Fact Check

Big Snake

Did Indonesian villagers capture a 49-foot, 985-pound python?

Published Jan. 7, 2004


Claim:   Indonesian villagers captured a 49-foot, 983-pound python.

Status:   False.

Origins:   In late December 2003, several news agencies picked up a story about Indonesian villagers who had reportedly captured a python "officially" measured at nearly 49 feet (14.85 meters) long, tipping the scales at a whopping 983 pounds (447 kilograms), with a diameter of 2.8 feet (85 cm).

Fragrant Flower

The original source for the story, the Indonesian newspaper Republika, included the detail that the slithery reptile ate "three or four dogs a month." The snake was said to have been caught and kept by members of the Kubu tribe on the island of Sumatra who "revered the creature as a ruler," requiring animal handlers to wait several months before obtaining the villagers' permission to bring it to an animal exhibition at Curugsewu park on the island of Java.

If the claims were true, this would have been one extraordinary snake: the Guinness Book of World Records lists the longest snake ever found at 32.75 feet (10 meters) — for a specimen shot in Celebes, Indonesia, in 1912 — and heaviest (living) snake at 403 lb. (182.76 kg) — a Burmese Python on display at the Serpent Safari Park in Gurnee, Illinois). The recent Indonesian find would have exceeded the largest known snake in length by nearly 50% and in weight by an amazing 140%.

But, as the British newspaper The Guardian discovered when it sent a reporter out to actually measure the legendary snake, claims about the reptile's size were rather exaggerated — their man measured Fragrant Flower, as the reticulated python is now known, at between 21 and 23 feet (6.5 to 7 meters) in length, and estimated its weight at about 220 pounds (100 kg).

Snake handler Imam Darmanto offered several reasons for the discrepancies in measurements:

Look, you must understand that a python's length is not constant. Depending on the weather, on how recently he has eaten and when he last shed his skin, Fragrant can stretch and contract a great deal. A few days ago he stretched himself out halfway round the cage. The reason he is not that large now is because he has not eaten for about six weeks and has just shed his skin so his body is quite firm at the moment. When he's at his full length he's much softer and I can push my finger in much further. And his body is much fatter too, perhaps up to 50cm in diameter.

Nonetheless, Guardian reporter John Aglionby's measurements, although admittedly imprecise, had Fragrant Flower nowhere near its claimed length, width, or girth:

Indeed, "coming up well short" does not do justice to the disparity between the claimed length and the length I measured. If Fragrant ever extends to 14.85m long he will be the most mind-boggling animal on earth because I measured him at somewhere between 6.5 and 7m.

The imprecise estimate is due to my reluctance to grab hold of his tail and stretch out the beautiful body that is a patchwork of brown, dark yellow and black scales even though Fragrant seems docile enough . . .

Weighing the python is impossible. Judging by a tentative feel of his body while his attention is distracted by children poking their fingers through his cage, I would put it at perhaps 100kg but no more . . . I poke the body: it seems pretty squidgey and closer to 20 cm across.

A Reuters photographer dispatched to the Curugsewu park to measure the talk-of-the-town snake obtained similar results:

Amid growing skepticism of the claim, a photographer working for Reuters returned to the Curugsewu park in the small central Java town of Kendal with a measuring tape. The snake's true length — around 21 feet.

"I have no idea why the snake has shrunk," said one keeper when asked about the discrepancy, as the snake lounged on a tree branch inside its cage.

The Guardian also quoted Richard Shine, a python expert from Sydney University, as noting that during his extensive research he had found pythons containing recently-eaten "monkeys, pigs and even porcupines but no dogs," and that "these giant pythons always shrink whenever a tape measure turns up."

Fragrant Flower is a monster of a snake, but it's far short of being the record-setting giant initial reports made it out to be.

Additional information:

    Giant Python on Display   Giant Python on Display   (MSNBC)

    Stay Still, Will You?   Stay Still, Will You?   (The Guardian)

Last updated:   16 April 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Associated Press.   "Official: World's Largest Snake in Indonesia."

    CNN.com.   29 December 2003.

    The Guardian.   "Stay Still, Will You?"

    5 January 2004.

    Reuters.   "Indonesia Park Puts World's Longest Snake on Show."

    30 December 2003.

    Reuters.   "World's 'Longest Snake' Comes Up Short."

    7 January 2004.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.