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‘Just incredible’ reptiles and amphibians of South Africa: Q&A with Tyrone Ping

Cape Cobra

  • Growing up in the suburbs of the sub-tropical city of Durban in South Africa brought Tyrone Ping into daily contact with reptiles and amphibians, spurring a lifelong interest.
  • Ping now travels around Southern Africa photographing and documenting the diversity of herps, i.e. reptiles and amphibians for a range of educational uses.
  • Many species in the region are cryptic and yet to be properly described – species that have been known about for 20 years still don’t have names, he reports.
  • Mongabay spoke with him via email to learn more about the region’s herpetofauna.

Tyrone Ping had ample opportunity to admire reptiles and amphibians as a child, and this initial herpetological hobby has led to a life-long fascination. At some point when he was old enough, Ping began adventuring throughout Southern Africa to locate, photograph, and document as many of these creatures as possible.

Mongabay asked him about this obsession and what he sees as the major things to celebrate about the herpetofauna of his region, as well as the challenges faced by these creatures.

Mongabay: What got you interested in ‘herps’?

Tyrone Ping: Growing up in the sub-tropical city of Durban in South Africa, reptiles and amphibians are just something you come into contact with all the time. As a kid spending time outside at home, in the garden I’d often find chameleons, lizards, frogs and snakes in a pretty suburban area, so I’d say coming into contact with all these animals certainly helped kickstart my fascination.

What is special about herps in South Africa, what are they known for?

There are so many endemic species of herps in Southern Africa, it’s honestly hard to pick a few species. But certainly the adders: there are 11 species which include the largest, the Gaboon adder (Bitis gabonica), and the smallest, the Namaqua dwarf adder (Bitis schneideri), they’re just incredible! When it comes to chameleons, there are 17 species of chameleons, of which 15 are dwarf chameleons (Bradypodion species) most being either threatened or critically endangered. And not forgetting the cobras and mambas – I mean you can’t think of Africa without black mamba snakes, which actually have a far more fearsome reputation than they deserve.

Gaboon adder. Image © www.tyroneping.co.za.

You’ve been traveling around making images of herps for years now, is this a job or a passion?

I initially started out just herping, finding and documenting reptiles and amphibians for fun on the weekends. That soon turned out to be a major focus of mine, to photograph entire species groups, rare and poorly known animals, to get more images of these animals out there. Fifteen years back there weren’t many people making field trips documenting and sharing images, and you’d always see the same photos in field guides, over and over. My work (not herp-related) enables me to travel a fair bit and I’m able to fund a lot of the trips I do from commissions, talks, or work related to photographing reptiles and amphibians.

Your site is full of images and has helpful comparisons of similar looking snakes, like harmless ones that look like venomous ones, side by side. How are these graphics used in public education?

In South Africa like most places around the world people have an innate fear of snakes and usually are killed on sight, which you can understand. Snakebites in third world countries are a major problem and the truth is people do die from snakebites, so that fear is real, although in South Africa we only see around 10-15 deaths per year.

I started doing these comparisons to help people understand for their own safety as well as hopefully educating people that they don’t need to kill every snake they see: knowledge goes a long way in breaking stigmas people have. During talks and demos I often use the graphics to illustrate how many snakes look similar, and picking up the wrong snake could really ruin your day.

An undescribed species of dwarf chameleon. Image © www.tyroneping.co.za.

See related: Congo’s hidden crisis: Snakebites and envenomation 

Do people take herps from the wild to keep or to sell at home or abroad, such as at reptile fairs in places like Germany?

Keeping of reptiles is pretty big in South Africa, there is a huge market for dwarf adders and many of the smaller venomous snakes. In all but one province, it is illegal to catch and keep wild snakes in captivity, which is great although many people still do this and keep it quiet.

Smuggling of wild animals is a big problem in South Africa, mainly from overseas visitors, things like armadillo lizards (Ouroborus cataphractus), tortoises, dwarf adders, and chameleons are the most highly prized. You will often see people getting busted at the airports, but those are just a small portion of people [engaged in smuggling] that get caught.

What main challenges or threats are herps facing in southern Africa today?

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the two most critical threats facing South Africa’s biodiversity in general. Large areas of natural land are cleared for agriculture, cattle farming, areas are burned for cattle grazing pastures, and extensive areas are cleared for housing developments. Many of these regions are sensitive biomes with certain plants being found nowhere else on the world, so once the habitat and plants are gone, these areas can never be restored.

See related: Cattle and wildlife compete in Southern Africa 

What’s the greatest danger you have risked, or length you’ve gone, to get new images of herps?

There’ve been so many, ha! Out cruising one night I spotted an adult Gaboon adder on the other side of a 10-foot high electrified fence, I had to pull my car over, jump on the roof, get over the electric fence, catch the snake, then realize that I was stuck inside a wildlife area with hippos in the water and hyenas not far off – but that’s Africa for you.

While busy on my chameleon project, I drove 12 hours to find a single chameleon, found it, photographed it, and pretty much left right after, as I had to be back home to go to work on the Monday – that’s a long time on the road for an hour or two in the field.

Road trip. Image © www.tyroneping.co.za.

Do you sell images of herps, or make them available for free to education and NGOs?

With all my trips and research essentially being self-funded, the images bring in some funding to aid in my continual missions. However, I do work with some NGOs like Herpetological Conservation International who are investing in helping out South African herpetofauna. I do offer images to students writing papers, PhDs, theses, and most academic work free of charge, as I see them as making a positive contribution to better understanding of South Africa’s diverse herpetofauna biodiversity.

What else is important to say about herps in Southern Africa?

There really are so many amazing species in South Africa, many of which are cryptic and yet to be properly described – species that have been known about for 20 years still don’t have names.

Although South Africa has these amazing species, and I would encourage people to check them out and appreciate them, it’s vital that people do not support the illegal black market pet trade. Don’t get involved in buying wild reptiles coming from South Africa, as they would have been poached.

View all of Mongabay’s coverage of herps here, see Tyrone Ping’s website for  more info and images, and follow him on Instagram or Twitter  for updates.

Banner image: The most venomous cobra in Southern Africa, the Cape cobra. Image © www.tyroneping.co.za.