Environmental Concerns



Save Snakes To Save Ourselves

A cobra in a defensive posture.

have always been fond of snakes, and have been chasing them since I was a kid. My parents even let me take a year off from school in order to help me improve my knowledge about these reptiles. During that free year I travelled around the country, learning how to handle snakes from Neelimkumar Khaire at the Pune Snake Park, and from Rom Whitaker and the Irula tribe at the Madras Crocodile Bank.

Most people dislike snakes. I have found, however, that snakes are the biggest crowd-pullers. Whenever I have gone to catch a snake in someone's house or compound, neighbours, housewives, passers-by and children have spontaneously gathered around. All of them claim they detest snakes or are terrified of them. Yet every one of them is glued to the spot, tirelessly watching the proceedings. And if I have to handle a snake near a road, then bikes, cars and even passenger buses halt to catch a glimpse of the snake-catching session in progress.

What is it that makes reptiles in general ?and snakes in particular ?so loathed and feared, yet so morbidly fascinating? What place do snakes occupy in Nature's scheme of things and within our society today? Most people look upon snakes as dangerous, poisonous, slimy, vengeful and, above all, associated in some way with the supernatural. One source for these feelings is pure superstition passed down from one generation to the next. The second is movies, originating from both Bollywood and Hollywood.

Preying On Fear
Though Bollywood usually depicts snakes as heroic, our films encourage people to believe that snakes can perform feats such as opening doors by coiling around the handle, drinking milk, protecting vulnerable heroines and chasing off villains, and most popular of all, approaching beens when they are played by the actors. The myth about beens is so firmly entrenched in people that I remember my neighbours actually turning down the volume on their television set during these been-playing scenes, fearful that the sound would bring snakes into the house! Streetside snake charmers prey upon these fears for their trade.

Hollywood movies are equally bad. A famous example is The Black Stallion. The opening scenes show a boy and a black horse stranded on an island. The boy is sleeping exhausted on the sand, after having survived a storm. Suddenly a snake is shown approaching the boy ?obviously to harm him ?when the horse appears in the nick of time and stomps the snake to death. Another movie, Anaconda, was a joke. Anacondas don't grow that big and they don't chase people. In fact because they are very heavy, they move very slowly, and they are never that vicious and bloodthirsty. One day my father was watching a movie about a township that came across a nest of rattlesnakes. He found it creating so many negative feelings in him about snakes that he soon turned it off.

India has many myths about snakes. I'm going to call attention to only two to three, which I believe to be the most common. The first is that snakes, especially cobras, are vengeful creatures. Kill or harm a snake and its mate will track you down over thousands of miles and many years to pay you back.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Snakes have a very small brain used only for their instincts. They lack the capacity to remember or even distinguish one human from another. Secondly, snakes are petrified of humans. Even the much-dreaded cobra is a coward and will raise its hood only when frightened or severely provoked. During my eight years of snake catching, I have released hundreds of snakes, with their teeth intact, right behind my house. None of them has ever returned to harm me.

Another myth concerns Naag Panchami and snake charmers. Last year we celebrated the festival on 2 August. Every year, according to Maneka Gandhi, 60,000 to 70,000 snakes die in Maharashtra and neighbouring states during this festival alone. Cobras and other poisonous snakes have their fangs pulled out, and their mouths bruised and smashed beyond repair. These snakes are then taken from door to door by snake charmers, their mouths forced open and milk poured down their throats. Milk is not snake food. It is more like a poison for them; it has an adverse effect on them, choking them, causing lung infections and finally death.

It is amazing that adults who pride themselves on their capacity for rational thought blindly accept such practices. Just ask yourself, where in the wild would a snake get milk to drink? Snakes do not produce milk. They do not feed milk to their young. Nor will any cow tolerate a snake's sharp teeth round one of its udders. Yet the entire Indian population is firmly mired in the belief that snakes must be fed milk!

By the way, though I have used the word snake "charmer", in actual practice we find that snakes are incapable of being charmed. Snakes are stone deaf to airborne sounds, they couldn't possibly hear the snake charmer's been if it were played with an amplifier attached to it. Nor can they hear any of the commands or mantras of the snake charmer. They respond only instinctively to the movement of the been as the snake charmer waves it in front of them. They see an enemy object and they try to scare it away by hissing or raising their hood. They are not dancing to the music, but they are terrified, raising their hoods only in self-defence. That is hardly charming!

Once a snake has had the misfortune to land in a snake charmer's basket, it will never see the wild again and death is just a month or two away. Even if snakes are rescued from these snake charmers, they cannot be released into the wild as they will certainly die; they will be unable to hunt again and fend for themselves. They need their fangs to inject their prey before they can feed on it. Snake charmers rarely bother to feed their snakes; they starve them until they eventually die of hunger, which may take up to two months, or exhaustion, which probably comes earlier. Therefore do not patronise or give money to snake charmers. Remember, misusing snakes for entertainment or rituals is against the country's wildlife laws, which protect not only pythons and cobras but also ordinary non-poisonous snakes like the rat snake. If you are really concerned, inform the nearest Forest Department and have the snake charmer arrested.

A Few Facts
Here are some honest facts about snakes, their bodies, their powers and their ecological role. The body of a snake is covered with dry scales giving it a smooth, glossy, dry feel (not slimy, as people believe). Snakes have very poor eyesight and their hearing of airborne sounds is zero, hence they rely on only one major sense, which is smell. This they accomplish not with their nose, but with their tongue. When snakes flick their forked tongues in and out, they are actually gathering scents from the air that can tell them if there is prey or a predator around, and even help them distinguish between living and non-living objects.

Only four of the 256 species of snakes in India are considered to be dangerous or fatal ?the cobra, the krait, the Russell's viper and the saw-scaled viper. Unprovoked and left alone, even these four will never intentionally accost and bite human beings.

All snakes are carnivorous and hence play an important role in maintaining the balance of pests such as rats. Rats consume some 30 to 40 per cent of our grain every year. In addition, they spread diseases like plague and different types of fevers. The only animals able to hunt rats in their burrows are snakes. They are in fact designed for this purpose. Hence they lack limbs. Young snakes feed on insects as well. Take snakes away, and some of these harmless insects could explode in population taking to our fields and homes for their food.

Nature's balances are so complex that they are very often beyond our understanding. Besides, I've always believed that we have no right to kill or exterminate any animal. Every organism was put on this earth with a purpose, and has just as much right as we have to exist peacefully on this earth. It is only human beings who classify other creatures with only one purpose in mind ?economical/non-economical.

Moreover, snakes are present everywhere, it is just because we don't see them that we feel that they are not there. They mind their own business hunting rats and frogs and living their lives, only occasionally are they so preoccupied chasing their prey that they enter human homes. This is when we notice them and assume the worst. Snakes cannot move on smooth surfaces. They would therefore never enter human homes except by mistake.

Simple Precautions
Snakes only bite if stepped upon. Incidentally, that is a sure way to get bitten by a dog as well! Simple precautions would help you avoid ever having trouble with snakes. Whenever you step outside for a walk in forested or grassy areas, use thick leather boots and a good pair of trousers. Snakes can feel vibrations transmitted along the ground and will normally move away from your path much before you approach them. If you are working in grassy patches with your hands, use a thick pair of gloves. Lightly disturb the area with a long stick before you commence your work. Always use a torch at night.

Nearly 80 to 90 per cent of the snakes I've caught were located in piles of rubbish: discarded objects, firewood or under large piles of bricks or stone. Snakes also hide in rat holes once they have eaten the inhabitants. So clean out all the rubbish and fill up the rat holes around the house. Set up traps for rats on the roof. Cut any branches or creepers that are touching the walls of your house.

There are a lot of things we can do for snakes as well. For a start, we can stop senselessly killing them. Though killing snakes is against the wildlife law, none of us think twice about hitting a snake with a stick or a stone whenever we come across one. There are plenty of youth now trained to handle snakes. They would gladly come and take away the snake should you encounter one. In Goa, for example, everyone knows the phone numbers of trained snake catchers. There are more than a dozen of them. Their contact details are published in newspapers by animal welfare groups from time to time.

Snakes have had a bad image since biblical times. Corporations can fund educational films to educate people on these much-maligned creatures and their uses. People need to be shown how the whole ecological balance set up by Nature would be affected if snakes are exterminated.

Although there are many snake lovers, snake protectors and enthusiasts, they lack the infrastructure and funding to carry out their snake saving activities on a professional and orderly basis. Corporates could help a lot by funding, say, a snake rescue and rehabilitation club.

We may be able to entertain the idea of living in a world without snakes, but I believe if that happens we will end up pretty miserable. And that will continue as long as we persist in making more and more of Mother Nature's creatures extinct. The way I look at it, we don't have a choice: we must save snakes if we are to save ourselves. Far better than that, we should improve our knowledge of these creatures and create greater harmony between our species and theirs.

Rahul Alvares

The writer is a snake handler. A graduate in Zoology, he has gained most of his knowledge about snakes and other wildlife outside school and college. Alvares has written two books: Free from School and The Call of the Snake. The latter was released on 31 July, 2003, in Mumbai by Pheroza Godrej. He also contributes a regular column in Goa Plus, The Times of India. Alvares is presently doing his M.Sc. in Ecology.