Kofiau Island Green Tree Python
Kofiau Island is located in between the north Moluccan island of Halmahera and the Bird’s Head (Volgekop) Peninsula of West Papua. It sits in the middle the Raja Ampat archipelago which encompasses more than 9.8 million acres of land and sea. Raja Ampat translates as ‘four kings’, and describes the four largest groups of islands: Waigeo and Batanta in the North, Salawati and Misool to the South. There are approximately 610 islands in this archipelago but only about 35 are inhabited.
Kofiau or Wallo Island, as the locals call it, is the smaller and least visited amongst the major islands in this area. There are approximately 32 islands (including the Boo Islands) of various sizes surrounding the main island. There are around 55,735 acres of land and 206,802 acres of marine area that include fringing reefs, barrier reefs, atolls, and mangroves, and some of the highest marine diversity recorded anywhere on the planet.
The indigenous people that inhabit Kofiau are descendants of the Betew (Betieu) tribe. This sea tribe is thought to have originally come from Waigeo about 60 miles away. The three original villages of Kofiau: Deer, Dibalal, and Tolobi, are all located on smaller islands just off the coast, where they are sheltered from strong winds and waves during the southeast monsoon. Two new villages, Mikirin and Awat, have only recently been developed on Kofiau Proper. There are currently about 2200 people in these villages.
The islands of Raja Ampat fall into two groups. One group of islands lie on the Sahul shelf and were at one time connected to New Guinea/Australia. These include Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati and Misool. The other group are islands that have not had any connections with New Guinea in the recent geological past and include Gebe, Gag and Kofiau. Located within the ring of fire, the tectonics of this area are complex and involve three major plates and several microplates including that of Halmahera/ Bird’s Head, Sangihe, and the Moluccas. This is a region of continuing instability marked by frequent earthquakes and widespread evidence of uplift and depression accompanied by tilting and faulting. Many coral reefs have been raised above sea level by tectonic movements and some have become islands such as Kofiau.
Kofiau Island, is about 17 miles long east to west, and 6 miles wide and totals only 144 km2 or 55.6 square miles. The island is comprised of upraised coral reefs (Quaternary limestone) and 4 Tertiary volcanic hills. On the west end, the chain of volcanic hills is about 5 miles long and runs down the middle of the island with the highest point around 640 ft. The other two, separate hills, are in the north-east part of the island and are roughly 800 ft. and 500 ft. high. The rest of the island is relatively flat. There is also a small freshwater lake directly across from Deer Island. Dore Lake, as it is called by the natives, it only measures about a ½ mile long and a ¼ mile wide.
Flora and Fauna
Within the Indonesian Archipelago, the islands of Kofiau lie between Sahul, the Australian continent and Sundaland, the Asian continent. During the Pleistocene or the ice age as some call it, the sea level was as much as 120 meters or 400 feet lower than it is today. This period was really a series of glacials interrupted by short warming periods. There were at least 20 cycles of such advances and retreats of the ice masses during this time. In Sahul, as the last glacial period ended rising sea levels separated New Guinea, Raja Ampat, Aru Islands as well as Tasmania from the Australian mainland. On Sundaland the rising water levels separated Malaysia, Borneo, Palawan, Java, and Sumatra creating the separate landmasses we recognize today.
The area in between the two continents is sometimes called Wallacea. These islands have not been recently connected by dry land to either of the two land shelves. Wallacea is considered a transition zone between the Sunda and the Sahul flora and fauna. Its islands were probably under the sea for most part and thus lost all their original flora and fauna. When they re-emerged, the islands acted as terrestrial stepping stones between New Guinea and Malaysia. Over time they were recolonized irregularly from both the regions by organisms capable of crossing the straits between islands.
Although it is not typically considered part of Wallacea, Kofiau does meet the same criteria as those islands, it is an uplifted island, was never attached to Sahul and it has flora and fauna influences from both Sundaland and Sahul. In addition to the very long process of (natural) island colonization, man has contributed as well. Since they first arrived, the people of this region have intentionally or by accident, introduced plants and animals. Fruit trees, cassava, sago palm, pigs and rats, etc. have all found their way to the island with the help of man.
As most of the land masses on or close to the equator, Kofiau is covered by tropical rainforest, tropical lowland rainforest to be more precise. The term tropical lowland forest is used to describe forest where there is little or no seasonal water shortage and where the climate is continuously warm and humid. The lowland rainforest is one of the most complex, dense and species-rich forests. On one hand it has great value for wildlife conservation and scientific research; on the other, it is the type of forest that’s under enormous threat because of its value for commercial timber extraction. However, the island is not totally rainforest, it has a small percentage of two other vegetation types, mangroves and savanna/grassland. The natural vegetation coverage on Kofiau breaks down to around 85% – lowland rain forest, 10% – Mangrove and 5% – Savanna and grassland.
Figure 24: Vegetation map of Koﬁau Island. Grid is 10 km, UTM projection and alignment (two UTM reference points given).
Deforestation on Kofiau
Most of Kofiau has been selectively logged since the 1970s. Some has been done legally but a great deal more has been done by the Timber mafia that operates on the Birds head mainland and throughout the Raja Ampat archipelago.
In 2007 the Kofiau and Boo Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) was declared by the islanders and the government. Since then, the villagers seem to have effective veto power on the re-entry of commercial logging operations and with the presence of the Nature Conservancy and other eco minded people in the area, the rate of commercial deforestation has slowed dramatically if not halted all together in some areas. Another factor in the decline in deforestation is the fact that Kofiau is a very small island and all the highly sought-after timber such as merbau (Intsia bijuga) – a type of ironwood, has already been removed. Satellite images suggest that around 70% of the main island of Kofiau is still forested. The forest consists of selectively logged primary forest mixed with varying amounts of secondary forest.
The inhabitants Kofiau have typically made their living from fishing, but overfishing from other countries and people from other islands, has led to a decline in local fisheries. Since the creation of the Marine Protected Area there has been a steady increase of fish and other sea life around the island but in order to supplement their income, many have turned to farming of one kind or another. Pearl farms can be found in the protected coves around Kofiau’s islands and some families now help with these. About 30% of Kofiau’s land is devoted to farming and is mainly concentrated along the northern edge of the island, not in the interior. However, many of the smaller islands are 50 to 90% devoted to some kind of farming. Small plots are cleared for families and or the village food needs, crops such as cassava, sweet potato, plantain, etc. But the majority of the farm land is for commercially valuable crops such as Coconut palms. Once harvested, the coconuts are dried to make copra which is then exported. Copra is the dried meat, or dried kernel of the coconut used to extract coconut oil. There are also various amounts Cacao trees and sago palms planted on the island which are also harvested for export.
Because Kofiau Island is so small it does have the capacity to carry the same number of species as the four larger islands in the Raja Ampat archipelago possess. The fauna is mainly Papuan, but there are definitely some Molucca elements, which would be expected considering the vicinity of the Moluccan Islands such as Halmahera.
While doing the research for this paper, Birds and insects were the only animals found to be surveyed in depth for this island. The islands two endemic bird species (can only be found on this island) the Kofiau Paradise Kingfisher and Kofiau Monarch attract birders from around the world therefore the islands birds are fairly well documented. Other birds on the island include Lorikeets, Cockatoos, Parrots, several raptor species, Herons and Birds of paradise just to name few.
Finding definitive information on mammals, reptiles and amphibians was very difficult and most of it is speculation based on the animals that inhabit nearby islands. Trips by Daniel Natusch in 2010 and Dan Mulleary in 2017 helped to provide some “on location” sightings and information.
Confirmed animals include;
Snakes – Morelia viridis – Green tree python ( D. Natusch, 2010, D. Mulleary, Oct 2017), Candoia aspera – New Guinea ground boa, Viper boa ( D. Natusch, 2010, D. Mulleary, Oct 2017), Candoia carinata carinata- Pacific or New Guinea tree boa ( D. Natusch, 2010), Candoia carinata paulsoni – Pacific or Solomon Islands ground boa ( D. Natusch, 2010) ,Stengonotus cucullatus -Slaty-grey snake, Morelia amethistina – Bar neck Scrub python, Liasis fuscus (Water Python) known by local tribesmen but were not seen. (D. Mulleary, Oct 2017).
Venomous – New Guinea small-eyed snake, Micropechis ikaheka and Oxyuranus sp. ( Taipan) were thought to be island residents but could not be confirmed. (D. Mulleary, Oct 2017) sea snakes would also be expected but were not observed.
Lizards – Veranus indicus -Mangrove monitor , Green Crested Lizard – Bronchocela cristatella, Sphenomorphus muelleri- Müller’s skink. ( D. Natusch, 2010), Gekko vittatus -Skunk Gecko (D. Mulleary, Oct 2017) It can also be assumed that other skinks, geckos can be found as well.
Amphibians – White lipped tree frog – Littoria infrafrenata(D. Mulleary, Oct 2017) It can also be assumed that other frogs and or toads can be found as well.
Mammals – Southern Common Cuscus – Phanager mimicus(D. Mulleary, Oct 2017) Other mammals expected to be present on the island include rats, bats and pigs, beyond that, smaller mammals from nearby islands are assumed to be present as well as those introduced by people.
Weather – Raja Ampat averages don’t necessarily apply throughout the islands, as many of them, especially the big 4, have microclimates that can vary substantially. Some Islands such as Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati and Misool have mountain ranges of various sizes that can cause the climate to be somewhat different in certain areas on each of them. While Kofiau is relatively small and flat with few geographical features it has consistent weather across the whole island.
The Malaysian-Australian monsoon, is the monsoon system affecting Southeast Asia, Australia and the Raja Ampat islands below the equator. It generally maintains its dryness over the islands closer to Australia, but farther north it carries increasing amounts of moisture. Monsoonal winds are weak over Indonesia because of the expanses of water and the low latitude, but their seasonal reversal is definite.
The Raja Ampat islands have two specific monsoons, The Northwest Monsoon months, characterized by winds that blow from the Northwest, occur between October and April. This is sometimes called the dry season and last about six months. Although this season sees the least rainfall, Raja Ampat’s heaviest rain usually falls in December and January, leading to those two months often being referred to as a second wet season. The northwest monsoon months also bring slightly cooler temps as well.
The Southeast monsoon months, characterized by winds that blow from the southeast between April and October, deliver the bulk of Raja Ampat’s annual rainfall. This season last about 6 months with June and July are historically the wettest months. Even in the wet season though, it doesn’t rain all day, every day – rainfall is often short lived and localized. The winds are usually stronger at this time of year.
Being a tropical environment, Kofiau receives a great deal of rainfall in even in the driest month. The yearly rainfall here averages 2233 mm. (88 inches), there are no days of the year where you can be sure it won’t rain. Kofiau gets 5 “ dry ” months a year, August thru January when it only gets between 125mm (5 inches) to 165mm (6.5 inches) of rain per month. The driest month is October, with 125 mm (5 inches) of rainfall. The “Rainy “season last from January to July with an average of 213 mm. (8.4 inches) per month. The greatest amount of precipitation occurs in June with an average of 236 mm. (9 inches).The difference in precipitation between the driest month and the wettest month is 111 mm (4.3 inches).
This chart can be found at https://en.climate-data.org/location/596012/
Kofiau lies about 1 degree south of the equator so it experiences relatively little change in the length of daylight hours from one season to the next. The island has a year-round day length of about twelve hours (~6.30am to 6.30pm)
Air temperatures are also reliably constant, the average annual temperature is 26.8 °C (80 °F). The warmest month of the year is November, with a average high temperature of 27.4 °C (81.3°F). The coolest months of the year is July with and average low temperature of 26°C (78.8°F ) The highest temperature recorded was 87.3°F in November the lowest was 74.1°F in July, August and September. There is a about a 13°F variation between the high and low temperatures for the year.
CLIMATE TABLE // HISTORICAL WEATHER DATA
|Avg. Temperature (°C)||27.1||27||27||27.1||26.9||26.4||26||26.1||26.4||26.8||27.4||27.1|
|Min. Temperature (°C)||23.9||23.8||23.9||23.9||24||23.7||23.4||23.4||23.4||23.6||24.1||23.9|
|Max. Temperature (°C)||30.3||30.2||30.2||30.3||29.9||29.2||28.6||28.9||29.4||30.1||30.7||30.4|
|Avg. Temperature (°F)||80.8||80.6||80.6||80.8||80.4||79.5||78.8||79.0||79.5||80.2||81.3||80.8|
|Min. Temperature (°F)||75.0||74.8||75.0||75.0||75.2||74.7||74.1||74.1||74.1||74.5||75.4||75.0|
|Max. Temperature (°F)||86.5||86.4||86.4||86.5||85.8||84.6||83.5||84.0||84.9||86.2||87.3||86.7|
|Precipitation / Rainfall (mm)||192||207||216||207||231||236||202||168||150||125||136||163|
This chart can be found at https://en.climate-data.org/location/596012/
The Kofiau Island Green Tree Python in the pet trade
The first yellow Kofiau Island chondros are thought to have been brought into the U.S. by Cal Zoo Supply or East Bay Vivarium around late 1996. Those first yellow snakes caused quite a commotion with in the gtp community as well as private collectors. Not much info was known about them in the beginning and for a few years, controversy and debate surrounded these unique locality animals. Some were being called yellow Manokwaris at first, either because the importers did not know what they were or they were given a purposely misleading name, as some do in order to keep special locality types under the control of a specific exporter or collector. Later the name, “Canary” chondros was used, it described the color of the first all yellow adult animals that came in but it was also used as a sales gimmick by importers to describe these animals. Eventually the location that these animals were coming from was divulged but even today, the all yellow individuals are still called “Canaries”.
This insular form of green tree python is known for a few things;
Most have a very calm disposition
They typically have bright yellow eyes from hatchling to adult.
The throat and ventral scales of the neck display yellow coloration. Belly can be white or yellow
Neonates are always born yellow and are notoriously hard to get feeding.
Neos are always born yellow. The neonate dorsal pattern consists of larger, irregularly shaped marks with dots and/or dashes in-between. The dorsal pattern can be broken or connected to form a stripe of sorts. This pattern is typical dark red or burgundy but slowly turns to lavender as ontogenic color change approaches and a few white scales can start to appear at this time as well. From mid-dorsal to the belly scales, there is very little pattern other than a few small spots. Neo tails are usually mottled grey/white with various amounts of burgundy and black.
When these first started coming into the US they were thought to keep the solid yellow coloration throughout adult hood, and many were sold with this claim attached to them. As many of these yellow animals developed a green wash or went all green, many buyers felt “taken” and others lost interest because they went green. Overtime it was discovered by a few die-hard keepers that only a small percentage, maybe 5% or less, would keep their yellow coloration for life. No one can “guarantee” which one is going to stay yellow. Some will change to green or green/yellow at 16 months, some at 6 yrs., and for some females, after one or two reproductive cycles. It is hard to know when they will or if they will change.
Another unique characteristic of Kofiau green trees is their ability to change colors at various times. For some it is only once for others it could be many times throughout their lives. Not so much with the type 1 animals, more so with the yellow/green wash and the all yellow animals (Type 2 and Type 3). These changes are not as dramatic or as fast as say a chameleon but can take place overnight or over a few days. They can shift from yellow to mustardy yellow with a light green wash and then back to yellow. The amount of green wash can vary in amounts, sometimes it will be almost solid green with no yellow in it. Many keepers have observed them changing colors at different times; seasonally, due to feeding, shed cycles, reproductive cycles, and temperature cycles. It is unknown at this time if the gtps from Kofiau are the only ones to do this or why it happens.
Many yellow females will change to green after their 1st or 2nd clutch and a few may get a green wash or turn blue, only to change back to normal after the cycle is over. Chuck Vogel has all yellow males that always develop a sprinkling of green scales during breeding season/introductions, and then most disappear in the off season. These color changes may become less common with age.
Adult Kofiau’s gtps can come in three basic color forms.
Type 1. Green body with blue dorsal pattern and various amounts of white speckling along the spine. This form is hard to recognize as Kofiau unless you know the importer well or hatched it out yourself. Many of these have been sold as something other than Kofiau and when they are labeled “Kofiau” they are questioned. These typically don’t shift colors as the type 2 and 3 Kofiau’s are known to do. Adult tail coloration is a mottled blue /gray with various amounts of black.
Yellowish/green with a light blue to greyish dorsal pattern and various amounts of white speckling along the spine. Sometimes the yellow will turn a mustardy yellow with a slight green hue which some refer to as “dirty birds”. These can shift from darker to lighter shades at various times. Type 2 females can change to a “hormonal blue” when in a reproductive cycle. Adult tail coloration is a mottled blue /gray with various amounts of black.
Type 3. These are the Kofiau that everyone was looking for in the beginning, an all yellow animal from start to finish. They are also the rarest of the three forms. These animals are almost all yellow with small amounts of green scales here and there. The dorsal pattern can be different shades of lavender, grey or white with various amounts of white speckling along the spine. These are typically animals that are six years of age or older and for females, had at least two clutches. This type has been known to shift from yellow to green and back to yellow. Type 3 females can change to a “hormonal blue” when in a reproductive cycle. Adult tail coloration is a mottled blue /gray with various amounts of black.
White Canaries – The “Grey Sunday” Project
There were four known” white canaries” and it is unknown when or who coined the term but that was what they were called on the Morelia Viridis forum. It is still unclear whether this coloring is hormonal or genetic.
Jost Bruning a breeder from Holland acquired 2 pairs of young imported Kofiau green tree pythons. He sold a pair of these at the Houten Reptile expo in 2007. Christos Issaris bought the male and his friend Stefan Thomsen bought the female. These were a typical yellow Kofiau juvenile color at first then few months later began to turn pale until they were almost white. Jost’s animals changed as well and it is thought that they were all clutch mates. After both animals had turned to white, Christos and Stefan were sitting around talking about how unique they were and decided to do a joint project together in order to attempt to see if this trait could be passed on. This conversation took place on a gray, rainy Sunday and thus the project got its name.
The pair that Jost kept in Holland laid eggs but due to incubator problems none of them hatched. He then sold the adults and their status and where they ended up is unknown.
Christos and Stefan’s pairing produced 20 eggs with 11 Neos hatchings in 2012. 10 babies survived but most if not all of these past away before they reached maturity.
The Black Headed Canary
The Black Headed canary was a very Melanistic Kofiau island green tree python. The BHC Along with Artic Blue, were originally imported by Don Keseric from Alam Nusantara Jayatama (Alnusa). Alnusa is an Export Pet trading business in Jakarta that was established in 1999 by Danny Gunalen. It has since been sold to an unknown buyer.
Gary Schiavino purchased the black headed Kofiau from Don in April 2006. His exact age was unknown but he was a mature male ready to breed. He was treated for parasites and quarantined before being sent to Rico Walder at Signal Herp for a breeding loan.
He was given the ID# 06013 at Signal Mountain where he produced four clutches. Three of these were with Kofiau females and produced a total of 24 pure Kofiau neonates. The other one was an out cross with an Ed Bradly Biak that produced a mixed color clutch of 12 maroon and 10 yellow neonates. The Black headed canary passed away in Oct 2009.
How many are left?
Kofiau Island, is small, irregularly shaped island about 17 miles long and about 6 miles across at its widest point and totals only 55.6 square miles. Because the island is so small, it does not have the capacity to carry the same number of species as the four larger islands in the Raja Ampat archipelago possess. For the animals and plants on the island, its size also makes ecological equilibrium a delicate thing. Natural disasters such as fire or typhoons can be very detrimental to certain species populations but over time and left alone most will return to equilibrium. Man’s influence on islands such as introducing non-native species such as pigs or goats, clearing of land for mono culture crops like Coconuts, harvest of timber and the collection animals for the pet trade can dramatically effect island species, sometimes to the point of extinction. The small size and the lack of reliable information from this very remote island has led to much speculation on the number of green tree pythons that remain.
After the initial uproar around 1997, the gold rush was on and the demand for all yellow Kofiau Island green tree pythons increased dramatically with some of these all yellow animals selling for $7,000 each. There was a steady supply of Kofiau green trees up to around 2006-2008. Some yellow but most were greenish yellow, then the supply dramatically slowed down. There are a few of different theories to why this happened.
One theory suggests that because Kofiau is such a small island, over collection of gtps has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the islands gtp population and is the reason for the lack of imported animals. A thorough population study would be needed to prove or disprove this theory.
The second theory is that they are most likely “commercially” extinct. That means that it is no longer worth the effort for collectors to make the long trip there to collect specimens because it cost too much to collect the animal or the animal they were collecting are no longer in high demand. It can take between 12 and 18 hours to travel the 100 miles from Kofiau to Sorong Island and back on a regular boat or ferry. After it was discovered that most will turn green, a lot breeders and collectors lost the desire to have them and the demand severely dropped. From the exporters stand point, most of the yellow animals have most likely been collected and it is not worth all the trouble for a green snake that they can get elsewhere, easier and cheaper.
The third theory and most likely, the most accurate is that is a combination of several factors. The islands gtp population is most likely stable but supplies of animals can fluctuate in Indonesia for a lot of reasons, new laws and regulations, cost associated with getting the animal to market and demand for certain types of animals just to name a few. The locals most likely bring them to the mainland when they have enough to make it worth the trip, so Kofiau gtps still trickle into the pet trade markets but not in large numbers. The all yellow ones command the higher prices and they still occasionally come in. There were 3 yellow Kofiau imported to Europe in early 2016 and were around $2,000.00 each. These were supposedly the first all yellow adults to be offered in Europe in 10 years.
It’s hard to tell the exact effect that the harvest has had on the population of Kofiau island chondros since no recent surveys or firsthand accounts could be found. Hopefully and there are enough green tree pythons left on Kofiau for the population to recover.
The Future of Kofiau Island Green Trees Pythons
For whatever reason you choose to believe as to why Kofiau gtps have stopped coming in, the fact is they have for all practical purposes, stopped being exported in large numbers. Now days only a few come in every now and then and these are usually sold as individuals. When these imports are bred, they are usually out crossed with a different locale or a designer gtp rather than a doing a Kofiau to Kofiau breeding.
When Rico Walder passed away in 2014 and Vladimir Odinchenko in 2015, the majority of captive bred Kofiau stopped being produced. With those sources gone, keeping a captive born option of this unique insular race of green tree pythons going for hobbyist falls to the few animals in the collections of gtp keepers that are scattered here and there across the US, Europe and a few other places. It is imperative that these breedings should be well thought out and managed by those doing the breeding’s. With breeders like Chuck Vogel and a few others focusing on Kofiau Island green trees, they will still be produced in the “pure” form and hopefully be around for years to come.
Special thanks to Harlin Wall, Mark O’Shea, Dan Mulleary and Daniel Natusch for help with this paper.
References and Further Reading
Dan Mulleary- Kofiau trip 2017
TRAVEL VLOG EP.6 | KOFIAU 2017
TRAVEL VLOG EP.7 | KOFIAU 2017
TRAVEL VLOG EP.8 | KOFIAU 2017
The Kofiau Island Green Tree Python
by Matt Morris