Snake Whisperer

on Monday, May 19, 2008

Despite their many benefits, snakes are killed indiscriminately

Is a wildlife consultant in Goa

PEOPLE CALL ME a “snake rescuer” and I’ve always considered the term in its literal sense: I rescue snakes from people. Human beings are much bigger, stronger, far more intelligent, armed with opposable thumbs and able to wield weapons like rakes, bats, coconut palms and choppers with ease — enough to smash a legless reptile. Venomous though a cobra may be, it does not stand a chance against humans.

Over the last few decades we’ve added to our munitions, deadly chemical weapons like Baygon sprays, toilet acid and other insecticides. When humans do get hit back, we have an efficient antidote in snake antivenin, which can save our lives. Snakes have no such defence against humans. So when I do pull out a massive cobra from under someone’s bed, I do not flatter myself with the thought that I’ve rescued a fellow human being, but am convinced that I saved the snake: it is always the snake rather than the human who is in real danger. So why are people so insensitive towards snakes? The answer may lie in another question — why do snake rescuers care so much for snakes?

Like most people, I consider myself a fairly decent guy. I live and let live. The only difference between me and most “normal” human beings is that I’ve taken the trouble to understand snakes. When I pull out a hissing cobra from under someone’s bed, I can see fear in its eyes: the snake is sorry for having made the mistake of entering a human habitat, harmless — even beneficial — though its intentions may be. Behind the grand fa├žade of the cobra’s signature hood, I see a terrified reptile pretending to strike at me, but taking care to miss. I see a snake that only wants out and I feel really bad when humans don’t give them the opportunity.

My mother tells me that I was chasing snakes even before I learnt to walk. When people ask: “Why snakes?”, I can only say: “Why collect stamps?” Certain interests are inborn and while I don’t expect everyone to love snakes, I do think that we need to understand a few basic facts in order to seek a peaceful coexistence with them.

Most people do not know that of the 275 species of snakes found in India only four are a threat to humans. People believe that a bite from a cobra means sure death in a few minutes when the fact is, a sure cure awaits snakebite victims in every Indian hospital. Even if you took two hours to get there, you’d be quite safe provided you stayed calm.

After I have rescued a snake, I try to familiarise my clients with the creatures. I tell them that cobras don’t eat people, they eat other snakes. I try to explain that if it weren’t for snakes, this country would be overrun by rodents and a host of harmful insects that form the staple diet of younger snakes. The Guinness Book of World Records rates the rat “the most dangerous small mammal in the world” — they carry more than 20 pathogens including the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, leptospirosis, lassa fever and rat bite fever, all of which can be fatal. “Snakes regularly take these guys out,” I tell people. Yet, rats don’t generate even a small percentage of the hostility that snakes do.

It is an established fact that snakes provide an excellent natural pest control service for humans and cobra venom has been used for years as a strong analgesic (more effective than morphine). Now major research is being done on more uses for snake venom in medicine, including treatment for cancer, strokes and Alzheimer’s.

Fortunately, snakes in India don’t face the threat of extinction. In Goa, 30 or 40 snake rescuers pick up cobras in cities like Panjim and Margao; the Indian Rock python (a protected species under the Wildlife Act) thrives in cities, thanks to all the garbage, which breeds big bandicoots, which these snakes eat.

For every snake spotted by a human, there are probably ten more hiding somewhere, minding their own business. The real cause for concern, though, is apathy — people kill snakes just because they are there. In the wild, for one animal to survive, often, another has to die. If a tribal living in a forest or a bird of prey kills a snake to eat it, that’s fine. But when people thrash snakes for no reason at all, it makes me worry for humanity and wonder about our morality. We all know that it is wrong to kill. But the truth is that what prevents most of us from committing serious crimes is the threat of punishment. Every snake in India is protected by the law, yet people kill snakes with impunity because no one ever gets charged or prosecuted.

Children are more open and sensitive and are much better listeners, which is why I’m always much more interested in talking to them about snakes. A child brought up completely alienated from nature will grow into an adult with absolutely no understanding of the environment and its functioning. Yet, our schools and colleges do not provide even basic lessons in wildlife. And sadly, our educators still haven’t realised that understanding the wild creatures with which we share the planet is more crucial to our survival than calculus or integral mathematics.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 19, Dated May 17, 2008