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lands. With this lovely creature in hand, I remembered the nocturnal emerald tree boa
of South America, the palm-pitvipers I'd seen in Costa Rica, and pondered anew wheth-
er similar ecological demands explain such unusual coloration in distantly related ar-
boreal species.
Whatever the significance of gaping displays and bright colors, throughout human
history we have faced serpents similar to those one encounters today. Modern snakes
differentiated in the Eocene, more than thirty-five million years ago, whereas the fam-
ous fossil Lucy's line diverged from chimpanzees and bonobos in the early Pliocene,
about seven million years ago. Stone tools go back two million years, fire use by Homo
erectus a mere four hundred thousand years, and the first written records are some five
thousand years old. As we'll discuss later, early humans, like other primates, surely re-
garded serpents with a mixture of fear and curiosity, resulting in accurate lore and wild
legends. I'll bet bipedal, nest-raiding apes marveled at egg-eaters swallowing objects
larger than their own heads, and that those savanna-ranging hominids respected the
hissing threat of an Olduvai puff adder. Snakes must have been common in the African
Pliocene, just as they still were until recently, and our ancestors were no doubt rever-
ing, reviling, and killing them. 11
On rainy afternoons in Bwindi we preserved specimens and wrote notes, sitting under
a tarp on whatever was handy to keep off the muddy ground. One day I pulled a big
green and yellow Ruwenzori chameleon out of a collecting bag, placed it on my knee,
and admired the three horns on its snout. As the animal crept along with the rocking,
hand-over-hand gait characteristic of its clan, Vincent folded his arms and shivered. Dis-
gust hung on his face. Bob had explained that many Africans are extraordinarily fearful
of these reptiles, and now, with an air of relief, my new friend exclaimed, “You must
take special medicine to handle dangerous creatures!” A few minutes later I gave the
chameleon a fatal drug injection and prepared it as a museum specimen, which for liz-
ards and snakes includes forcing formalin into the tail to evert the paired copulatory
organs for study. I cradled the dead animal in one hand, inserted a needle behind the
penile swellings, and as hydraulic pressure from the syringe caused the two structures
to balloon out, Vincent's eyes went wide. Momentarily speechless, he then exclaimed
with an envious smile, “Those could be very useful!”
Around midnight we gathered around a small fire, dog tired, the conversation pre-
dictable for naturalists on an extended field trip. We talked about snakes and frogs, then
traded updates on the successes and failures of our respective digestive tracts. Finally,
knowing his culture is polygamous, I said, “Vincent, how do you arrange things with
more than one wife? Do you all live in one house?” “Oh no,” he chuckled. “They'd fight!
Each one must have a separate house.” Bob caught my eye and nodded, so I pushed on.
“How's that work? Do you spend a week at a time in each house, or what?” Vincent's
eyes flashed in the flickering light and he replied evenly, “Oh I visit each house each
night.” We four white guys, approaching the physical uncertainties of middle age, ex-
changed skeptical glances, and after a few seconds of letting us hang like that, Vincent
burst out laughing.
As the weeks passed, such humorous interludes couldn't conceal an unsettling dis-
parity between first-world conservation activities, especially as conducted in comfort-
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