In the early morning in a monastery in Rangoon, Burma, a team of snake hunters arranges one by one in large canvas bags about thirty pythons captured in recent months from private individuals.
By van, the volunteers who constitute the only unit of this kind in this country of Southeast Asia in the grip of a civil war, will release the reptiles outside the city, in their natural habitat.
Shwe Lei and his team are usually called by frightened residents who report the presence of pythons, sometimes cobras or vipers, in their house or apartment.
"I like snakes because they are unpretentious," Shwe Lei told AFP at one of the snake sanctuaries she runs.
"If you accept their nature, they are adorable," she adds, two pythons entwined around her.
But Ko Toe Aung, a burly 40-something who has been catching snakes since 2016, says he has been hospitalized seven times for bites.
Their team has a dozen members and saved around 200 snakes last year around Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
Videos posted on social media showing the couple dragging snakes out of sink holes, drains or gutters have earned them the nickname "prince and princess of snakes".
These volunteers rely on donations to operate, from protective gear to gasoline for their "ambulance," a purple van.
They mainly catch Burmese pythons, non-venomous snakes that usually grow to five meters in length and choke their prey, rats and other small mammals to death.
Very venomous cobras and bongares have also taken up residence in the streets of Rangoon.
In 2014, according to the latest figures available from the WHO, out of 15,000 people bitten by a snake in Burma, 1,250 died.
This is one of the highest rates in the world, largely due to the weak health system and unequal access to antivenoms.
In addition to being "quick and agile", hunters must be able to guess where a snake may be hiding in a house, says Ko Toe Aung, 40.
They must also exercise composure in the face of poisonous snakes.
"There's a 90% chance the snake will bite me," he says.
Sometimes the snakes don't even show themselves.
In March, the team spent two days outside a house in suburban Yangon in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge a family of cobras that had taken up residence in the basement.
Drilling through the concrete as neighbors watched, they were frequently interrupted by the snakes inside spitting venom in their direction.
“It stinks,” said Ko Ye Min, 31, a tattooed team member, who was forced to take a break.
Hunters must recognize the musk released by a stressed snake as this determines whether it is poisonous or not, Ko Toe Aung told AFP.
Cobras smell a little "rotten", but pythons have a much stronger smell. "Sometimes it makes us vomit," he says.
Once captured, the snakes are kept under observation in a monastery until they are fit to return to their habitat.
At the end of March, the team packed up their 30 pythons and trekked 150 kilometers to the hills of Bago Yoma, north of Yangon.
In single file, they ended up walking through the bush, each carrying a snake or two on its back.
"Nobody likes to feel locked up," Shwe Lei told AFP after the last snakes were released, some a little dazed.
"I'm happy...from the point of view of caring for each other, it's gratifying."
04/27/2023 07:27:00 - Kyauktaga (Burma) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP