REPTILE KEEPERS IN THE AUSTRALIAN STATE OF VICTORIA
By Raymond T. Hoser, 1997 Address: 41 Village Avenue, Doncaster, Victoria, 3108, Australia.
This paper was originally published in The Reptilian Magazine (UK) 2 (7), 1994, pp. 20-21 along with three photos.
In spite of ongoing problems with wildlife officials and laws that take the name of conservation in vain (a quote from a North American who visited Australia), reptile keepers continue to chalk up an amazing array of successes.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the state of Victoria. Keeper Brian Barnett is by far the largest breeder of reptiles (mainly snakes) in the country. Although under normal circumstances he holds a collection of about 300 reptiles in a large specially built 'house', this number more than doubles during the breeding season. Reptile collections around the country hold Barnett offspring.
Barnett breeds Scrub Pythons Morelia amethistina, Olive Pythons Bothrochilus olivaceous, Water Pythons Bothrochilus fuscus, Carpet/Diamonds Morelia spilota. (numerous forms), Children's Pythons (including Bothrochilus maculosus, B. stimsoni and B. childreni), Taipans Oxyuranus scutellatus, Collett's Snakes Pseudechis colletti, Death Adders Acanthophis antarcticus, Northern Death Adders Acanthophis praelongus, Speckled Brown Snakes Pseudonaja guttatus, Brown Tree Snakes Boiga irregularis and lots, lots more. Although low key about his efforts, (he's been doing so much for so long now), he occasionally boasts that he exports Taipans to Queensland, (Taipans, one of Australia's deadliest snakes, are found mainly in Queensland and don't occur anywhere near Victoria).
Besides maintaining Australia's number one breeding facility, Barnett holds down a full-time job, has raised a family, (although perhaps I should mention that the efforts of his wife and kids in helping their superhuman dad are nothing short of fantastic), and perhaps most importantly he runs the Victorian Herpetological Society (VHS).
The VHS alone has more members than all other herpetological societies in Australia combined, currently with a membership of about 400. That the VHS has so many members is quite an achievement. Sydney, is by far Australia's largest city, has far more reptile enthusiasts (due to a much greater local reptile fauna), but is lucky if it's local herpetological society can boast a quarter of the VHS membership. Meetings at the VHS, under the well organised stewardship of Barnett, pack hundreds of people into a huge university hall where experts give their talks to an enthusiastic audience. After every meeting Barnett's wife and friends provide a banquet style feed that has to be seen to be believed.
The next meeting is in February. For that meeting Barnett is personally flying from Sydney, Australia's number one authority on Tortoises, and author of many books and papers, John Cann, to talk to the VHS. A turn out of 250-300 is expected. (For Tortoise fans, Cann is currently completing a definitive work on Australia's Tortoises, likely to be published in 1994. Having seen proofs already, I can say that the book is really the definitive work on Australian Tortoises and in terms of detail and presentation it exceeds any Tortoise publication in the world to date).
Getting back to Barnett and the VHS, Barnett almost single-handedly produces a publication called Monitor a fine journal tailored for VHS members. Monitor features definitive paper, and brilliant colour photos (These photos are usually Barnett's own, but I have to say his reptile photos, (serial eggs laying, hatchings, etc) are among the best in existence). The true beauty of Monitor is it's easy reading style, which makes it a sought after publication by professional and novice alike. Recent articles include breeding Northern Territory Carpet Snakes by Simon Kortlang and breeding Barkly Tableland Death Adders by Barnett and Graeme Gow.
Besides getting Monitor VHS members also get another publication, Australasian Herp News put out by Chris Banks of Melbourne Zoo, along with the excellent journal Herpetofauna. Herpetofauna is produced by Gerry Swan and others in Sydney and copies are circulated to all Australian herpetological societies and overseas. Experienced British and American reptile people are no doubt familiar with Herpetofauna and it's constant stream of fine papers.
Although Barnett takes on far too much work himself, he somehow manages to get, things done, and done well. However he does seek help from others when necessary and people are climbing over one another to do so. Perhaps I should mention his closest colleague Simon Kortlang. Kortlang holds a committee post in the VHS and takes a lot of the general inquires that Barnett is either too busy to handle or more often when the person lives on the opposite side of the city. (Kortlang and Barnett live on opposite sides of Melbourne). Kortlang's collection of about 60 odd snakes doubles at breeding time and his husbandry methods are identical to Barnett's. That includes the incubator he uses for his reptile eggs. After all, why re-invent the wheel? Kortlang recently boasted to me that he was able to breed more snakes this year than the Melbourne Zoo, which employs three full-time keepers and has substantially greater resources than him. Such a statement shouldn't he taken as a condemnation of the keepers at Melbourne Zoo, who themselves do a great job, but rather put Kortlang's achievements in real perspective.
Kortlang has spent the last three years in a life/death situation with an incurable illness and is also 'legally blind' with incurable cataracts in his eyes. Somehow (and with a little help from his friends) he manages to keep his reptiles in excellent condition, and help run the VHS. He has also published some really definitive papers in various journals in Australia and overseas.
Another recent achievement achieved almost solely by Kortlang and Barnett was a successful lobbying to the local Wildlife Authority to alter proposed new laws in favor of the reptile keepers. Although I have fundamental differences in opinion over the powers these laws give to the wildlife bureaucrats in Victoria, the fact remains that at the present time the overwhelming majority of reptile keepers in this state appear to be happy with the way things are running in this state at the moment and don't appear to have any major grievances in relation to obtaining permits, reptiles, etc. (A stark contrast to what is happening in New South Wales, where the NPWS currently have a ban on issuing new permits).
Few problems appear to be occurring among reptile keepers in their dealings with local wildlife officials. Perhaps I should mention here that it takes two to tango and the attitudes and actions of some of the wildlife bureaucrats in this state, (in particular Tony Boardman and Gary Davey) clearly have the responsible reptile people at heart and show realistic conservation attitudes. My main concern is what will happen if and when less responsible people get in positions of power.
Besides Barnett and Kortlang, there is a huge number of other 'world-class' herpetological acts in Victoria. My not naming them here is only for reasons of lack of space - no other. Other states of Australia also have some keepers with remarkable breeding successes. Recent examples that spring to mind include Bob Withey (NSW) who last year became the first person in Australia to breed Womas Aspidites ramsayi and Black-headed Pythons Aspidites melanocephalus at the same time, along with a substantial number of other species. Robby Bredl (Qld) recently cross-bred Blue-bellied Black Snakes Pseudechis guttatus with Collett's Snakes Pseudechis colletti with intermediate looking offspring being produced.
For the benefit of readers, Barnett/Kortlang's recipe for breeding snakes follows the following approximate pattern:
Snakes separated and cooled over winter. All are housed in glass-roofed wooden cages with either gravel or paper as substrate, with heating usually provided by light bulbs. Re-introductions after cooling at planned breeding time and snakes observed at this time for results. (June-Sept for this). Eggs when laid are separated and placed in incubation medium of 50 per cent vermiculite 50 per cent water (by weight) (150 gm to 150 gm) in (99 per cent) sealed plastic container, (fine grade vermiculite is not used). The eggs themselves are 3/4 buried. The sealed containers are in turn placed in a large wooden box (constructed as an incubator) heated by internally placed light bulbs placed on the roof and thermostatically controlled. Barnett/Kortlang place emphasis on the positioning of the thermostat and stress that the temperature probe must reflect the temperature of the incubating eggs not a distant part of the box that could give a false temperature reading (in terms of the eggs). Incubation temperature is 29.5 to 31 degrees celcius. (Details taken from their papers and conversations with them). Both Barnett and Kortlang are constantly upset when after giving novice keepers strict instructions as to how to hatch eggs, the person screws up their directions and fails.
Current wildlife laws ban the export of fauna from Australia. No reptile keeper in Australia is allowed to export any reptiles and the penalties for doing so are severe (up to $100,000 fine and/or 10 years gaol). Therefore approaches to Australian keepers to export reptiles will be a waste of time for all concerned. On very rare occasions, zoo-zoo trade is allowed, but generally Australian zoos do not officially trade reptiles due to a lack of a need to do so. Regular customs seizures provide them with an oversupply of non-indigenous species and due to 'red-tape' they don't tend to export local species.
1997 UPDATE to above paper:
Simon Kortlang remains seriously ill and is in even worse health than previously reported, if that is at all possible. Brian Barnett remains in a similar position with the Victorian Herpetological Society. Monitor as a journal has been given a major upgrade making it one of the world's most sought after reptile magazines. The VHS and associated activites, including the 'herp shop' run by Brian and Wife, Lani, have expanded beyond comprehension and the society has nearly 1,000 members.
In 1997, Brian Barnett's breeding achievements for the 1996-7 breeding season included 'the usuals' like Children's Pythons Bothrochilus spp. as well as Womas (4 out of 4 eggs hatched - an infertile egg discarded at time of laying), Black-headed Pythons (10 out of 10 eggs hatched) and Barkly Death Adders (Female is a second generation captive, both generations bred in Barnett's care).
Tony Boardman and Gary Davey have both left the Victorian Wildlife department. The overall satisfaction rate among herpetologists with the local wildlife department has dropped substantially, but remains above that of most other states including NSW and Queensland.
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150 papers in journals worldwide and nine books.
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