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The Nocturnal Thrill of Capturing Vietnam's Elegant Fauna in Wildlife Photography

For most people, walking in the jungle at night would sound like a bad idea. A lack of knowledge and many misbeliefs, unfortunately, create bad assumptions about the wilderness after dark. And snakes, species that seem to be conjured by our nightmares, only reveal themselves when the sun is on the other side of the planet. But they are simply wild animals, with important roles in the ecosystem. With that acknowledgment and a respectful approach, we can start…

Venturing into nature satisfies my passion for wildlife while presenting a never-ending learning process. Working for NGOs in the past and now as a consultant, the boundaries between work and passion sometimes blur. For a naturalist, it’s almost inconceivable to stick to only one branch of zoology. For me, ornithology was, and still is, my biggest link with the wild. Birds are everywhere and their ability to travel makes them a strong symbol of how nature isn’t limited to borders. For those who take time to look up, open their ears and pay attention, birds will appear. Once I learned to do so, it became physically impossible not to notice birds all around me.

An interest in any particular animal logically leads to an interest in its habitat and by extension the other species around them. While looking for some snakes, for example, one will surely observe different amphibians as well as insects and other invertebrates. A naturalist will surely want to know about those as well. Thankfully, in Vietnam, herping (looking for reptiles and amphibians) is mostly done at night. Therefore, it’s possible to balance it with birding which is mostly a daytime activity. Your sleep quota might suffer a bit but bear in mind that it’s also often only seasonal.

Thus, over the years I developed an interest in reptiles as well as wildlife photography. Trying to capture a specific behavior or simply the beauty of what goes usually unseen is an interesting combination of art and science. I do believe that it’s important to sometimes forget devices and technologies to focus on capturing experiences and memories, raw, with my senses alone.

My first “identified” contact with snakes in France was with a Natricine water snake (Natrix maura), a common and harmless species that are often killed because people mistake it for a viper, despite such action being illegal. Snakes in Vietnam don’t always have the same luxuries of being classified as protected species. Many of them are still hunted to be raised for food or sometimes sold as pets. In most situations, fear and a lack of knowledge result in them being killed. Thus, a few years ago some friends and I created a Facebook page, Snakes & Wildlife Central Vietnam - Inform & Protect, in order to bring accurate information and support to people encountering snakes or other wild species. We believe it to be the best way to avoid destruction and raise awareness.

With posts in both Vietnamese and English about snakes and their ecology, nothing like it previously existed. People can post or message to identify a snake, learn more about it and to ask for a relocation when necessary. Still limited to the Hội An and Đà Nẵng area, the initiative is 100% volunteer-supported. Therefore, money doesn’t influence what happens to the snakes. Step by step, we can see similar initiatives being launched, especially in the south, where young Vietnamese herpers are also organizing rescues and relocations. There is still a long way to go, but I am convinced the journey starts with discovery. So with that, let’s step into the jungle.

5pm in Hội An, September 2022

Looking for reptiles and amphibians in Vietnam is most successful at night. Animals are more active then and their detection becomes, to a certain extent, easier.

Massive clouds have been playing in the sky all afternoon and now, they are releasing an impressive amount of water. For a naturalist, especially a herpetologist*, rain can be a blessing. Frogs and toads are definitely more active. Some snake species will also enjoy this weather, making their detection a bit easier.

*Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians. It comes from the ancient Greek herpeton, designating reptiles or, more precisely, “crawling things.”

Few universities offer courses on herpetology. Though, like many other field zoology disciplines, experiences and uncountable hours spent outside are the best ways to prove one’s knowledge of it on a CV.

For the trip, I prepare some equipment including snake hooks. They will be useful to move a snake without harming it or causing it stress. They are also the safest way to interact with venomous species. I also charge my camera batteries and double-check my SD cards. It’s essential to check my flashlights and headlamps before going into the forest. Having good lighting is necessary for finding wildlife at night, especially snakes because they do not wait for people to pass by and jump on them — this, however, would make things so much easier.

Spotting snakes necessitates looking closer and analyzing patterns and colors. Different angles of light might suddenly reveal a strange shape among the leaves, for example. Frogs and toads are betrayed by their eyeshine which results from a layer of cells in their eyes called the tapedum lucidum. This helps to reflect light, increasing the amount available for their photoreceptors. Many nocturnals animals or species living in dark environments have a tapedum lucidum. Spiders, those amazing hunters, have it as well.

I remember one session in particular at a dry stream. Many huge, moss-covered rocks there provided great micro-habitats for invertebrates. My torchlight quickly revealed that those rocks were also the favorite hunting area of dozens of massive huntsman spiders (Sparassidae). I could clearly see their large eyes shining through the darkness when the light was hitting them.

Despite sometimes reaching an impressive size, these members of the Sparassidae family (Họ nhện thợ săn) are harmless to humans. Some species live inside human houses while others prefer a forested habitat. Unfortunately for people scared of spiders, they are extremely fast and jumpy. When disturbed, they move in the blink of an eye.

Snakes, unlike huntsman spiders, rely on other senses to capture prey and move at night. As always, for wildlife, learning about the ecology of the species one is looking for is essential. I hope that this knowledge of their behavior and preferred habitat, in addition to how they appear in the dark, will help me tonight.

Everything is packed, it's time to go! The rain has slowed to a very light drizzle; nothing that could keep a naturalist inside.

While Quảng Nam Province is still rich with some amazing wild areas, the ones around Hội An are getting tough for wildlife. City expansion has resulted in the uncontrolled destruction of natural habitats. Rice paddies are increasingly found stuck between houses, cafes and large hotels. Patches of spontaneous vegetation are becoming rare. And even worse, roads and paths are appearing everywhere. Habitat fragmentation is a real threat to all species because as individuals get disconnected from each other, they must risk crossing dangerous thoroughfares. Snakes are unfortunately regular victims of the vehicles traveling around Hội An and elsewhere in the country.

Thankfully, it’s still possible to observe species better adapted to disturbed habitats. The Siamese red-necked keelback, or Rắn hoa cỏ cổ đỏ xiêm (Rhabdophis siamensis) is the snake that people are most likely to observe at least once if they live here. Relict habitats, the remains of what once was an area’s primary landscape, can shelter many animals and thus preserve biodiversity.

The Siamese red-necked keelback (Rhabdophis siamensis) is uniquely easy to observe during the day. Adapted to disturbed habitats, the snake often dwells near houses and gardens. According to some Vietnamese traditional beliefs, the snake can be an incarnation of an ancestor watching over a person. Therefore, the snake, compared to some of its less lucky cousins, is more readily tolerated.

Very reluctant to bite, the Siamese red-necked keelback is rear-fanged. To inject its venom, the snake needs to hold onto and chew into its prey, allowing its venom to flow along the grooved teeth. Therefore, the snake is unlikely to envenomate a person. During my many interventions to relocate snakes from houses or gardens, I have never seen a red-necked keelback try to bite unless handled. The snake is also able to reuse toxins from the toads it feeds on. The chemical components are sequestered and stored in glands located on the neck area, under the skin. When threatened, the gland will break, spreading a mix of blood and toxins on the snake’s skin. This will undoubtedly give a memorable negative experience to any potential predators willing to give it a go.

The road to our destination tonight is without major difficulties. I found the area via routine explorations for new areas. Not too far from Hội An, the jungle here is well preserved despite human activities getting closer and closer.

As the summer ends, nights are fill with the scent of hoa sữa (Alstonia scholaris). It’s not surprising that the perfume of these white flowers of the blackboard tree has been a source of inspiration for poets and artists in Vietnam for generations. For me, its deeply linked to nights observing wildlife.

Around a cultivated area, we cross the path of a small White-lipped pit viper, or Rắn lục đuôi đỏ, (Trimeresurus cf. albolabris). We stop shortly to observe the snake, which remains relatively common in the area. As we continue, the sound of frogs, katydids and a few Large-tailed nightjars, or cú muỗi đuôi dài, (Caprimulgus macrurus) compose our evening’s soundtrack.

Once we reach our destination, it’s time to leave our bikes behind. Deeper in the jungle, we can already hear amphibians singing. The forest floor is still wet from the rain and leaves are shining with tiny ephemeral jewels.

Our cameras and flashlights are ready. It’s time to focus. Snakes can be anywhere, moving on the ground or among branches. Several species in the area are mostly nocturnal, actively hunting for lizards, amphibians, small mammals or even other snakes, at this hour. Looking for movement is a good way to spot them. Finding them is also a matter of training one’s eyes for unexpected details, colors or shapes that break the pattern of surrounding vegetation. In many situations, this is easier said than done.

Walking very slowly and changing the angle of our lights helps to reveal treasures hidden among the leaves. Lizards scurry around and frogs like to explore trees, especially during wet weather. Spiders are especially eye-catching thanks to their wide range of colors and habits. The genus Macracantha, for instance, includes some of the most incredible spiders. Last time I was here early in the morning, I came across a spectacular Long-horned orb weaver (Macracantha arcuata). It might be among my favorite spiders.

“Snake!” The night’s quiet is broken. My friend has just found one slowly moving between branches. Its colors blend perfectly among dying leaves and branches. It is a Common mock-viper, or Rắn hổ đất nâu, (Psammodynastes pulverulentus). They are mildly venomous and there is no reported case of envenomation, so the fairly small snake isn’t a danger to humans. That said, it doesn’t mean that a bite would be a pleasant experience at all!

I get my camera ready to capture different views of the snake. The most important thing is to avoid disturbing the snake for too long. Capturing beautiful and accurate images will surely be a great help when talking about it and sharing it with more people, but observation and handling, especially for reptiles and amphibians, should never come before the well-being and respect of the animal and its habitat. In many situations, leaving the snake alone is the best thing to do. Doing so allows one to best observe its natural behavior. Despite the competitive impulses fostered by social media, capturing an image must come with strong ethics. Observations are themselves a source of massive satisfaction for any serious naturalist and photos are never indispensable unless one is leading a scientific survey.

The mock-viper sets its own boundaries. After a few minutes, it decides to go further inside the bush. The photo shoot is over. I take a quick look at what I got. They don't seem too bad and I will see the final results later on my computer. For now, it’s time to look for more discoveries.

As we get closer to a small stream, frog calls become louder. They are coming from everywhere. Some species are singing in the water and others are sitting comfortably on branches. The most prudent ones are carefully hiding under roots or in holes. It sometimes sounds like they are using the natural cavities as echo chambers. The ground is literally talking to the night.

I am studying each bush, from the highest branches to the dead leaves littering the ground. Finally, my careful attention pays off: a thin green vine is moving in a strange way. It is definitely not a plant. My excitement rises as I get closer and find the head of a snake. It’s an Oriental whip snake, or Rắn roi thường, (Ahaetulla prasina). Its slender body provides another of its popular names: Vine snake (the name actually covers different genus from Asia, Africa and South America). This individual has an intense fluorescent green color.

The Oriental whip snake (Ahaetulla prasina) can be found in different colors, often called morphs. Some individuals are grey or light brown, while others are shades of yellow. There is plenty of variation amongst the green color, as well.

The species is widespread in Vietnam. In 2021, a new species, Ahaetulla rufusoculara, was split from Ahaetulla prasina in southern Vietnam, showing how even common and widespread species can still retain some mystery.

This genus really has a unique look and some specific habits as well. Snakes flick their tongues to capture chemicals to be analyzed by their Jacobson’s organ. Doing so gives them a detailed idea of their environment, the potential presence of prey and much more information that we don’t fully understand yet. The flicking happens in the blink of an eye. When I observe Oriental whip snakes, I almost always see them holding their tongue straight out of their mouths. I have to be honest, this makes them look usually much less impressive than some of their cousins. The behavior might be an example of something called lingual luring. Their tongue looks a little like a tasty worm and tree frogs or agamid lizards can be tempted to give it a go. before realizing, too late, that the vine behind the “worm” was actually a predator.

A few meters further from the bush, I spot a silhouette on a large fern. It’s a gorgeous Mountain horned dragon (Acanthosaura nathaliae). Like other Acanthosaura, the species is active during the day. At night, they find a comfortable spot to sleep, but remain somehow always ready to jump away if danger gets too close. For now, my slow approach is paying off. The tiny dragon is still watching but seems to be ok with the camera around. It looks like a young female judging by its color and the size of her horns. She still has some small pieces of old skin on her head. Snakes shed in one full piece, which is why it’s sometimes possible to find snake skins in the wild. Lizards, in contrast, go through the process piece by piece.

Exploring the jungle at night requires a lot of attention. It’s worth checking almost every leaf, as one can find tiny surprises like different insects hiding. Different frogs are also perfectly adept at climbing. Tree frogs and flying frogs are the masters of this discipline. I am lucky this time to catch a gorgeous South-Vietnamese bug-eyed frog (Theloderma vietnamense) sitting quietly on a green leaf. It’s in a perfect position to capture a few quick images. Despite its name, the frog can also be found in Central Vietnam as well in neighboring countries. Its eyes seem to offer a perfect reflection of the night sky. On the leaf, the animal is pretty easy to spot, but on tree bark or the forest floor, it would be nearly impossible unless it was moving. The genus Theloderma that it belongs to also includes some incredible other species like the elusive Mossy frog (Theloderma corticale) that can be observed in North Vietnam.

After some more time exploring around, photographing various insects, spiders and frogs, it’s time to return to the bikes. We didn’t encounter many snakes but that’s part of what makes each encounter so precious.

Before packing everything back, I decide to have a quick look along the path. One doesn’t really use their ears much when looking for snakes. But as a birder, I am sensitive to small sounds. Something moving just behind me suddenly grabs my attention. What a surprise: right in front of me, a gorgeous juvenile Guangxi cat snake, or Rắn rào quảng tây, (Boiga guangxiensis) is slowly exploring the jungle. The species is fairly widespread in Vietnam, but finding one is always great. Meeting such a beautifully colored young individual like this is, however, much more rare. The colors on its body are truly amazing. This might be the longest-lasting photo session of the night. And would be a delight to observe it for hours, but the cat snake finally moves further into the vegetation, continuing its night exploration. It’s a signal for us to leave the jungle, at least for today.

What an evening! A list of all the species encountered isn’t the only way to measure if it was somehow “successful.” Actually, to me, any moment in nature is good and even without observation there’s value as every situation is an opportunity for learning.

That said, let’s be honest, finding some little “jungle treasures” offers an ineffable thrill. Rare species bring extra excitement and can contribute to making the night even more memorable. The quality of observations and their situations matter as well. Finding, for instance, a spider in the process of molting, is a fantastic moment. On this night, the young Boiga guangxiensis was definitely a highlight.

Discovering nature also involves simply enjoying what is there and appreciating the surprise of the moment without building too many expectations. Nature is good for reminding one to remain humble.

I can use the images I captured to raise awareness of the region’s important wildlife by sharing them online and at the workshops that I lead. Nowadays, scientists and professionals rely on the public for observations and data via collaborative websites as part of worldwide communities. Collecting data is also an integral part of learning more about a species and its geographical range as well as how ecosystems change over time. Exchanging data can even sometimes contribute to new discoveries. Contributing to those projects is a good way to assist with wildlife protection as knowledge is the first necessary step.

The road out of the jungle unfolds under a sky filled with stars. The moon is still young and shines in an incredible orange outfit. Its beauty is emphasized by small clouds that look like splashes of dark ink. Images of this incredible night remain vibrant in my mind. There will be many more to come.

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