Thursday, March 28, 2013


“Maar diya sahib! Bada zehrila naag tha!”, said the gardener as he stood in front of me, flanked by four others. At the end of a long wooden stick that he held out like a bayonet hung a snake, about six feet long. Its head, once a beautiful greenish black seemed to have been crumpled out of shape and was dripping thick sticky blood.

I shook my head and picked up the now lifeless form of the serpent and pried its mouth open with a twig. I displayed the snake’s dentition for the men. Row upon row of saw-like teeth looked formidable, but then I made the point I was trying to make as I stuck the twig under the rat snake’s teeth and said, “See? no fangs! Iss saanp mein zeher nahin hota! No venom! These snakes just catch rats and bandicoots. They just give you guys a helping hand.”

The men didn’t know how to react to that. What I had just said had collided with their understanding of their world, that all snakes were dangerous, venomous and almost evil beings and the only possible outcomes of an encounter with one were either an agonizing fatal bite for man or a lethal blow from a stick for the snake. On the other hand I could see why a non venomous rat snake could so easily be mistaken for a venomous cobra or krait. So, what should one do when one encounters a snake?

For an answer to that question I had to go looking for a man who knows his snakes like the back of his hand… also because he often has one wrapped around the back of his hand.

Meet Debanik Mukherjee, a herpetologist by trade and an evolutionary biologist by passion, and a man who his friends described to me as “this crazy guy, he catches venomous with his bare hands..”. Warm, unassuming and extremely passionate about his subject, he reminded me I was late for our appointment when I showed up half an hour later than the agreed hour. But instead of making me feel awkward about it he immediately apologized for the state of his field station, dusted an old chair in the corner before offering me a seat and then politely requested an attendant to get us some tea.

A few sips of sweet tea later, I asked the question that had been bothering me. How does one differentiate between a venomous snake and a non venomous one? Debanik Mukherjee rolled his eyes and smiled. “Th at’s a tough one. Th ose with an experience of handling snakes can easily tell the differences in coloration and subtle changes in shape. For instance two of India’s relatively more common venomous snakes, the saw-scaled viper and the Russell’s viper, like most vipers, have slightly triangular heads. But it is tough for a layperson to tell the difference between a krait and a rat snake for instance, or a cobra for that matter, unless it has raised its hood.”

Then what is one to do if one encounters a snake inside one’s garden or room? Just wait for it to leave? Mukherjee laughed a wry good natured laugh and said “Carbolic acid! Keep that handy if snakes like visiting you. Carbolic acid or phenol is known to ward snakes off. I think its fumes interfere with the snake’s ability to interpret its environment through its senses. Th at, or a flame wrapped around a long stick should be enough to drive the snake off in a safe direction and distance. Remember this, that except for an aggressive species like the African black mamba, most snakes will want to avoid conflict with humans, and given an opportunity, would be happy to retreat.”

But what if one does get bitten? What are our options then? Doctor Mukherjee looked into my eyes, leaned across his table and said, “Then there is a problem. Snake venom acts fast. It gives you only hours, often only minutes, about 30 or so, if bitten by a krait for instance. So if you know nothing about snakes and are bitten by one, you must rush to the nearest hospital. Most large hospitals would have access to antivenin. In the old days, people would have to kill and carry the snake to the doctor so he could identify the snake and administer the antivenin accordingly. But today, while carrying a picture on your phone might help, you needn’t fret too much about it for modern polyvalent antivenins would cover the bases for a wide variety of snake bites.

Stay calm – More often than not, even if the victim has been bitten by a cobra or a krait, the bite would be a ‘dry bite’. This means that even though the snake did bite, it did not pump any venom into the blood stream. Venom is precious and snakes would rather not waste venom on humans who are too big to be eaten. (Unlike cobras and kraits, vipers however cannot control or restrict the amount of venom they inject in their victims)

In the rare event that one does get bitten, you must try and relax and control your breathing. Getting excited and anxious would only make the heart beat faster and this would lead to the venom reaching the organs sooner than later.

Check for fangs – Look out for deep punctures made by the venom squirting fangs at the site of the injury. If you can locate distinct puncture wounds that stand out from the rest of the bite marks, this would usually be a sign that the snake was venomous.

Tourniquets – Th ough rather popular in the past, tourniquets aren’t a very good idea, especially if tied too tight. Tourniquets would do more harm than good in such cases and could even trigger gangrene. Then Debanik revealed an interesting bit of trivia. “Mithridatization is the process of building immunity from snake bites by injecting small doses of snake venom into the human body. And crazy as it might sound, there are people all over the world who are experimenting with the idea. It works, but one small mistake could be the last one for these modern day Mithridates. So take my advice, mind your feet and stay away from snakes and snake venom if you haven’t been trained to handle them”, added Debanik.

I will take his advice, and so should you. But all that you just read might make you think that having snakes around really is a lot of trouble. Why go through this trouble and effort in order to coexist with this cold blooded killer? Well, here’s why...

Snakes, like all apex predators, are one of nature’s prime indicators of environmental well being. But if that seems too esoteric an idea for you then you should know that snakes are one of nature’s best rodent regulators. For a variety of reasons, snakes do the job better than any human pest control interventions. In fact, in parts of rural Vietnam, where snakes had been exterminated by paranoid human actions, the reptiles are being reintroduced to keep rodent populations in check. And why are rodents such bad news? Umm, where do I begin… they destroy crops worth millions, their feces and urine contaminate our food and our water, spreading diseases and death, and they are host to fleas and ticks and mites that can routinely ring in epidemics. Without snakes, our barns, yards and dinner tables would be overrun by rats. So join me as I say ‘thank god for snakes!’ And next time you run into a snake and know just what to do, come on, you could thank me too… and of course, the redoubtable Mr. Mukherjee!


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