Thursday, August 20, 2009


A lazy Saturday lunch with family and friends at a farmhouse had erupted into an afternoon of fear and frenzy. And a red brick structure that housed the generator unit was the eye of the storm. I first heard a child scream, and then there were others… I rushed out of the ‘pool room’ with my friends and saw their children shrieking and running towards us, all the while pointing at the ominous ‘generator room’ that stood silently behind them. While their nervous parents kept asking what had happened, the children, overcome by fear and exhaustion, took a while to catch their breath. Then the eldest child, with the colour slowly returning to his chubby cheeks, whispered “Anaconda!!”

Another kid stretched his arms as wide as he could, thrust his sweet round belly out and grimaced as he tried to stretch some more until one thought he might split in two and said “this big… even bigger”. Then another child said, “It was a cobra… it had big teeth…” Hearing this, the gardeners and care takers who had gathered around us picked up shovels and sticks and ran towards the room… In the commotion, it took me a while to get my bearings and by the time I set off for the ‘GR’, the gardeners had gotten more than a head start. As I ran, I tried to imagine what might have triggered that reaction… An Anaconda was out of the question. J.Lo and her rubber toy from that Sony-Columbia production must have made a big impression on the kid but those nearly 30 feet long monsters are only found in South America. But a cobra wasn’t all that unlikely in the woodlands around Gurgaon. And a cobra is dangerous. In their attempts to kill or catch the snake, one of them could get bitten… I ran harder, hoping to reach before either snake or man suffered injury… or worse.

Just as I was about to reach, the high pitched babble inside the GR stopped abruptly. For a charged moment or two, there was deathly silence, and then I saw the men emerge. The last one to come out held a long black and now limp snake by the tail, and its head, smashed and bloodied, dripped long thick drops on the wet grass. The men looked rather bemused, unsure whether to celebrate or mourn the hunt. It obviously wasn’t a cobra. I stopped as the men walked up. “Mara kyun…?” I asked… but of no one in particular. They didn’t answer but the one holding the snake dropped it at my feet and then they all gathered around it. It was almost two metres long and nearly black in colour. One of the men had a minor bruise on his right forearm. “Kata..?” I asked. The man nodded and sat down on his haunches. So did the others. The silence, the nodding… it was almost surreal. The parents too had reached by now. They panicked when they saw the broken skin and urged the others to take him to the doctor but that man seemed to have given up hope. He just sat there as if he’d turned to stone and kept staring at the dead snake. “Zehreela nahin tha… wasn’t poisonous”, I told him. The man gave me a bewildered look, perhaps not knowing what to believe. I had told him the truth though. It was a rat snake, a harmless rodent eater.

That was two monsoons ago. Reptiles and most humans, I’ve learnt, don’t get along very well together. Most find them creepy from a distance and are paralysed with fear from closer quarters. And that fear oft en gives way to hate and more oft en than not, people will kill snakes or at least try to if they come across one. And not just snakes. These gardeners from the above instance would regularly kill monitor lizards (gohera) on the farm, imagining them to be poisonous too. However, for their benefit and that of all others who might care to know, lizards, at least the ones found in India, are all non-venomous. Something about these scaled crawlers gives us the creeps. Perhaps it stems from the legend of Satan taking the shape of a snake to lure Eve into sin.

But snakes are far from evil. They are just super efficient predators who are amongst the most effective vermin controllers on the planet. And for those of you who think that we don’t need snakes and can control our rodent populations with our own methods should know that nearly one-fourth of food grains produced are lost to pest like rats and a lot of the rest is contaminated by their excreta. And these rats manage to overrun our warehouses in spite of our best pest control methods like fumigation etc., which by the way leave highly toxic residues on the food that reaches our tables. Snakes and birds of prey like owls are essential for maintaining ecological balance and ensuring that our world isn’t overrun by rats.

And the fact that some snakes are venomous doesn’t make them all bad. We humans aren’t their natural prey and given a chance they will always avoid us. But not everyone is convinced by that logic so when the office gatekeeper found a slender, nearly metre long brown snake with bands coiled under his wooden guard-hut last year, I didn’t want to take a chance and used two empty plastic bottles to truss the snake into one of them. I didn’t know if it was venomous or not but was pretty sure that if I left it here, the guard and the others would in all likelihood kill it or get bitten in the process. So I tied a sack cloth on the bottle mouth that ensured the snake could breathe through it but couldn’t bite and took it with me to the Delhi zoo.

At the Reptile Home in the zoo, I approached one of the care-takers/curators (it’s a fine line separating the two at the Delhi zoo) with my bottled treasure and asked him what kind of snake it might be. “Hey Bhagwan! Yeh toh krait hai! It’s a krait!” Incidentally, kraits are 16 times more venomous than cobras. “You’ll be dead in five minutes in the summer and you might get a little more time in the winter because the blood is thicker,” he said. I later learnt that he might have been exaggerating and though extremely potent, krait venom on an average, takes around five hours to kill an adult human being. The man refused to accept the snake though and since setting the snake loose within the zoo premises would’ve been a bit like dropping a mobile land-mine in a children’s playground, I drove the ten odd tentative kilometres from the zoo to the city forest, this time, constantly checking the bottle to reassure myself and then released the lethal little serpent in an isolated corner of the forest. I’d like to believe that my actions saved more than one life that day.

When the rains come, so do the snakes. So let me share with you a few simple ‘things-to-do’ if you see a snake, in your garden, your bedroom or bath… Lessons I’ve gleaned from my time spent with herpetologists, naturalists and woodsmen…

_ Always stamp your feet when walking through possible snake habitat. Snakes can sense such vibrations and will take the warning and slither away to avoid contact.

_ If you happen to come across one, back away and give it a wide berth. Most snakes can’t strike beyond half their body-length. Run (away) if you want to, they can’t out run normal healthy adults.

_ Don’t try to kill the snake. They are easily avoided and in all probability, the creature doesn’t deserve it; the environment, the granaries and you need it; and lastly your attempts to kill it might bring you within the snake’s striking distance.

_ In the event that a snake is killed, avoid going near it for a while. It is said that even involuntary muscle tremors could lead to a bite.

_ If you see a snake on your property, intimate the fire department, the police or the municipal corporation. If in Delhi, you could also call Wildlife SOS at 9871963535. They have well trained wranglers who are equipped to capture and remove snakes.

_ It is nearly impossible for most of us to distinguish between venomous and non venomous snakes so one should avoid unnecessary bravado.

_ If bitten, try and capture or at least photograph (yes, cell phone cameras should do just fine) the snake. Most government hospitals stock antivenins but these are species specific and identifying the snake quickly will save moments and perhaps lives.

_ Treat all bites as venomous bites, immobilise the area, keep the wound downstream from the heart so that envenomated blood has to travel uphill to reach the heart and get the patient to the nearest hospital. It is a medical emergency. The serpent might still be instrumental in ushering us out of our gardens on occasions but here’s hoping the ‘fruit of knowledge’ will help us understand each other better and build both tolerance and forgiveness, for sins both imagined and real…


No comments:

Post a Comment