Animal Planet is crawling with them. So is Nat Geo Wild. It’s snakes and the modern day snake charmers, herpetologists with a penchant for one way conversations – folks like Austin Stevens, Jeff Corwin, Brady Barr, the man who started it all, the late great Steve ‘Crikey’ Irwin, and of course, our home grown sweet talking snake wrangler – Gerry Martin, who seem to have taken over all the prime time slots on animal tv.
They make for wonderfully exciting viewing, I will give you that. Most folks, even those that love dogs and cats and birds, and find monkeys cute and white mice adorable, shudder at the thought of a snake slithering along their arm. Snakes inspire revulsion and reverence in equal measure. The scales, the forked tongue, the unblinking eyes and the possibility of a lethal liquid flowing through their switchblade fangs elevates them to the status of a god for a few and the very devil for the rest.
So I can understand why it is like standing barefoot on the very edge of reality tv to watch a man as mortal as you and me, literally kiss death as his lips touch the raised hood of a king cobra. These men catch mambas by their tails, taipans by the neck and play with rattling rattlers like they were a child’s toy. The tiniest scratch from any one of these snakes could lead to a painful and hideous end for these experts. Even with antivenom, the recovery process is uncertain, slow and very painful. So those men are risking a whole lot for good television. Should you try this at home? Sure, go ahead. If you’re as incredibly lucky as I once was, you will survive both the encounter and the feeling of having been monumentally stupid when the realization of how close you were to a grisly death has washed over you. And if you are not, you will be in that privileged ringside seat to the spectacle of watching the limb that suffered the hemotoxic bite disintegrate in front of your very eyes as you writhe in the kind of agony that might make getting impaled on a stake feel like a vacation. Or you could try guessing which of your organs is shutting down first as the neurotoxins motor along your arteries. Whichever the nature of the venom, it is unlikely to be a quiet death, I promise.
Here’s my story that I might have shared in bits and pieces on earlier occasions but this time I present it to you in its entirety as a prelude to ‘what to do when the naughty one from Eden comes calling’.
A few springs ago, I was walking out of my office which was then sitting pretty near the green glades of Sanjay Van near Qutab Institutional Area, when I spotted the guards crowding around a pair of flower pots. I peered over their shoulders and saw them poking at a long slim snake with sticks. More than two feet long, a deep dirty brown with bands running rings around it. Some wanted to kill it with sticks, some suggested burning it while a few where of the opinion that it should either be left alone or carried outside the premises and released.
One of the men said that he had often seen these snakes around the area. Now that got me thinking. If this snake was common in the area, it was important to know whether this snake was venomous or not and what should one do if one of these snakes just pops up around a corner. So I suggested that they put the snake, unharmed and whole, in a container so I could take it to the zoo and get it identified and find suggestions for a viable protocol if this kind of an encounter was to happen again (mobile phone cameras weren’t really de rigueur in those days and so physically carrying the snake was the only way out).
A plastic bottle was procured and the snake, still sluggish in the cool of the morning was poked and picked and placed inside the bottle. One of the guards thought the snake might find the confines of the bottle claustrophobic and punched a few holes into the cap. But now the holes seemed big enough for the snake to escape through them and so he stuck a few twigs to plug the holes. Equipped thus I stuck the bottle between the seat and the door to keep the bottle upright and drove off to the zoo. A speed breaker later, the bottle keeled over and a forked tongue flickered out of the port window in the bottle cap. If the snake got out, it would be impossible to find in the folds of the car’s insides. I had to pull over and set things right. Like I said, it was a monumentally stupid decision to transport a potentially dangerous reptile in this fasion and then to drive with this distraction through Delhi’s notoriously hostile traffic.
Anyway, we both survived the trip to the zoo where I explained my situation to the folks manning the gate and I was ushered in to reptile house. I held out the bottle with the gaping holes in the cap (the twigs had given in to gravity and had fallen through. The little snake had climbed along the length of the twigs and was now poking its head out of the bottle). The man at the reptile house shrank back in horror. “Krait! It’s a Krait”, he whispered. My hands must have started shaking involuntarily at the exclamation for the bottle vibrated in my hand and the snake dropped down again to the bottom.
A krait?! I had been cradling a krait all this while? t krait in Re first time I came across those five dreaded letters was in Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, that unforgettable tale that pitted a pair of cobras against a brave and wily pet mongoose. In the story, Kipling’s krait was smaller but as venomous (as a matter of fact, ounce for ounce, krait venom is even more potent than cobra venom) and dangerous as those hooded emissaries of doom. “It is still a little chilly these days. This one got out a little too soon and that’s why you are still alive”, snapped the zoo ‘expert’. “Half an hour is all it will take for this little devil’s neurotoxins to take you to the brink of respiratory failure”, he added.
Beads of cold sweat oozed out of my pores as I stuttered, “ Ab? Now what?”. My friend from the zoo just shrugged and walked away with a “can’t keep him here…”
So there I was, standing with this genie of death in a bottle, the prospect of another drive with this speckled co-driver and a whole bunch of questions and not an answer in sight.
It has taken me a while since then but I finally have the answers I needed that day. Wait a week and you’ll have them too. And until then, take good care and don’t get bitten...