By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
A snake which is becoming increasingly rare in the wild has been successfully bred in a British zoological garden.
Heat is the cue to a happy brood
The snake, the Savu python, is a recent scientific discovery, having first been identified by researchers a decade ago.
On the one small Indonesian island where it is found the python is losing ground to agricultural development and to pressure from the exotic pet trade.
But Bristol Zoo Gardens, in the west of England, are toasting the hatching of nine baby pythons to help conservation.
The snake, Liasis macklotti savuensis, is restricted to the island of Savu, 100 square kilometres in extent, giving it the smallest geographical range of any python.
Since it first became known to science in 1993, the zoo says, collectors for the pet trade have forced down its numbers in the wild "dramatically".
But in November nine eggs hatched, and the young snakes have now reached 30 centimetres in length, almost a third of their adult size.
Destined for export: One of the Bristol babies
Orange when they first leave their eggs, the pythons will become progressively darker as they mature over the next two or three years and will develop the white eyes which characterise the Savu snakes.
Some experts regard them as a sub-species of the Macklot python, but Tim Skelton, head of reptiles at the zoo, believes their smaller size and distinctive eyes mark them out as a separate species.
He said: "Once mature, the snakes will be transferred to other zoos across Europe to expand the conservation breeding programme.
"Restrictions on the export of this python from Indonesia are now in place. However, the need to establish captive populations is becoming more important to ensure the long-term survival of this snake."
Bristol believes its achievement is the first successful breeding of Savu pythons in any European zoo. Mr Skelton told BBC News Online he thought he knew the reason for the zoo's success.
One infant remains a reluctant eater
He said: "On my honeymoon I got talking to the head reptile keeper at Singapore zoo, and he told me that Savu is not a humid place, as you might expect, but hot and dry, especially in the summer.
"So I returned to Bristol ready to give the pythons similar conditions, only to find the eggs had hatched the day before we got back.
"It had been a hot, dry summer in the UK, and if we get others like it we may have the same sort of success. Otherwise we'll be turning up the thermostat a couple of notches in 2004, from 30 [Celsius] to 32 or 33 for three or four weeks.
"We don't know whether the pythons are physiologically adapted to breeding annually, but we have three males and four females, so we should be able to find out whether we can repeat our achievement.
"All nine infants are doing well. Seven are feeding fairly regularly on pinkies (dead mice under a week old), one sporadically, and the ninth has refused to feed at all so far.
"I'm not particularly worried at the moment, though we might have to resort to force-feeding with a liquidised pinky eventually."
Images copyright and courtesy of Tim Skelton.