It was dark when I received a call from my Subedar Major, ‘Sahab, we have caught a …Crackle, crackle, crackle… at the quarter guard. We have placed him in a …crackle, crackle…..Would you like to come there? ’
The internal telephones were acting up again. One lightning bolt and your battalion exchange is never the same again!
Since the global threat to terrorism emerged, we have become extremely security conscious so I suspected that the troops had rounded up a ‘suspicious’ individual. I decided that the matter needed immediate investigation and proceeded to the battalion location.
I was surprised to find a rather unmilitary gathering on the quarter guard verandah peering into a lunchbox container about one foot in diameter. Everyone immediately fell back to give me a glimpse at the apprehended individual – which turned out to be a beautiful 4 ft long shiny snake with black and gold bands.
I had just met my first poisonous snake in the wild -‘‘Bungarus fasciatus’’, the Banded Krait!
The quarter guard sentry detail knowing their CO’s penchant for all things natural went overboard and apprehended the poor innocent krait making his way across the quarter guard garden from the hockey field to the marshes next door. The duty sentry placed a lunch box bin inverted on top of him, used a stick to push his coils in, slid a piece of plywood under and flipped the box over, inadvertantly using a safe way to catch this beautiful but venomous snake!
Naturally, the jawans expected a ‘shabashi’ and I proceeded to give them one, but only after a rocket for catching a unidentified snake which could be, and in this case was, poisonous. That done, I got down to the business of examining the snake. Fortunately I had had two ‘snake-sticks’ made, of different sizes, for safer handling of snakes.
The Banded Krait was curled up in the small bin with his head placed under his coils. It was difficult to find his head and pin it, so out he had to come. First, I moved the people well away with sticks to block off his retreat. I armed Sapper Deshmukh, the soldier who caught him and myself with the crooks after which we placed ourselves on opposite sides of the bin. Deshmukh was unfamiliar with how to use the crook, so a short lesson followed. Then, lifting the impromptu plywood lid, I hooked a coil and hoisted the snake up and onto the floor.
As soon as he hit the floor, the snake started swerving widely. The smooth floor did not give him much of a grip. His dashes to each side scattered the people watching though they were quite far out of reach. He proved hard to pin down, because a banded krait has a triangular, muscular body and shiny slippery scales. There were a number of exciting moments as I was in shorts and sneakers. My heart is racing, the temperature high and the humidity great. Water flowed in streams down my forehead and clouded my vision. It was vital that I pin him down soon or let him go without getting our hyper excited audience bitten. When pinned down, I had to make sure that our lovely krait was immobilised because this venomous snake does not have a specific anti-venin and I did not want to make history as the first recorded bite of ‘Bungarus fasciatus’ in India.
Soon, I got his head pinned on the floor with Deshmukh’s crook pinning him mid-body. At the same time, I had to ensure he wasn’t throttled in the process. Gingerly, I pressed my foot down on his tail and my second foot on his head behind the crook and reached down and grabbed him just behind the head with fingers jutting into the sides of the head so that he had no chance of biting me. Now I had him in my hands – but how was I to wipe my face and my spectacles, much less take photographs. So ‘ram-bharose’ I told Deshmukh to take the camera and shoot away. Some images were taken, but due to the dark and Deshmukh’s inexpertise with a digital camera, I decided that I needed to keep the snake overnight and take snaps tomorrow.
What to do? I remembered a Steve Irwin episode where he had placed a snake in a sack, so a sack was called for and Mr Bungarus swiftly and deftly thrown into it before he realised what had happened. This sack was now placed in a large three foot high plastic waste bucket with a fitting lid and strict instructions of none to handle before I came forth next morning.
The job kept me busy till noon. I had the plastic box brought to the ground floor patio of the office where Deshmukh and myself were located to cut off his escape routes. The audience were reduced to a minimum, which just means that everyone who was ordered away sneaked back the moment my back was turned. Giving up on the futility of this, I reached in with the stick and brought the snake out. Mr Bungarus did not disappoint and proceeded to move towards me with great speed as this time his belly scales could grip the rougher surface. Deshmukh, a good Bombay Sapper, had practiced assiduously at night and pinned the snake down speedily and accurately allowing me enough chance to pin down the neck and immobilise the snake. Now I had him!
Raising the snake high brought a murmur of appreciation from the crowd. It was beautiful! From above, the head is with black shiny scales, rounded mouth and a beautiful yellow arrow-mark; the body is triangular in profile with glossy bands a couple of inches wide, glossy black and gold. The snake is muscular, handling it one feels the power of the sleek muscles. It wraps its tail slowly around my left arm. And glossy, so glossy – the scales shine so powerfully that its really difficult to get photos without the sheen showing.
Contrary to what you may think, the Banded Krait is the most docile of kraits, a fact known to snake-charmers of the East. Its bite is thought not to be lethal, but that’s because no bite has been officially recorded in history. Of course, no snake likes to be handled or incarcerated and the banded krait can at times be as vigorous as any other snake, as our visitor had proven.
After getting a couple of snaps taken, I handed the snake to Sapper Deshmukh, the proud captor, very deliberately and carefully so that I could get a few photos of him with the snake.
The troops were fascinated with the banded krait. They had a barrage of questions many of which alas reflect our blind beliefs about snakes. This was a good opportunity to educate them and also open their eyes to this wonder of nature.
After taking photos and measuring the snake (he turned out to be 1.11m long), he now had to be released. Deshmukh was feeling tired holding on, so I took the snake back.
We moved to the basketball court about 50 metres away, close to the marshy nullah on the unit boundary. I dropped the snake on to the court.
The sun had warmed the court and the snake felt uncomfortable so he headed for the shadow of the basketball post. He stayed there awhile before moving off – back towards our HQ building! There was a wave of uproar from the troops.Now I could not afford him in the midst of my eight hundred odd troops so I was constrained to pick up him with the fork and keeping him at a safe distance transported him about 30 metres or so that he was now in the shadow of the hedgerow bordering the nullah.
After some time the banded krait crawled away in a stately manner, leaving me with a profound sense of gratitude and happiness that I had had the good fortune of encoun-tering the golden snake. The banded krait is an uncommon and beautiful, albeit deadly, snake of India. It is one of those forms of life which are in danger of becoming extinct long before we are able to study the animal and its natural history satisfactorily.