African Rock Pythons are seen fairly regularly at Londolozi, but only really during the warm summer months. Most of the time the individuals encountered are fairly small, and seldom exceed two metres in length. The real behemoths, which can be longer than five metres, are seldom encountered. The Mhangeni pride nearly tripped over one a few months ago, but I was sure it would be ages before I encountered such a large snake again.
The one in this sighting was not quite as big as November’s snake, but it was still impressive.
It started with a radio message from the Tracker Academy. After hearing a distress call, they had investigated and found a sub-adult impala gasping its last breaths in the coils of a python. Pythons are constrictors, meaning they suffocate their victims to death rather than envenomate them. By wrapping their coils around their prey and tightening their grip each time the prey exhales, whatever animal is unlucky enough to have been caught will be able to take in less and less oxygen with each breath until they eventually die.
Such was the fate of the female impala on this day.
Knowing what a rare sight it was to see an antelope being engulfed by a python, Ranger Don Heyneke and I both made our way towards the sighting, as neither of us had ever witnessed such a thing before.
When we arrived, only a few coils of the python were visible around the impala’s body where it lay in the long grass. We had to wait over an hour-and-a-half before anything began to happen. Just as the sun set the python began to drag the impala to some thicker bushes. Then the real fascinating part of the sighting began as the python stretched its incredible jaws to begin swallowing the prey. Pythons will always try to swallow an antelope head first, and their jaws are specially adapted to accommodate large food items. Unlike a mammalian jaw that is built for brute force, a snakes is rigged with tendons, muscles, and ligaments that give the jaw a gymnast’s flexibility; the bottom jaw is in fact constructed out of two pieces, held together in front by a tendon, and only loosely attached to the skull by a special quadrate bone which allows the jaw to open to an incredible 150 degrees!
This is what we were to observe first hand – if not the actual structure of the jaw then its function rather – as the python slowly began to swallow the impala. It was not a speedy process, but all of us who were there were absolutely spellbound.
We left to get our own dinners back at camp as the impalas shoulders were about to disappear, and when Don returned to the scene in the morning, he found the python not far from the same spot, with the impala entirely consumed. Pythons, and indeed other constrictors, will deliberately crush their prey with their coils, breaking ribs on the carcass in order to make it easier to swallow. This is almost certainly what happened in this case as the bulge in the python’s stomach was certainly not as wide as an impala body would suggest.
Don left the python in peace. It will most likely take a week or two to digest its meal, and should be able to survive on that single impala for many months to come, certainly long enough to last it through the cold winter that is almost upon us!
Written, Filmed and Photographed by James Tyrrell