesty as the final destination of the illegally collected snakes. No other snakes of this species are identified either interstate or outside Australia.

·         The paper notes that the 30 snakes would easily have been collected in the period preceding the 1997 amnesty due to it's announcement at a time of year when the snakes are easily found.

With just 30 snakes being legalised in the NSW amnesty in 1997, it is reasonable to assume that no more were in private hands anywhere in NSW at that time.

Having said that, Webb et. al. have failed to note two very significant facts, both of which they were aware of and which further demonstrates their deliberate misinformation in terms of the 2002 paper.

1 - Prior to the 1997 amnesty, private persons holding reptiles in NSW had their keepers permits cancelled and they were relicenced under the terms of the amnesty. This included some keepers who had held Broad-headed Snakes legally (since the similar 1987 amnesty), one of whom had in fact acquired his stock from the Yalwal ridge in the 1980's, well before Webb et. al commenced their studies. Hence not all the 30 declared Broad-headed Snakes had been acquired in the five month period leading up to the amnesty as claimed by Webb et. al. (see p. 178). This information was available to the authors and they were scurrilous to omit it.

2 - The 30 declared Broad-headed Snakes could conceivably have come from anywhere in their range in NSW (the snake is endemic to that state). As it turns out, most of those declared were allegedly collected in the hills east of Mittagong, NSW and also the Blue Mountains (mainly in the vicinity of Linden). Less than a third of the total (under 10) appear to have come from Yalwal in the period preceding the amnesty. This information was available to the authors and they were scurrilous to omit it.

Webb et. al's data support the inference that only a small number of Broad-headed Snakes were removed by illegal collectors in the period 1996/7.

Their results showed snakes eluding capture by moving to inaccessible crevices and the like.

They claimed about 3 km of study site ridge containing about 300 suitable rocks being moved or disturbed. At the rate of lifting one rock a minute, the entire area could have been traversed in one full day's collecting by one person.

Webb et. al. don't indicate in their paper the exact number of disturbance events (illegal collections) or for that matter the number of snakes they would locate on a given day (and per hour) when searching their sites.

The omission of these numbers is important as they would shed light on the likely number of Broad-headed Snakes actually removed by illegal private collectors.

In the 1970's and 1980's myself and others frequented this area and noted an average of 3 Broad-headed Snakes a day if lifting only rock-on-rock formations. Slightly less small-eyed snakes would be found, however if lifting were to include excellent rock-on-dirt formations at the backs of the outcrops, the number of small-eyed snakes would increase to about 10 a day and the number of Broad-headed Snakes would decline to about 1, as the ridgeline covered would also reduce. These results are per person and while increasing with number of people do not double with an extra person.

Another herpetologist, Gary Stephenson went to the area more frequently and noted substantial variation in numbers between trips. These facts are reported here, to give an idea on the raw data needed from Webb et. al. in order to accurately estimate the number of snakes removed by collectors in 1996/7 in order to compare with the results evident from the 1997 amnesty declarations.

Based on the capture-recapture data as presented in Webb et. al. (p. 175), spanning the period 1992-2000, it is evident that the decline in number of snakes seen in 1996/7 not only reflected take by collectors (as stated), but also remaining snakes moving away from habitat disturbed by rocks being moved, smashed and so on, which is something they alluded to only once in their paper.

Even the figures from 1992 to 1993 (27 snakes caught to 57 caught .. presumably a far greater increase than potential natural increase), shows that fluctuations in numbers is due to factors separate from direct removal by illegal collectors.

On page 176, Webb et. al. state that the entire area had been disturbed by illegal collectors (in mid 2001), which based on the earlier figures would imply a maximum of 60 snakes out of 600 being removed. Even if this were true (and there is no evidence of 60 unlicenced Broad-headed Snakes doing the rounds and/or 60 more specimens laundered into the system), then it would mean 9/10 of the population would remain intact and able to recolonise optimal sites.

However we do have evidence of no major influx of Broad-headed Snakes into the trade.

Jeff Hardy of NPWS NSW posted on the Australian Herps list server an Excel file of 2001 reptile holdings.

It revealed a total of 7 licences holding 22 Broad-headed snakes in 2000 holding all snakes, breeding none and "disposing" of three (meaning death or trade). For 2001-2002 the results for the species were the same number of keepers legally acquiring three snakes and "disposing of 6".

For the 2002-2003 year, there were now five keepers (down from 7) with the species, retaining just 14 specimens (Hardy, 2001, 2002, 2003).

Nothing here indicates a major influx of these snakes into captivity or "laundering" of wild caught snakes into the keeping system.

The above figures do not dispute the claims by Webb et. al. that illegal collecting of Broad-headed Snakes occurred in 1997 or later. What is being disputed is that these collection events have so far critically threatened the Yalwal population.

Webb et. al. have not provided any hard evidence of terminal decline of the population as a result of illegal collecting.

Another point totally omitted by Webb et. al. is natural mortality of these snakes in the wild and any changes in this as a result of illegal collection.

Anecdotal evidence on other snakes indicates that humans casually killing snakes on sight or capturing in bushland merely frees up habitat for other snakes and that most, if not all species naturally overproduce young to compensate for mortality events.

Even allowing for the features mentioned earlier in terms of slowing potential population recoveries in the species Hoplocephalus bungaroides, the Yalwal area has factors working in favor of the local Broad-headed Snakes, including remote location away from Sydney's urban area, a huge and largely inaccessible bushland area, including inaccessible rock outcrops separated from the main escarpment by cliffs, which cannot have snakes removed by collectors and as shown above, a general disinterest in the species by private reptile hobbyists.

In terms of the latter point, the 2003 returns show just 5 people keeping Broad-headed Snakes (or 15 in 1997 when anyone could go and catch some, which Webb et. al. noted was easy at materially relevant times), versus over 2000 people keeping thousands of Carpet/Diamond Pythons.

Hence in the period 1997-2004 there has been general disinterest in Broad-headed Snakes by the private hobbyist community and certainly not warranting the bold claims of Webb et. al. that they are wiping out the species.

·         The paper cites a large number of still-born young in females as proof of inbreeding depression in the relevant population, but fails to provide exact data to support the ambit claim.

The above claim is an added component of the now baseless claim that illegal collectors are at the present time threatening the Yalwal population of Broad-headed Snakes with extinction. Shine's own research on other snakes like Water Pythons (Katrinus fuscus) at Fogg Dam NT, indicate that about half the eggs laid fail to hatch. He has also noted the exceptionally large numbers of these snakes in the area (many thousands) and clearly inbreeding depression isn't the cause of this mortality.

While it is conceivably possible that inbreeding is a problem with the Yalwal Broad-headed Snakes, Webb et. al. provide no evidence to support the claim. However if they are to spend taxpayer's money on more pet projects, perhaps they could look at reasons why in the wild and in captivity elapids and other snakes have stillborn young.


The final point of the Webb et. al. paper is also disturbing.

·         The 2002 paper recommends locked gates on the access fire trails at Moreton National Park, in order to prevent illegal collectors driving the several kilometers needed to access the ridge-tops where the snakes are found. No other recommendations are made.

The recommendation made makes sense and I have no problem with it. However if the central tenet of the paper is correct, as in that there is a large illegal trade in wild-caught Broad-headed Snakes, and Yalwal is the only place to find them (it's not), then a locked gate won't keep poachers out of the National Park.

Unless well sited, gates can be driven around and if not possible, a motorbike or bolt cutters will enable vehicular access to the ridgetop areas.

More sensible would have been a series of recommendations aimed at permanently removing the demand for wild-caught snakes and perhaps even reversing the trend of removing snakes from the wild and making it releasing them instead.

Hoser 1991 accurately summed up the status of these snakes and as of 2005 the situation remains unchanged.

Relevant passages from that book follow:

"In the 1960s large-scale collection of Broad-headed Snakes Hoplocephalus bungaroides by Sydney snake-keepers resulted in the local extinction of this now-endangered species on Mount Westmacott, south of Sydney. Most specimens taken into captivity died shortly after capture and none of those snakes or their offspring is believed to have lasted a decade in captivity. Many collectors, after lifting the flat sandstone rocks under which the snakes sheltered, dropped and smashed them, eliminating potential habitat for this snake and further reducing numbers in the long term."

However husbandry methods had by 1991 changed and hence I then wrote:

"Within the fields of animal husbandry, including aviculture and reptile keeping, huge advances have been made in recent years, and now large captive populations of any species, including the Golden-shouldered and Hooded Parrots, can be maintained and bred if desired. In many cases aviculturists and reptile breeders are producing more specimens than they can possibly use and are using the surplus stock to replenish formerly depleted wild stocks.

Due to advances in keeping methods, and conservation methods in general, the risk of over-exploiting of wild stocks of rare and endangered species to supply the pet trade is far less likely than it was in the past."

Under the heading

"BROAD-HEADED SNAKE Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Schlegel, 1837) "

I wrote:

"SIZE. 60 cm. Largest adults about 90 cm.

IDENTIFICATION. Colouration essentially similar to the unrelated Diamond Python Morelia spilota, from which it may be distinguished by it's large symmetrical head shields, wider ventral scales, the absence of labial 'heat pits' found in most Pythons, and smaller adult size. (Diamond Pythons average 200 cm).

DISTRIBUTION. Restricted to Sandstone formations within a 250 km radius of Sydney, to the north-west, west, south-west and south of the city.

HABITAT. Only found in virgin bushland habitats with numerous large exfoliating slabs of sandstone and rock crevices. Also required are sufficient numbers of food lizards, usually Lesueur's Geckoes Oedura lesueurii.

NOTES. This snake will become aggressive with the minimum of provocation. Although no deaths from this snake's bite have been recorded, some people bitten have become seriously ill and required the administering of Tiger Snake Notechis anti-venom.

The Broad-headed Snake's habit of sheltering under exfoliating slabs of sandstone during spring and autumn makes it particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction from rock collectors who take these most desirable rocks for use in suburban rock gardens. Populations within national parks are still vulnerable to the predations of overzealous rock collectors. Amateur snake collectors could conceivably pose a threat to some populations. Isolated areas within National Parks and elsewhere with suitable habitat still seem to have healthy populations of this species.

Since white settlement, the Broad-headed snake has apparently been one of the least common snake species around Sydney, and it's numbers have declined far more sharply than those of all other species.

Typically nocturnal, this snake becomes diurnal in the middle of winter, when that is the only time of day warm enough to be active. Diet is principally lizards, although captive specimens thrive on mice.

Mating is in the cooler months with five to twelve (usually about six) live young being born in mid summer (January). Newborns measure 16 cm.

This species breeds readily in captivity. To breed most types of snake, breeders separate the sexes prior to planned mating. Such doesn't appear necessary with this species, with long-term cage co-habitants regularly mating. Captive specimens have lived up to ten years.

STATUS. Endangered

CAUSE/S OF CURRENT STATUS. Mainly those associated with the urbanization of it's habitat, with the expansion of the Sydney Metropolitan area, and the removal of it's remaining 'bush-rock' habitat by gardeners.

NUMBER LEFT. Between ten thousand and a hundred thousand.

PRINCIPAL ACTION REQUIRED. Cessation of 'Bushrock' collections in relevant areas. Large scale captive breeding, and active protection (as national parks), of unprotected areas where this species still occurs."

To that extent the 1997 NPWS Amnesty on illegally held snakes was probably a good move for the species, even though it may have created short-term losses for localized populations, including it seems Yalwal. Contrary to the inferences and claims of Webb et. al. 2002, Broad-headed Snakes will never be a high in demand species (see earlier).

They are venomous and potentially dangerous to some people. They tend to be aggressive to humans and hence most of the potential reptile-keeping market is automatically excluded. Due to their small-size (especially as young) and the fact that rodents are not the food of choice for young specimens, popularity is further reduced.

Broad-headed snakes do breed readily in captivity and based on breedings of other captive reptiles in Australia (Death Adders, all the pythons, Collett's Snakes, etc), it is reasonable to assume that it will within a few years be cheaper to buy a captive bred (legally owned) Broad-headed Snake than to spend a day driving to an area such as Yalwal to go looking for one.

Webb et. al's paper even had the evidence of this likelihood on page 177 of their paper.

Among the snakes listed as declared in the 1997 NSW NPWS Amnesty was the Collett's Snake (Panacedechis colletti) declared by 18 individuals with 38 specimens.

In many ways it compares with the Broad-headed Snake. It is dangerously venomous, with a more toxic bite than the Broad-headed Snake, but a less aggressive temperament (as a rule they don't bite).

Like the Broad-headed Snake, the Collett's Snake has a reputation for being rare or uncommon in the wild state.

No one, Webb. et. al. included have claimed that any of the 38 Collett's snakes declared in NSW in 1977 were wild caught. This species was not subject of bans or "rare listings" on the notorious "Schedule 12" (see Smuggled and Smuggled-2) and as a result was recruited into captivity in the 1980's.

Specimens bred so readily that in states that had legal private ownership of snakes, such as Victoria, owners of Collett's Snakes soon found they had to sell their snakes at ridiculously low prices (e.g. $50) or commonly give them away. That situation remains true today, with myself being given two neonate males by a breeder in early 2004.

In spite of a reovirus infection (known as Weigel's curse), surgical removal of venom glands, and routine showing at schools and events on average 5 days a week, I've been unable to kill the snakes and they are now about 120 cm long at a year of age.

This lack of mortality stems from advanced husbandry methods which are now ubiquitous in private herpetoculture and have made captive bred snakes the norm for most snake keepers (as opposed to wild caught)

Most if not all the Collett's Snakes declared in the 1997 amnesty in NSW were derived from captive sources.

Put simply, no one in their right mind would hike to central inland Queensland (at great cost) to catch a parasite infested Collett's snake!

Hence the same situation should be encouraged for Broad-headed Snakes.

Unlike in the 1960's and 1970's, reptile keepers have a wide body of information to consult when keeping snakes.

Mortality that used to be routine, is now rare.

Breeding of all species is also routine and this includes Hoplocephalus.

The best protection the Yalwal Plateau snakes can have is the removal of demand to trap them illegally. The means to derive this is by increasing captive stocks to such a degree that the NSW NPWS becomes able to call for donations of surplus snakes.

In terms of Broad-headed Snakes, a second recommendation that is blindingly obvious also appears to have been overlooked.

That is the creation of new habitat for them in areas they occur.

Studies at Yalwal, the Blue Mountains and elsewhere have shown the limiting factor on populations of these snakes to be habitat in the form of thin exfoliating rocks.

While Webb et. al. note the connection running rocks, geckos, snakes, the fact is that geckos can reproduce more rapidly than the snakes (possibly more than one clutch a year) and hence the true limiting factor is rock habitat.

Noting that sandstone or cement crumbles and that concrete feels similar but lasts longer, it seems insane that no one in government has sought to spend what is in effect a pittance to get a crew on the relevant escarpments dumping blobs of concrete over the seas of sandstone.

With a chisel these can be split from the rock face after they dry (say a week later) and the amount of potential snake and gecko habitat (and population) expanded by several orders of magnitude.

The areas in question (Yalwal) are not on a tourist route and within a short time, the concrete blobs would weather to look no different to the rocks on which they rest.

A few thousand dollars would do the entire Yalwal Plateau!

If the same idea was used on sites east of Lithgow, where Broad-headed Snakes occur, but are not common due to a natural lack of exfoliating rocks, within a few short years we could see a population explosion of Broad-headed Snakes.

In fact, the numbers would become so great that we could even add Broad-headed Snake eco tours to the Blue Mountains circiut!

The only problem with this approach is that the Broad-headed Snake endangered unit of the NSW NPWS may then find themselves without a reason to exist and then have to sack themselves.


Hardy, J. 2001. NPWS NSW Listing of reptiles held by keepers from Annual Returns, year 2000-2001 (excel file posted on Australian Herps at Yahoo Groups Listserver).

Hardy, J. 2002. NPWS NSW Listing of reptiles held by keepers from Annual Returns, year 2001-2002 (excel file posted on Australian Herps at Yahoo Groups Listserver).

Hardy, J. 2003. NPWS NSW Listing of reptiles held by keepers from Annual Returns, year 2002-2003 (excel file posted on Australian Herps at Yahoo Groups Listserver).

Hoser, R. T. 1989. Australian Reptiles and Frogs. Pierson and Co., Mosman, NSW, 2088, Australia. 238 pp.

Hoser, R. T. 1991. Endangered Animals of Australia. Pierson Publishing, Mosman, NSW, 2088, Australia. 240 pp.

Hoser, R. T. 1993. Smuggled: The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife. Apollo Publishing, Moss Vale, NSW, Australia. 160 pp.

Hoser, R. T. 1995. The Broad Headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides. Reptilian, UK 3:15-27.

Hoser, R. T. 1996. Smuggled-2:Wildlife Trafficking, Crime and Corruption in Australia. Kotabi Publishing, Doncaster, Victoria, 3108, Australia. 260 pp.

Shine, R. 1991. Australian Snakes: A Natural History. Reed, New Holland, NSW, Australia:223 pp.

Shine, R., J. K. Webb, M. Fitzgerald, and J. Sumner. 1998. The impact of bush-rock removal

on an endangered snake species, Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Serpentes: Elapidae). Wildlife Research 25:285-295

Webb, J. K., and R. Shine. 1998a. Thermoregulation by a nocturnal elapid snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) in south-eastern Australia. Physiological Zoology 71:680-692.

Webb, J. K., and R. Shine. 1998b. Ecological characteristics of a threatened snake species, Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Serpentes, Elapidae). Animal Conservation 1:185-193.

Webb, J. K., B. W. Brook, and R. Shine. 2002. Reptile collectors threaten Australia's most endangered snake, the broad-headed snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides. Oryx 36:170-187. On the internet at:



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