Archive for the ‘animal rescue’ category

The Reptile Rescue Squad – Softshell Turtle

8 August 2011

Story by Aditi Baindur

by Aditi Baindur

If you are a tortoise and go for a very long walk on the CME campus far from your home, you may  find that you are back very soon from where you started and named ‘Myrtle’ on top of that.

It was during the summer holidays last year that my Dad got a call at office from Bhattacharya Uncle. His daughter Shreya had found a tortoise in the garden. What, he asked, should be done? Naturally, Dad felt that it had to be restored to its habitat.

He picked me up, our tortoise books and we soon reached Bhattacharya Uncle’s bungalow adjoining Holloway School. The turtle was in the lawn surrounded by Shreya and Priyansh, Bhattacharya Uncle’s kids and Shrey Kamoji. It had withdrawn itself into its shell.

Shreya holding the turtle she discovered.

The back was coloured “muddy-shoddy, grey, brown, black, ochre”. It had three black  stripes on its head.

I picked it up and turned it over. We saw that had got flaps to hide its legs under and realised that this was the Indian Flapshell Turtle or Lissemys punctata.

The flapshell turtle with its flaps wide open showing its legs and its face. (Image:Shyamal)

Now the turtle struggled to be put down. No sooner had this been done than its knobby, ridged and clawed legs  emerged and it scurried away along the lawn but was repeatedly recaptured while we pored over our books. We wanted to know why the turtle was wandering so far from the CME lakes. Our handbook by J.C. Daniels had this to say –

“the adults and young make long journeys during the rainy season, which is probably the reason for the species being so widespread….”

Indian Flap-shell turtles are the “aam janta” in the turtle community of CME and occupy the four lakes and the river. They are also found amongst the reed-beds, ponds, quarries and marshes and the 2 km long rowing channel. The nearest water body or marsh to Bhattacharya Uncle’s house is more than a kilometer away.

Black streaks on the head

The turtle had crossed roads, houses, gardens, fences, ditches and braved the dangers of stray dogs and turtle-eating people to land up where it did! If allowed to roam free, it would head deeper and deeper into the CME campus and surely would be killed.

Shreya asked ‘is it a boy or girl’? Since it isn’t easy to identify the sex of a turtle just by looking at it, the children decided, (two girls both older vs two boys both younger), that it looked feminine and soon names for ‘her’ were being proposed. It was decided that her name was actually “Myrtle” and that she would be a very good pet! Undying vows were made to look after the creature if only they could have it please, pleeassee…

Mindful of what the parents would have to say to this, Dad pointed out that Myrtle fed on shrimps, insects and worms from within the water (they actually eat that and some vegetation too) and her family was probably missing her.

It was decided to restore Myrtle to her home. Everybody set out in our red Maruti van for the rear Nashik gate. There Myrtle was released at a suitable spot upstream into the marshes near the CTW lake. The last photo that we have of Myrtle is of a grinning Shrey Kamoji holding the turtle last before its release. And the reason for that is, as soon as we set it on the ground some good seven-eight feet from the water’s edge, Myrtle became greased lightning and vanished before we could photograph her!

So Myrtle the turtle went back to tell tales to the grand-turtles with a new name to boot.

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Handle that snake carefully!

14 May 2010

(Thoughts on the handling of snakes by naturalists)

In any nature outing, you will find at least one guy who decides that the hapless snake, accidentally discovered, is meant solely for showing off his courage, daring and virility. The poor snake is purloined, handled, twisted, turned into a garland and poked forward towards shrieking members of the fairer sex. No thought is given to the fact that the snake needs to held correctly without damaging its fragile bones.

Image Credit : Thomas Kelly. Copyrighted. Click image for link url. (Under Fair Use).

Another characteristic of such encounters is the lamentable lack of proper knowledge by these “heroes”, who consequently endanger their own and their friends’ lives.

Besides juvenile immaturity, another reason for such acts is the emulation of the profusion of snake wrangler shows on TV! While they appear to popularise these creatures, many so-called snake experts mis-handle these snakes  for the sake of “better cinema”.

Wrong lesson! A famous TV snake wrangler with a Black Mamba – never ever try this at all!

More importantly, the wranglers do very dangerous things and make it look safe and easy. You would not feel so impressed by some one who took great care in handling and cautioned you of the many dangers. The truth is that they are experts in handling snakes but it is very dangerous and foolish to emulate them in any manner.

Anyone truly interested in snakes is careful and considerate while handling these elegant creatures. Handling of snakes is to be avoided in general, and if necessary, is to be done for the right reasons such as rescuing them, for educating people, for captive breeding or conservation. It is never meant to be done to enhance one’s own reputation.

Here is an interesting photograph – an acquaintance of mine is touching what he thought is a “Python“. Except, that its an extremely lethal Russell’s Viper.

The officer is innocent – he was told by a nature-loving friend that it was indeed a python. Apparently, his nature-loving friend who helped him overcome his fears of touching snakes was just as knowledgeable as he was. Amazingly, both had handled the “python” and had not been bitten. God protects the innocent sometimes.

Full marks to this officer for daring to touch a “python”. Fortunately, he doesn’t know its a Russel’s Viper and the snake did not bite.

A villager had brought them an “ajgar” (Hindi or Marathi for python) and they had foolishly believed in his store of native knowledge and his skills of identification. Fortunately, the handsome Russel’s Viper belied the evil eye and cold sneer of his face and acted like a perfect gentle-python! It could so easily have been a more dramatic story.

These young men were basically photography buffs and interested, but inexperienced, in Nature. This incident is a caution to all photographers of nature – be a naturalist first then a photographer. You will be a much better photographer if you understand your elusive subjects. More importantly, you will not put yourself in such dangerous spots.

One should be highly circumspect about handling snakes. In India, we have a number of venomous snakes, some not only deadly to humans but also fairly common.

The “Big Four” venomous snakes in India are the Indian Cobra, the Common Krait, the Russell’s Viper and the Saw-scaled Viper.

The binocellate Indian Cobra (Naja naja)

Russel’s Viper (Daboia russelii)

Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus)

Saw-scaled Viper (Echis carinatus)

The Big Four snakes are responsible for more than 90% of venomous snake-bite deaths in our country. The Hafkinne Institute makes a polyvalent anti-venin which is effective in treating bites by the  big four snakes. This anti-venin is freely available in Govt dispensaries and has saved the lives of many of our countrymen.

Polyvalent anti-snake venom serum from Haffkine. (Click image for more information)

But there is no guarantee that this antivenin being available – makes the handling of snakes safe. If you are bitten in the wild, you could succumb before reaching medical aid. You could reach in time but not respond to the treatment or even be allergic to one of the active ingredients of the anti-venin. Alternatively, the Primary Health Centre may be out of vaccine. Keeping India’s rural electricity in mind, the antivenin may be ineffective due to its not being stored at the right temperatures.

Earlier we used to be worried only about the  “Big Four” – the four highly venomous snakes in the Indian country-side considered to be responsible for the majority of deaths due to snake-bite . But there are many others too, such as the King Cobra, the Banded Krait, Hump-nosed Pit Viper, the many green pit vipers (Trimeresurus complex) and many other vipers, the Rhabdobis group of poisonous colubrid snakes.

Sir Joseph Fayrer’s 1874 illustration of a King Cobra

Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus) photgraphed by me in Binnaguri, North Bengal.

Hump-nosed Viper (Hypnale hypnale). (Image credit : Vijay Barve)

All these are venomous snakes of great medical importance, more so as no anti-venin is available in India for treating their bites.  They are usually uncommon, some are  found in deep forest, inaccessible places, or are rare or even extremely docile (sea-snakes). Naturalists would do well to remember that the Polyvalent serum is useless in treating the bites of these snakes.

As far as anti-venin is concerned, there is an added complication. Recent taxonomic studies using genome mapping have revealed that the Big Four snakes in India (except the Russel’s Viper) are not one species but actually comprise more than one species.

The Saw-scaled Viper in the Deccan plateau is Echis carinatus while the saw-scaled viper found in Rajasthan and North-west India is Sochurek’s Viper Echis sochureki (earlier a subspecies of Echis carinatus) .

The Common Cobra (Naja naja) has now been hived off into many species (see Wuster for an interesting account of Asian cobras).  A total of four different cobras  are found in India –

Wall’s Krait (Bungarus sindianus), a subspecies of the Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus) that is found in North West India and is known to extend down to Pune, has now been given separate species status.

Monocled Cobra (Naja kaouthia) (Image: W. Wuster – Click image to reach source).

Wall’s Krait (Bungarus sindanus) (Image : Tom Charlton – click link to reach source)

Sochurek’s Viper (Image:Tomáš Mazuch, click to reach source)

So why should we bother that these snake species have been split?

Earlier, snakes were classified into species or types, by comparing physical characteristics such as shape, number and position of scales and on the shape of their bones, besides other things. While this helps us to classify them broadly, the fine graining or distinguishing between what constitutes a species or not was a subjective opinion of experts based on these morphological characteristics.

A typical snake scale image used in morphological taxonomy (from Wikipedia) .

Genome studies map individual DNA sequences, genes and chromosomes. Since all life has originated once and the entire biodiversity of extinct and extant animals have evolved from the first forms of life created in evolution, the DNA of a species bears evidence of its evolution through the years. Through difficult science and advanced computational mathematics using very powerful computers, genome scientists have developed techniques of ascertaining the phylogeny of creatures. These studies help differentiate species from the differences in genes rather than from morphology alone. This permits us to classify and relate different species with much more accuracy and reliability.

Part of a snake phyllogeny diagram deduced through genomic investigations. (Click the image to reach the source paper and learn more.)

Click to enlarge : part image or for the full image of phylogeny.

If the Cobra has now been classified as many different cobra species – it means that these were many different snakes to begin with.  Not one common, found all over Asia cobra as we thought. That means each species of cobra found in Indian territory has its own set of characteristics including a different venom composition for which the anti-venin needs to be made separately.  When we thought that these cobras were subspecies of the old Common Cobra (Naja naja) , we thought that basically their venom composition was similar – i.e. basically same but with small differences. Now we find that though they may resemble each other their venom could be very different. Just taking a binocellate cobra and making its antivenin, hoping it will work for the other three cobra species, will no longer do.

A recent study on Snakebite Management in Asia & Africa – A guide to snakebite in the key areas for mortality & morbidity by the Pakistan Medical Research Council clearly indicates that Naja oxiana and Naja kaouthia are not covered by availability of anti-snake-venom, i.e. the Haffkine Polyvalent Snake Venom is only good for Naja naja.

It appears from this website of the Haffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Corporation that polyvalent venom is being made for the old Big Four.  No mention is made of the finer detail revealed by latest taxonomic advances.

So don’t have blind faith that “since anti-venin exists, I can risk a snake-bite“.

The entry and interaction of such terrible poisons as those contained in snake venom wreaks terrible damage even if life is saved by prompt treatment. Neelimkumar Khaire, a celebrated snake-handler of Pune, lost his arm to a saw-scaled viper bite. Romulus Whitaker, it is said, can no longer catch snakes because he has been bitten so many times, the next bite or its treatment will kill him! Bites from snakes having active haemolytic ingredients in their venom  can cause loss of kidneys. Each snake-bite would involve necrosis, organ damage and many other horrible side effects. What kind of a life will that be – a cripple, an invalid, a dialysis patient – and all for the sake of an ego or carelessness or incompetence or all three?

If you still want to become a snake handler, first please see the destructive power of snake bites here :

And remember, these were those who LIVED!

Understand that this is a very dangerous business and then and then alone get involved with it.

If you or an acquaintance is bitten by a snake, what should be done?

First of all do not neglect it, even if you think or know the snake is non-poisonous, even if the skin does not appear to be broken.  Don’t even consider the old tourniquet thing, cut and suck, ice-therapy, the PIM method or “Jadi-buti” treatment. Get to medical aid as soon as possible.

While moving a snake-bite casualty to hospital, do it RIGHT by following the the latest national first aid treatment recommended – based around the mnemonic : “Do it R.I.G.H.T.” : –

It consists of :

R. =     Reassure the patient. Seventy per cent of all snakebites are from non-venomous species. Only 50% of bites by venomous species actually envenomate the patient.

I. =      Immobilise the bitten limb in the same way as a with fractured limb. Use bandages or cloth to hold the splints, not to block the blood supply or apply pressure. Do not apply any kind of compression in the form of tight ligatures, they don’t work and can be dangerous!

G.H. =  Get the patient to Hospital immediately. Traditional remedies have NO PROVEN benefit in treating snakebite.

T. =      Tell the doctor of any systemic symptoms such as ptosis that manifest on the way to hospital.

To read more :

None of this is meant to discourage you dear reader from being interested in snakes  – we want all Indians to be educated about snakes.

If you are interested in snakes – that’s great! Watch Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic channels on TV. Get a good book, learn about them, their habits, identifying the species and their wonderful way of life. If you would like to learn how to handle snakes, go to snake-parks where carefully supervised handling may be permitted. Get to know snake rescuers and accompany them to snake rescues.

Safe handling of a harmless snake – a Common Trinket – for education of the lay public.

Most important of all – be a “sarpamitra” i.e. a friend of snakes. Fight blind belief and educate your family, friends and neighbours that snakes do not drink milk or have jewels embedded in their heads. They do not have photography in their retinas that they retain after death and transmit to their mates who then search that person out for revenge in the best Bollywood tradition. Prevent the blind killing of snakes, help them escape to safety.

Snakes are dangerous creatures but not so much to the common Indian who fears snakes but more so to those who choose to handle them with inadequate knowledge and experience. It would be wise to heed the words of Dr. Ian D. Simpson of the W.H.O. Snakebite Treatment Group who is  one of the prominent snake-bite treatment experts of South Asia :-

“India has no shortage of amateur expert snake catchers/handlers. India also has the world’s highest mortality rate from snakebites. The two are not entirely unconnected. Its nothing like it is on the T.V. The snake has to be lucky just once. The snake catcher has to be lucky every time!”

See also

The turtle who went walkabout!

29 August 2009

This is a short story of a tortoise who went for a long walk. In fact, who went for a very long walk on the CME campus. If you do things like that, you may very soon find that you are back where you started from and on top of that named ‘Myrtle’.

One morning I got a call at office from a friend. His daughter Shreya had found a tortoise in the garden. What, he asked, should be done? Naturally, I felt, it had to be restored to its habitat.

Going home, I picked up my tortoise books –

  • “Indian Turtles – A Field Guide” by Indraneil Das
  • “the Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians” by J.C. Daniels.

and ventured forth. My daughter Aditi, an inveterate invertebrate inthusiast, accompanied me on this trip.

When we reached my friend’s house, I found the ‘exalted visitor’ on the pavement surrounded by all the kids from the neighbourhood.

Before you scratch your grey (or is it gray) cells wondering what kids were doing there and why they were not at school when I had been at the office, I have only three words for you –

“Swine Flu in Pune!”

Do I hear some one say, “Four not three…!”

I can’t count!  Never could.

Shreya holding the turtle she discovered.

Shreya holding the turtle she discovered.

Predictably, the turtle had withdrawn itself into its shell. The back was coloured “muddy-shoddy, grey, brown, black, ochre”. It had three black  stripes on its head.

Black streaks on the head

Black streaks on the head

I turned it over and said “Aha!”

( Aha = Its got flaps to hide its legs under! See the black-edged half crescents on the left half. It’s the Indian Flapshell Turtle (Lissemys punctata). Now I can appear learned and quite the expert! )

The downside of up! This flapshell turtle upended.

The downside of up! This flapshell turtle upended.

The kids were excited as I told them more about the turtles a la Messrs Das & Daniels.

It was an angry turtle – aware, wary, alert and fast. No sooner had I put it then a knobby, ridgy fore-leg with three claws emerged. To you and me they may look grotesque as compared to say cute kitties and puppies, but to a turtle – lover   I’m sure these are as fascinating to a turtle over as  female feet are to Quentin Tarantino!

The turtle emerges....

The turtle emerges....

The turtle scurried away along the lawn but was repeatedly recaptured while I pored over the DDs. I learnt from Daniels that –

“the adults and young make long journeys during the rainy season, which is probably the reason for the species being so widespread….”

Indian Flap-shell turtles are the “hoi polloi” of CME and occupy the four lakes, large acreage of reed-beds, ponds and marshes and the 2 km long rowing channel. The nearest water body or marsh as one can make out from the Google image is more than a kilometer away.

The turtle had crossed roads, houses, gardens, fences, ditches besides stray dogs and people to land up where it did! The turtle would surely have died if allowed to roam free as it was heading deeper and deeper into civilisation.

Red line surrounds lake/marsh/nalas. Brown spot - found. Black spot - released.

Red line surrounds lake/marsh/nalas. Brown spot - found. Black spot - released.

The next question I faced from the kids was ‘is it a boy or girl’ ? Met by a don’t know look on my face, they decided, mostly being girls (two girls both older vs two boys both younger), that it looked feminine and soon names for ‘her’ were being proposed.

It was decided that her name was actually “Myrtle” and that she would be a very good pet! Undying vows were made to look after the creature if only they could have it please, pleeassee..

Mindful of stricken looks on a loving parent’s face, I pointed out that Myrtle fed on shrimps, insects and worms from within the water (actually they eat that and vegetation too) and her family was probably missing her.

An expedition was launched and finally Myrtle was released upstream into the marshes near the CTW lake. The last photo that we have of Myrtle is of a grinning Shrey (not Shreya’s brother) who held the turtle last. And the reason for that is, as soon as we set it on the ground some good seven-eight feet from the water’s edge, Myrtle became greased lightning and vanished before we could photograph her!

Guess it was not a ‘snapping’ turtle!

Little Shreyas before he released the turtle.

Little Shrey before he released the turtle.

So Myrtle the turtle went back to tell tales to the grand-turtles with a new name to boot.