From Egg to Neonate – Setting up a reptile center from scratch

I have always been obsessed with reptiles since an early age, starting with plastic dinosaurs and flicking through books with animal pictures in them. Growing up in Indonesia, my parents weren’t too keen on my interest, and were constantly worried that I would die of snakebite or some other mishap while playing with animals. They had every reason to be – venomous snakes were quite common in Indonesia, even in a metropolitan city such as Jakarta, where I grew up. Nevertheless, I was stubborn and continued with my passion for animals, collecting bugs, fish and reptiles of all sorts after school. My parents never allowed snakes in the house- they were terrified! Therefore, I sneaked them in and kept them in secret for some time before letting them go. In my early teens, I saved up my pocket money and sold rice packs at school during lunch among other things, doing odd jobs to earn money – all unbeknownst to my parents, to rent a small room in the slums to keep my growing snake collection. I grew up in the North of Jakarta, near a mangrove swamp, full of water snakes and monitor lizards. Other species, such as cobras, pythons and rat snakes were often encountered in the housing area where my parents lived, and I would collect those to keep. After a while I got in contact with various animal traders, and began to breed and sell reptiles. This went on for several years, as I increased my collection and got more and more exotic species. One day during my high school years I sat down and thought: “I want to do something more meaningful with my life, rather than collecting these wild animals for my own personal pleasure” and there an idea was born – to set up an educational facility to educate the public about these wonderful creatures.

Long story short, I knew a man who lived in a small village in Bogor by the Ciliwung River, and he offered for me the use of his house for free to set up this facility. We decided to name it the Ciliwung Reptile Center. At the age of sixteen I moved out of my parents’ house, often staying at friends’ houses, or sleeping in the school gates on a piece of cardboard. At times I would stay at the reptile center, however it was about 3 hours away and I had to take several buses to get there. I got rid of most of my exotic snakes, and kept a few native species to be kept as educational material. At this point, I had no idea what I was doing, and with no money I did not have these animals in the best conditions; they were in small glass tanks, just enough to keep them alive. I thought it would be good to start removing snakes from houses, to reduce human-animal conflict, so with only several volunteers, we did that. Also we would go to schools or villages to talk about snakes, how to recognize the venomous ones and their importance in the ecosystem.

The Ciliwung Reptile Center's collection in 2015.
The Ciliwung Reptile Center’s collection in 2015.

 

I soon realized that we needed money, and I wanted out of the whole animal trading game, so I thought of ecotourism as an option. Having the internet and social media really helped me a lot – I promoted tours online and did not get much interest at first, so we did sweeps in residential areas; getting paid to remove snakes, and other odd jobs to get a bit of cash in. It was 2015 when I started getting more volunteers, and thought of more ideas to improve our educational values. Instead of having glass tanks stacked on top of each other, we saved up to buy some racking and had them placed neatly there, along with labels on each tank to inform people which snakes were in that tank. The snakes were alive, but it wasn’t the best of conditions. Nevertheless, I kept on going and thought of publishing a book – surely this would have a good educational value to the public. I increased my network and got more involved in fieldwork, learning more and more about the science of herpetology. Dr. Mirza Kusrini, a lecturer at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, kindly supported me to present my findings at the South East Asian Symposium of Herpetology and Envenomation at Brawijaya University, August 2015. I was very excited as this was my very first scientific conference. Through this conference, I managed to gain many more contacts and increased my knowledge. Less than a year later, with the help of many experienced individuals, my book was published – ‘the Snakes of Jakarta and its Surroundings/Mengenal Ular Jabodetabek’ a bilingual field guide on the snakes of West Java, aimed to educate locals and also tourists who have an interest in these animals.

The snakes of Jakarta and its surroundings, published in 2016
The snakes of Jakarta and its surroundings, published in 2016

 

My parents, who were previously against my desire to become a herpetologist, were now proud of me – apparently I had proven to them that I was serious – and they had offered to fund me to study herpetology formally. By mid-2016, I had a few more volunteers, enough to keep the center running if I were to go away to study. And so my journey began.

In September 2016, I travelled halfway around the world to London, to do an entry level degree before I could get into university. Living in England was a shock for me, and I wasn’t too keen on doing ‘A level’ material, such as math’s, chemistry and biology. I was never the brightest in school, however I would spend hours reading on a subject I was interested in. London wasn’t as wild as Bogor, my home changed drastically from a nice little village by the river to a concrete jungle much colder than the tropical climate back home. However, there was a zoo and museum in London, where I could learn much about these animals. I got on Facebook and started looking for contacts in various zoos and museums around the UK, and somehow managed to volunteer at the Natural History Museum after pestering some people and showing my enthusiasm. The NHM was a place of wonder for me – millions of specimens in jars, books and papers jam-packed with information, along with the scientists that worked at the museum. I was working under Dr. Jeff Streicher, curator of amphibians, a very patient man who kindly taught me the science aspect of herpetology.

Volunteers having a discussion at the center in 2015
Volunteers having a discussion at the center in 2015

 

As I planned to improve animal welfare and educational value in my facility back home, I visited various zoos in the UK to learn from them. Ben Tapley, curator of herpetology at the London Zoo, agreed to meet with me one day. He listened intently as I voiced my ideas to him, gave me feedback and was very straightforward about it. In Indonesia people rarely gave me constructive criticism, perhaps they were too polite to do so – instead I was often praised and told to continue the good work. Ben, on the other hand, explicitly told me what I was doing wrong and what I could do to fix it. Many of the keepers and curators I had spoken to from other zoos and collections I visited gave me some great advice as well.

The ecotourism business was improving, but it wasn’t producing much, so I put up an online fundraiser to raise funds for a renovation of the reptile center in 2017, to increase animal welfare and educational value. It received some attention, and managed to raise several hundred pounds – quite an amount in rupiah.

Education to local children by the Ciliwung river
Education to local children by the Ciliwung river

 

Summer of 2017 came, and the tours were increasing indeed, producing a bit of income for the center. With that and the crowdfunding money, we drastically decreased the collection, rented an off-show area, and renovated the display area, creating much larger enclosures for the animals. I have learned much from my time in England, and developed a concept for the educational value of the center. Instead of just displaying the different types of snakes in the area, we decided to focus on some issues to raise awareness and inspire conservation. The animals to be displayed were carefully selected, as they were to serve an educational purpose, instead of just being animals in boxes.

We built a filtered pond for the turtles, along with a land area where they could come up to bask. I chose the black marsh turtle to fill this enclosure, as it was a native species and reproduced very slowly. The aim of this exhibit was to raise awareness of the invasive species issue, telling the story of the invasive red-eared slider, a popular pet terrapin which have been introduced to Java and are causing ecological damage to the ecosystem. Next to it we had a display of rubbish, to raise awareness on the pollution issue and what people could do to solve it. We also had cartoons printed on the wall describing the relationship between humans and the river, and why it is important to protect our fragile ecosystems. To go with it we displayed an aquarium with native fish, and another tank with water snakes to show the biodiversity of the Ciliwung River. This was extremely important, as we must focus on protecting the habitat in order to conserve the animals which depend on the river ecosystem.

River section in 2017
River section in 2017

 

Next we have three tanks, two smaller enclosures above a large one. This was to discuss poison and venom, and the wall next to it dedicated to raising awareness on the snakebite issue in Indonesia. We show people how to prevent snakebite, the proper first aid, and the myths surrounding it. All our info-graphics were designed by volunteers, filled with pictures, cartoons and minimal text, in order to make it interesting and easy to understand. To show poisonous and venomous animals, we had a representative of each; spitting cobras, a venomous species, which occupied the large enclosure, themed like a warehouse to show that these snakes are often found near human surroundings. Above it were a poisonous animal, the river toad, and a red-necked keelback, which was both poisonous and venomous. Here we also explained the relationship between the two species, where the keelback will predate the toad and sequester its poison.

Lastly, we have two enclosures filled with two different species of green snake, which are common in the area. One, the vine snake, is harmless, while the bamboo pit viper below it is highly toxic. Here we aim to show people the difference between the two, to avoid misidentification, as the majority of people are afraid of green snakes.

Vine snake and green viper enclosures in 2017
Vine snake and green viper enclosures in 2017

 

With my limited knowledge about animal management, I assigned several volunteers to be responsible for the upkeep of the center, having a set schedule and record sheets to fill in for each individual. I trained them on various aspect of caring for these animals, such as record-keeping, safe handling and biosecurity. We try to keep it simple for now, sticking to the basics of animal care, and will perhaps improve it if all goes well. Being a volunteer-based group, I am rather proud of what we have achieved in such a short time. In the future we hope to increase our outreach programs to schools and villages, refine the wildlife removal team, and build a proper education center. For now, we plan to focus on the tours, and get more funding before we can increase our programs. I hope my story has been entertaining, educational and inspiring, and I shall post more updates as we progress forward.

For more information about mine and the centers work, or how you can help please follow the below links. Thank you

https://www.gofundme.com/ciliwung-reptile-center

www.ciliwungrc.blogspot.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQBBQJIoHo8&t=1s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS6s-Y_NGUU

Nathan Rusli
About Nathan Rusli 1 Article

Nathan Rusli is a wildlife guide, photographer, author, and conservationist from Indonesia. He is the founder of the Ciliwung Reptile Center and manager of Indonesia Herping Tours. Aside from authoring the book “Snakes of Jakarta and its Surroundings”, a bilingual field guide to the snakes of West Java, he also writes articles on conservation and herpetology.

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