27 August, 2012

Save Our Snakes

The following appears in the Annual Directory of the neighbourhood of Kovai Gardens Association in Kovaipudur, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

Sankes are some of the most gorgeous creatures of the natural world and have taken millions of years to evolve and fill their ecological niche.  It would be a disaster for humans if snakes are brought to the point of extinction despite all the scientific and ethical reasons for their conservation.  Snakes form an integral part of our ecosystem—both as predator and prey—and have a very important role to play in pest control.  The media are happy to publicise and sensationalise cases of snakebite but tend to ignore the larger picture: that snakes are a major factor in keeping agricultural pests (especially rodents) at bay.  The alternate to eating food that is riddled with toxic chemicals and pesticides is to leave these magnificient creatures alone and let them perform their natural duties and work as nature intended.

Snakes are found everywhere: in the forests and deserts, in villages, in towns and cities, in water and on land.  Some snakes like the ornate flying snake of Asia have even conquered the domain of the sky: gliding from tree to tree!  The only reason we don't see them so often is that they do an amazing job staying out of our way.  The occasional times we do cross paths, it is best to stay as far away as possible without causing them any distress and let them remove themselves to safety.  They want to avoid confrontation even more than you do: imagine encountering someone more than 5 feet tall when you're relegated to crawling a few millimetres off the ground.  Snakes bite only as a last resort, for their personal safety, so it does well for us to go about our daily activities with some consideration for the reptiles that share our lives: do not put your hands and feet into nooks, crannies, under rocks and bushes, or other places you can't see into, and always watch where you are treading when you walk, especially so in the dark.  Simple, isn't it?

Out of the over 270 species of snakes in India, the bite of only 4 of these is deadly to humans, yet snakes continue to be violently persecuted in most parts of our country.  Despite being the symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, it seems that most of us are happy to worship the idol and kill the first live snake we see.  Another reason to avoid killing snakes is to stay out of legal trouble.  Snakes are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and warrant a non-bailable arrest.  Depending on the species of snake killed, one will be sentenced by the Schedule under which it comes under.  For example, in the eyes of the law, killing a python is equal to having killed/hunted a tiger or elephant, all of which are protected by their Schedule I classification.

If you do encounter a snake within the confines of your home or workplace, don't try to chase/beat/scare/kill it.  A majority of snake bites occur during these times.  Call your local snake rescue expert (or the fire department/police) who can safely capture the snake and release or relocate it into its natural habitat.

Those living in and around Kovaipudur can call Arthur Steele at 934 483 3274, S.R.J. Arul at 934 410 1111 or Dhaval Momaya at 989 444 3871.

Those living in and around rest of Coimbatore can call K. Ratish at 978 733 2814 or Sabri at 951 992 6729.

Compiled by Dhaval Momaya, N. Lakshminarayan (WCS India) and Arthur Steele.

04 June, 2012

Just spent the last two hours on the phone trying to convince two dozen veterinarians to euthanise a stray dog hit by a car and most of them said that was "not possible" point blank and hung up.  None were willing even if I agreed to pay a premium on their fee and offered to pick them up and drop them back.  Frustration was growing into anger.  One of the vets could make out my displeasure despite my best efforts at being polite, so he justified his refusal by saying he didn't work with strays because they weren't vaccinated and he didn't want to "catch anything" in case he got bitten.  He advised me to stay clear of strays too.  Watch out animal lovers of Coimbatore: veterinary whores abound.

25 April, 2012


I was walking the dog this evening, in the wilderness outside my village where the land is gently undulating and covered with knee-length grass with rows of thorny scrub in the depressions. The weather was great for a walk; the sun mildly shining through a curtain of thin cloud. As I walked, I could smell the fragrance of tulsi as my feet crushed some plants that were spread out among the grass. The resident locals of the village and neighbouring villages had already collected most of the year's wild tulsi harvest in February, but these were new saplings that had come up with the summer showers, I imagine.

It was nearly dusk when the dog suddenly jumped backwards and pricked up her ears, her nose to the ground, twitching away trying to smell the life out of something that was obscured to me. As I tried to get closer to see better she kept pushing me away and growling at whatever it is she was looking at. I finally managed to pull her back and hold her and saw that she had stumbled across a small Russell's viper (Daboia russelli) lying quietly in the grass. Such are the times when I mentally slap my forehead for being too lazy to bring the camera out on the walks, but the point I want to drive home in this little essay is that time and again, I've witnessed my dog being defensive when she encounters a live venomous snake. This has previously happened four times with Russell's vipers in our yard at home, more than half a dozen times with the spectacled cobras (again, in our yard) and once with a saw-scaled viper that we encountered on a similar walk years ago. On occasions when she finds a live non-venomous snake (she's managed to find three wolf snakes, two green vine snakes, countless rat snakes, and once, even a cat snake), she merely attracts our attention to the snake and goes her way doing what she was originally doing. No growling, no ears upright, no straight tail, nothing. (She even let a green vine snake live in our curry leaf tree for a whole year after pointing it out to us.) I wonder how she knows the venomous ones from the non-venomous. Can she smell the venom in their venom sacs? I sure would love to know.