The Sciences

Trick or Trick: Hawaii Department of Agriculture Trolled with False Snake Sighting

Science SushiBy Christie WilcoxNov 6, 2015 1:45 PM


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Wednesday, KHON2 published a news report about a snake sighting in Honolulu. The original post was brief: "The state Department of Agriculture is investigating a report of a snake spotted in Nuuanu," it began. It went on to say that the unwelcome tourist was spotted near a place called Morgan's Corner on Nuuanu Pali Drive — less than three miles from my house — so naturally, my interest was piqued. But it wasn't just that someone spotted a snake in Hawaii that caught my eye. After all, just two years ago, a five foot long boa constrictor was killed on the highway in the same area, presumably a released/escaped pet. It was the photo accompanying the story that really struck me, allegedly of the sighted snake before it slithered off into the rainforest:

That's a very large — and very deadly — snake. Photo from KHON2 The second I saw it, my stomach clenched: that is a king cobra. A KING COBRA. That's no ball python or little pet snake — that's the world's longest venomous snake, capable of delivering up to seven milliliters (or almost a tablespoon) of venom with its long fangs. It's estimated that 50-60% of king cobra bites are fatal — a combination of the potent toxins and the overwhelming volume. It can't be a king cobra, I told myself. Not in Hawaii! So I asked my boyfriend Jake Buehler (who I lovingly call "Jakeapedia"), what he thought. "Looks like a king cobra." So I turned to venom expert and snake guru (and friend of mine), Bryan Fry, a professor at the University of Queensland. "That is one seriously underweight king," he told me. I looked closer at the photo, searching for any signs it could be something else. I reached out on Twitter, asking for IDs. I kept getting the same answer. What if it's not a king cobra? I exasperatedly asked Bryan, providing hopeful alternative suggestions. "Nah, definitely a king. I'd recognize that head anywhere." A king cobra slithering around Nuuanu means two things. 1) that there's a very dangerous snake on the loose. And 2) that someone is smuggling large, highly venomous snakes into the islands. The odds that a king cobra would accidentally arrive here are infinitesimally small. They're native to India and Southeast Asia, and seeing as several thousand miles of water separate our islands from all continents, it didn't swim here. They live in forests, not terribly close to most airports with direct flights to Honolulu, and they are ground-dwellers, which means they're not likely to climb up into a wheel well of a plane anyway. No, if a king cobra arrived in Honolulu, someone intended for it to do so. And who even knows how they were feeding it — these huge serpents are snake-eaters primarily, taking the occasional lizard if necessary. Hawaii has no native terrestrial reptiles, and our introduced ones are small — not much to feed such a lengthy snake. Then again, maybe that's why it looks so skinny.. Yet, the more I looked at the image, the more it bothered me. Something didn't seem right. There appeared to be a circular halo of sorts around the edges — suggesting the pic was edited somehow, like a filter was added. Why wasn't it an original photo? And it was a very small file — the KHON2 image was only 650 pixels across. Though it was said that two images were offered, in the KHON2 nightly news segment, they showed the same image — cropped and uncropped. And none of the image files had any metadata — no info on where they were taken, or by what camera (phone or otherwise). Original phone images have all kinds of information attached to them. It just didn't seem right. And then there was the image itself. If you've ever driven in Hawaii, you know that roads that crisp are few and far between. The lines of the road looked freshly painted, and the asphalt itself looked brand new. Maybe, if somewhere had recently been paved — but Jake and I hopped in the car and checked: Nuuanu Pali Drive definitely doesn't look like the road in the photo. It, and all the roads in the same area, are old and worn, and generally don't have a white line marking the edge. There is simply no way that the photo was taken where the news report claimed.

Suddenly very suspicious of the picture, I Googled "snake on road" and about a dozen variants to see if I could find the original image. Zilch. I did find pictures of king cobras on roads from Khao Yai National Park in Thailand which looked close, but none of them were the one used in the KHON2 report. I ran a reverse image search through Google to see if it was a stock photo stolen from another site. Nada. I could find no evidence to suggest it wasn't an original image, taken on Monday somewhere less than 5 miles from my home. But, it seems, I wasn't the only one who felt something was off. First, the time of discovery changed: the original report was that the snake was spotted early in the morning around seven — then, noon. And the updated news report gained an addendum: "Officials say they have concerns about the origin of the photo. The attorney general’s office is also investigating." I contacted both the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and the Attorney General's Office, but they both said it was an open investigation and they had no further comment.

Without proof the photo wasn't taken on Oahu, the state officials did what they had to, setting up snake traps to catch the beast on Thursday; I was sure they were hunting in the wrong place. I knew the photo wasn't taken where the news said it was. However, I soon realized there was another option: being Hawaii, there are actually two Nuuanu Pali Drives: one near Morgan's Corner, and one across the highway and up further into the mountain which connects to the Pali Lookout turn off. Maybe the news misinterpreted the eye witness? Just to be thorough, Jake and I checked that road, too. It has white lines on the edges, at least, but they are worn or broken for the most part. And in the few places where the lines look clean enough to maybe imagine snapping the snake shot, there is no paved edge — the image in the photo clearly shows 8 or so inches of pavement on the outer edge (the street view is from 4 years ago; the road now has even less pavement visible, and the line paint is less new-looking). I was now 100% sure: if the king cobra photo was taken on Oahu, it wasn't taken anywhere on Nuuanu Pali Drive.

With the road and all roads near it crossed off as possibilities, there was no longer doubt in my mind: it was a hoax. So either the image is fake, or it was taken somewhere else. It didn't seem doctored.But where, then, did they get the photo sent to KHON2? That's when I looked again at the uncropped version. It was basically square: 960 pixels x 954 pixels. And that halo, that filter-like quality... Then it hit me: Instagram. I opened my app, searched for "#kingcobra", and there it was: the photo, posted a full two days before the alleged sighting by Josh Hayden (nkhborn808). From Thailand.

Now it all makes sense. It turns out that Instagram photos aren't indexed by search engines in the same way as other pictures, in part because of privacy options in the terms and conditions. That's why I couldn't find the image through Google. And the original Instagram was posted by a local — the 808 in the username is the Hawaii area code — so it's not surprising that someone here saw the shot in their feed. They took a screen cap, gave it to the police, and claimed they saw a snake. But I still don't get why someone would make a false report. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture and Attorney General's Office have wasted both time and resources responding to someone's joke. People complain about paying too much taxes — well, someone just wasted a whole lot of taxpayer money to have a little giggle. Perhaps this series of comments on the original Facebook post will help guide authorities to the person(s) who made the false report:

I sincerely hope that the perpetrators are caught and held accountable, for this is no laughing matter. Hawaii's fragile native species are constantly under threat from invaders. Snake introductions in particular are taken very seriously by authorities, as snakes are both potential human health hazards and major ecological threats. The brown tree snake has devastated Guam's native birds, for example, and officials are terrified that the islands of Hawaii are going to be its next conquest. And that's not even mentioning the emotional distress caused by this report: just look at the comments and shares on Facebook. A not small number of people were freaking out about this, worried that they or their kids were in danger. There's nothing funny about scaring a community and wasting already scarce resources on a giant wild goose chase.

UPDATE 11/7/15:

The man who actually took the photo of the king cobra in Thailand has come forward on KHON2's site. Here is his comment:

This is a lie, someone stole my picture I took and posted on Instagram and Facebook the other day, I have about 10 pics and my girlfriend posted a video and has a bunch of pics too. I'm from the big island but I'm in Thailand right now where I took the picture of the snake. It's a king cobra, you can look it up and easily identify it. This is funny you can look my Instagram or my girlfriends up nkhborn808 and hannah_lee88.

Hannah's Instagram contains footage of the same snake. Thank you to Josh for standing up — now, hopefully, the investigators can focus on prosecuting those involved in the false report.

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