PRISON GUARD Raju Pore is always on alert. He often receives calls in the middle of the night or while he is on duty, seeking help. The 30-year-old from Daund taluka in Pune is on the speed dial of all residents of the staff quarters at Taloja central prison in Navi Mumbai for his snake-catching ability. “Morning walks, post-dinner strolls can lead to encounters with snakes very often here. There have been many instances of a snake being found in our homes. Raju runs to our rescue, he is a household name here,” says a Taloja prison official.
Flanked by a forest, Taloja central prison spread across 27 hectares is one of the largest prisons in Maharashtra. Founded in 2008, the prison was built as an alternative to Arthur Road jail in central Mumbai which was bursting at its seams. Today, Taloja jail with its prison capacity of 2,124 inmates — all male — has among its residents 1993 Mumbai blasts accused Abu Salem, Malegaon 2008 blast accused and alleged Indian Mujahideen members. Among the usual issues plaguing a prison system, Taloja has regular visitors in scorpions, snakes and other reptiles.
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In 2012, the teenaged daughter of a senior jail staff member was playing around the staff quarters when she realised something had bitten her. She rushed home and complained of severe pain. Staff members recall she was first taken to the doctor at the hospital who directed that she needed advanced medical help. The girl was rushed to the civic hospital in Vashi, over 18 km away, but died two days later due to snake venom. It was Pore’s first year at Taloja central prison through his posting by the Maharashtra prison department.
“The death created a lot of fear among those staying here. People were scared to venture out of homes. There was another jail staff member who used to catch snakes then but he retired soon after. For the first time, I felt that I should intervene,” says Pore. While growing up in Deulgaon village, Pore recalls he was 13 when his childhood friend taught him how to handle snakes. “My friend would regularly catch snakes. For a few years, I only saw him with a lot of intrigue and with a fear of snakes. He would give me a lot of information about them, which ones are poisonous, what is the strength of each of the species, how to tame them if they get aggressive. He taught me how to read their body language. I eventually got over my fear and caught an Indian Cobra for the first time when I was 20,” he says.
Since 2012, when Pore began catching snakes at Taloja prison and the surrounding areas, he says the number has crossed 300 of various species including Russell’s Viper, saw-scaled viper, Indian Cobra and Indian Python. “Sighting a snake has become so common that when I receive calls, the caller has already identified the snake. I rush within a few minutes no matter where I am. Recently, I was on duty in the high security anda cell. An Indian Cobra was spotted at the kitchen in a staff member’s home,” he said.
When Pore reaches the spot, he identifies the snake to understand whether it is venomous or non-venomous. The age of the snake, its size and its teeth are factors he then makes a mental note of. “With some snakes, I fix a target or an object like a cloth for it to attack. When it is distracted by it, I pick it by its tail with a stick. With most snakes, if a major part of their body is off the ground, it is easier to take control of it,” he explains. Pore usually releases the snakes he rescues back in the forest area near the prison. “If I hear that a snake is killed instead of being rescued, I feel pained. I think of myself as a sarpa mitra (friend of snakes). They are connected to our ecosystem and we can learn a lot from them,” Pore says. He says that a few years ago, at Taloja, they would spot at least 10 snakes every day.
“The area has grown more populated in the past few years. Snakes are not known to come to areas where there is a lot of sound. The number has decreased now but there are times when I have rescued 2-3 snakes in a day,” he says. Pore says though he has learnt a lot about snakes through his experience at Taloja, the perils involved have made him apprehensive of sharing them with his parents. “If my mother is told that I have caught over 300 snakes, she will ask me to leave my job and return home,” he says.
He recalls a near-death incident during a rescue in 2013. “There was an Indian python spotted in the jail premises. It was around 30-40 kg in weight and I could not manage it all by myself. I called for help from three others, one held the python’s tail, two others held the rest of its body while I was holding its mouth. From the spot it was rescued, we took it to a distance of 50 metres. The snake attempted to release itself and the three men panicked and dropped the snake. I did not realise that they had dropped it and the snake coiled itself around me,” he says. He adds, “Pythons have a lot of strength in their muscles with which they can crush its target. Only because I had held onto its head, it could not gather all its strength to crush me to death. But, I knew I could only control it for a few minutes.
I pleaded with one of the other jail staff members to at least pick up its tail. Though scared, one of them came forward and held its tail. The snake loosened its grip on me and uncoiled. The moment I was released, I dropped it,” he says, speaking of this as his most difficult experience. Taloja prison officials claim that while snakes continue to be a regular presence in prison premises, there have been no untoward incidents involving inmates. “Since the prison is surrounded by a forest, snakes are often spotted inside the premises. It is due to Pore’s rescue efforts each time that we can be at ease,” said superintendent of prisons, Sadanand Gaikwad, Taloja central jail.
Pore says all of his knowledge on snakes comes from his first-hand experience which he shares with others who show interest, including prison inmates. With only a year left for his mandatory transfer after six years of posting at one prison, Pore has begun training other staff members. “A lot of prisons are on the outskirts of cities and in forest areas. The training of prison personnel should include rescuing snakes to ensure security of all including the prisoners,” he says.