Caring For The Boelen’s Python
West Papua is home to 312 indigenous tribes, and one of them — the Wola of the central highlands — has been telling the story of the beautifully feathered serpent, Burum, for countless generations. The story goes like this: One day, during a fierce battle, Burum flees into the jungle, shedding his beautiful plumage in the process. The wonderful adornments he leaves behind are usurped by the bird-of-paradise, the lorikeet and the hornbill, and the same finery would later adorn the magnificent ceremonial headdresses of Wola tribal leaders. Burum, meanwhile, stripped of his colorful plumage, is reduced to a black and white snake — one that still inhabits the forest today.
The Huli people call this same snake Dalapadi, and they regard it as a god. It is taboo to hunt or kill it. However, before Huli warriors would enter into battle, they would eat the snake. It was believed that by doing so special powers would be bestowed upon them.
In 1953, after studying a single specimen that was collected by Dr. K. W. J. Boelens on December 25, 1952, L. D. Brongersma named the snake Liasis boeleni. Later, it was also known as L. toronga and Python boeleni, until 2003, when Kluge, based on morphological and genetic observations, reclassified it within the genus Morelia, leading to its current name of Morelia boeleni.
In Papua New Guinea, the snake is also known as Papua Graun Moran: the grandfather python.
Adult Boelen’s pythons exhibit a breathtaking jet-black coloration. When the sun hits the iridescent body just right, the snake appears bejeweled with an array of intense blues and purples. Yellow, forward-facing bands breach the face and underside.
Babies are a pristine burnt-red to orange, and their bodies are covered with yellow to cream bands. As they mature, the reddish body turns black, though some form of the bands remain.
The black head, bearing a slight resemblance to a squatty bulldog, features forward-facing stripes along the face, as well as large eyes with vertical pupils.
West Papua Boelen’s can often reach lengths of 8 to 9 feet. Those found in eastern New Guinea are more robust and can often reach 13 or 14 feet in length.
New Guinea is the world’s second largest island (the first is Greenland), and West Papua and Papua New Guinea (PNG) consist of a mainland and many neighboring islands. The topography of West Papua is divided into three main segments with three primary mountain ranges that the Boelen’s python is known to inhabit: the Wisnumurti, Jayawijaya and Sudirmanare.
The snakes are typically found at high elevations, at roughly 6,500 to 8,500 feet (though one specimen was found off the coast, on an island called Good Enough Island). They inhabit burrows among rocks and vegetation along sharp cliff outcroppings covered with an abundance of foliage, venturing out primarily to hunt and to take advantage of crucial basking time.
In 2010, while talking with local hunters in west Papua, I was told that neonate and juvenile Boelen’s pythons are believed to migrate to lower elevations, closer to streams where there are larger numbers of small prey items, fresh water, and thicker vegetation in which to seek shelter. This is an interesting concept; however, because neonate M. boeleni are rarely encountered in the wild, the accuracy of this information is uncertain as of this writing.
There are two seasons in New Guinea: the rainy (November through April) and the dry (May to October). The highlands of PNG and west Papua maintain a temperate climate, though frequent thunderstorms do occur during the dry season. The average maximum temperature in the lowlands is 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures in the mountains can reach the upper 80s, with intense ultraviolet exposure that can make it feel blisteringly hot. Yet, the temperature can also fall as low as the mid 40s at night. Humidity levels can range from the mid 60s to 90 percent.
Importation & Exportation
According to the U.S. Commercial Animal Import database, 163 Boelen’s pythons have been imported into the United States since 2004. The reason for the low number is because about nine years ago, the Indonesian government imposed a zero quota on collecting Boelen’s pythons from the wild. In theory, this leaves the door open for the Scientific Authority and the Management Authority of Indonesia to issue a quota for wild-caught animals in years to come. The authorities of Indonesia can do this for species they want to protect from over-collection, and they can initiate a scientific survey to determine if wild populations are self-sustaining. The impetus for the Indonesian government to put these regulations into effect apparently resulted from pressure from other countries to stop the collecting and exporting of the Boelen’s python, which was being heavily collected from the wild.
Exporters in Indonesia who have breeding facilities and farms are allowed to apply for a specific license to keep and breed Boelen’s pythons in Indonesia. The license application process, however, is lengthy, and permits are not granted to all who apply.
Boelen’s that are produced through captive breeding at licensed farms can be exported, but only after the farm has filed a report with the Management Authority of Indonesia and waited for the appropriate CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permits. These steps, if granted, are mandatory before any Boelen’s python offspring may leave a breeding facility.
Thanks to Kamuran Tepedelen for providing the source information.
The Boelen’s in Captivity
There are a number of straightforward ways to maintain this fascinating python, but it can be a delicate species to keep. Even if you have all of your ducks in a row, some Boelen’s pythons will still fail to survive in captivity. That said, I have maintained Boelen’s successfully for 13 years using the following methods. Keeping the environment simple is the best way to ensure that the snakes will thrive and stress is minimized. I recommend keeping neonates up to 20 to 24 inches in length separately in plastic tubs measuring 12 by 12 by 12 inches. As snakes continue to grow, increase their enclosure sizes. Provide a newspaper substrate, a water dish, a hide box, several crossing dowel rods and a vigorous, leafy plant (such as Pothos species, including Epipremnum aureum and E. aureus).
For neonate enclosures, I utilize an under-tank heating pad to maintain an enclosure temperature of 74 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity level around 80 percent. The air inside the enclosure should be humid but not stagnant. Punch small holes around the upper rim of the plastic container to allow for some air circulation. An over-tank heating element can be used to maintain the above temperatures if you prefer, with a small-wattage basking bulb to provide a basking site. Care must be taken not to overheat the snake, however, and I would not recommend a bulb higher than 60 watts for a neonate rearing enclosure.
Use a full-spectrum ultraviolet light to maintain a cycle of 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. Frequent misting is also recommended to ensure that the little guys do not dehydrate and have good sheds. Care must be taken to not super-saturate them, however, as you certainly do not want any kind of skin infections or fungus to result.
Boelen’s pythons in the 3- to 4-foot range can be kept in enclosures measuring 48 inches long by 28 inches wide by 18 inches tall. When the snakes are this size, I switch to over-tank heating elements and maintain basking areas in the upper 90s. Nighttime temps can drop into the high 60’s to the low 70s. Humidity at the peak of the day should be in the 70- to 80-percent range.
Adult Boelen’s require as much space as possible. I would not recommend adult animals to be kept in anything smaller than a 6-foot-long by 3-foot-wide by 2-foot-tall enclosure. There are several manufacturers of very nice large snake cages that can easily accommodate your needs.
A large bowl of fresh water should be made available to your snake daily. A hide box that can completely shelter the snake from view, along with a large log or branches to assist with sheds, should also be provided. Adult snakes will enjoy a basking area into the low-100s Fahrenheit as long as they have plenty of room to reach cooler areas of the enclosure. Cooler temperatures in other areas of the habitat may range into the mid to high 60s. Always provide a good UV source, as ultraviolet light is very important in order to successfully maintain these pythons. It is not uncommon for Boelen’s pythons to be subjected to high levels of ultraviolet light in the mountains of their natural range.
The substrate in an adult’s enclosure can be as simple as newspaper or butcher paper. Using either will make it a breeze to collect fecals, and they are inexpensive and readily available. Cypress mulch is another alternative; however, you run the risk of the snake getting some of it in its mouth, and this type of mulch can be rather rough on the scales, too, if it’s allowed to dry out.
Handle with Caution
Boelen’s pythons are by nature shy snakes. When encountered in the wild they are quick to disappear if given the chance. They are generally hesitant to bite unless provoked. Pet Boelen’s pythons become accustomed to the routine of captivity, and can become quite tolerant of handling and interaction. Having worked with many, I have observed each to be unique, with their own personalities. Some are very shy and some can be very curious. Some are comfortable when removed from their cages, and in fact appear interested in smelling the outside of their enclosures. Others prefer to be left alone. I have never encountered a deliberately aggressive Boelen’s python. However, be careful when handling this snake because, regardless of a possibly docile appearance, Boelen’s pythons are quite strong and capable of inflicting serious injury.
Boelen’s pythons love to eat. Be cautious about overfeeding them, because they are so eager to accept food and will enthusiastically greet you at the front of their enclosure, expecting to be fed every time you approach it.
In the wild, neonates and juveniles will feed on small rodents, bats, lizards, fowl and small frogs. As they grow, they will eat larger ground-dwelling rodents, birds and cuscus, a marsupial that is found throughout New Guinea. There are also reports of Boelen’s pythons climbing into trees to eat lorikeets, as well.
Pet Boelen’s can be fed appropriately sized rodents once a week if they’re neonates or juveniles, or every eight to 10 days if they’re adults. Other prey items, such as quail and small rabbits, may also be utilized.
Long Lived, But Also Delicate
The lifespan of the Boelen’s python in the wild is not known. We can speculate it is a long-lived species and upon reaching adulthood is a top predator in its range. Captive Boelen’s can easily live into their twenties if given the proper care. It is essential for all their needs to be addressed correctly in order to maintain this sometimes delicate animal.
Boelen’s pythons appear to be prone to many common and some unusual illnesses. The most common is a respiratory tract infection caused by a bacterial infection in the lungs. This often occurs when the snake has been exposed to improper temperatures and humidity for prolonged periods, or if it experiences undue stress due to inadequate captive care. Excessive salivation, mouth gaping, mouth discoloration, wheezing and/or excessive mucus should result in an immediate trip to a professional reptile veterinarian (anyone considering owning a Boelen’s python should have a herp vet lined up prior to obtaining the snake). Mites are a common nuisance, but with proper husbandry they can often be avoided. There are several commercial mite products on the market that work rather well in eradicating them.
Always take time to observe your snakes carefully, and know their normal behaviors. Any odd behavior or activity should be assessed and brought to the attention of a qualified veterinarian as soon as possible. The quicker you respond to potential warning signs, the better your snake’s chance for a full recovery if it is ill.
Captive Breeding is Rare
There is no confirmation of successful reproduction of the Boelen’s python in any zoological facilities worldwide, although there have been announcements of successful captive breeding in the U.S and Indonesia, as listed below.
1989: First captive-hatched eggs by Dave and Tracy Barker
1992: First captive breeding of Boelen’s python by Paul Miles
2001: Second captive breeding by Jason Baylin and Frank Memmo
2006: Third captive breeding at a private facility in Florida
2007: Fourth captive breeding, in Indonesia, by Danny Gunalen
Snakes used in three of the successful captive reproductions were kept at comparable temperatures of approximately 60 degrees, with a natural photoperiod. All three groups went off feed and displayed the normal behavior typical of gravid pythons (e.g., irritability, excessive isolated basking, abnormal body posturing or “beehive” coiling behavior). Successful copulation appears to be dependent in part on the snakes being exposed to a natural cycle of gradual cooling, which is standard practice. Multiple introductions between a male and female or multiple males are also accepted procedure, as well as light manipulation combined with an increase of humidity or a rain cycle. But there are questions regarding at what age Boelen’s pythons attain sexual maturity, and whether or not a variation in the diet may be important for successful reproduction.
Clutch sizes range from nine to 14 eggs. Eggs are typically 2 to 2.7 inches long and weigh 3.7 to 4 ounces. They are incubated at temperatures between 87.5 and 89 degrees with humidity in the upper 80-percent range. After 70 days or so the eggs should start to pip and dark red little Boelen’s pythons will slither out. Neonates typically weigh 27 to 30 grams, and babies are quick to take meals shortly after their first shed. Unfortunately, the Boelen’s python remains a very mysterious species when it comes to breeding. Hopefully, in time, we will discover the secret to regular successful reproduction.
Despite the fact that the Boelen’s python is a highly protected species in New Guinea, we don’t really know population numbers within the remote areas that comprise the snake’s natural habitat. Habitat loss is a most important issue, due to logging and the mining.
Because of its rarity, the Boelen’s python can be expensive: up to $3,500 for a single snake. I believe that the key to working successfully with this species is continued research into its life in the wild, coupled with the frequent sharing of information among private and zoological caretakers. Until we work together, the secret to keeping and breeding Boelen’s pythons with increased success will likely remain hidden in the mountains covered by the clouds of New Guinea.
Ari. R. Flagle has been working with Boelen’s pythons since the late 1990s, and he has written numberous articles and conducted public presentations about the species. He is also co-author of the book, Black Python, ‘Morelia boeleni.'