Posted tagged ‘snakes’

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

Unrequited love (55 Fiction)

22 March 2010

She was his first mate. Never had he met a more sensuous member of the other sex. He had wooed her and charmed her; they had just made love. To his dismay, his true nature emerged. He couldn’t help himself as he killed her and then ate her.

King cobras do such things.

Closeup of head of a yellow and brown hooded snake staring towards the reader.



The scientific name of a King Cobra is Ophiophagus hannah. Ophiophagus means – snake-eater. The King Cobra is a specialist feeder on other snakes and also its own kind.

A documentary film showing a king cobra devouring its female partner on one of the private television channels has turned out to be a bane for the world’s unique radio telemetric project initiated by well known herpetologist Romulus Whitaker to track the movement of the reptile. The Forest Deptt has asked the project to close down citing the showing of a male king cobra eating a female on the show. The project has appealed for the research permit to be renewed.

Read more about it here.

Oh and don’t forget to read “Love still unrequited“.

Close encounter of the Banded kind!

3 February 2009

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.

Hello there!

Hello there!

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 triangular body with distinctive ridge.

The triangular body with distinctive ridge.

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.

A firm grip behind the arrowhead is a must. (Careful not to choke the animal!)

A firm grip behind the arrowhead is a must. (Careful not to choke the animal!)

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.

Slippery with sweat but with snake safely held!

Slippery with sweat but with snake safely held!

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!

Fetching the reluctant warrior!

Fetching the reluctant warrior!

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.

The gloriously beautiful and glossy Banded Krait.

The gloriously beautiful and glossy Banded Krait.

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.

Sapper Deshmukh proudly holds the wondrous snake!

Sapper Deshmukh proudly holds the wondrous 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.

No, the tail does not sting!

No, the tail does not sting

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.

The krait being measured.

The krait being measured.

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 krait being released.

The krait being released.

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.

This way home, my friend!

This way home, my friend!

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.

Going home...

Going home...