They have been bitten, poisoned by bites, hospitalised, even comatose once, but this group of over 50 ‘snake friends’ spring into action at a phone call, even 30 years after they began rescuing snakes. Some retired, others in the final years of work, but are still sought after in Thane, Bhandup and Badlapur areas.
“Pit vipers during monsoon, cobras during summer and rat snakes in winter,” says 59-year-old Chandrakant Kangralkar when asked about his ‘schedule’. This even after spending two days in a coma being bitten by a cobra he rescued in 2008. “I have been rescuing snakes since I was 12 and will continue to do so till I die. The cobra was just trying to save himself; snakes are more scared of us than we are of them,” he added.
The gang originally included Kailash Darole from Badlapur, who passed away last month, Faizal Muzavar, 53, from Kurla, and Sachin Joshi, 51, from Dombivali — the two continue to rescue snakes in their areas.
As soon as they get a call, the rescuers take their rods and bags and reach the spot. They try to calm the crowd, bag the snake and ride to the nearest forested area to release the snake. “We used to rescue snakes even before the concept of ‘snake friends’ or ‘sarp mitra’ was formed by the police and forest department,” said Laxman Tarkar, 56, who was fascinated by snakes after attending a venom extraction workshop at Huffkin institute at Parel way back in 1970s. He took guidance in snake rescue from Neelam Kumar Khaire, the first director and creator of the snake park at Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park in 1985, and has never missed a call since.
Between them, an average of 300 snakes are rescued per year. “It is much less in the past few years as a lot of young men have become sarp mitras, which is an encouraging trend,” said Tarkar. These rescuers, both holding ID cards issued by the forest department, rescue snakes from Thane and Bhandup areas.
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While several NGOs working towards animal rescue are funded, the group keeps a part of their salary or pension aside for the rescue missions.
“These are the first people to reach a spot when a snake is sighted. They take no money for the operations,” said D Stalin, an environmentalist.
Their rescue missions cost Rs 800-900 a month depending on the number of snakes they rescue. The group has also befriended “kind-hearted” veterinarians who treat the snake, if injured, for free.
If he can’t immediately release the snake in a forest or within 24 hours as the law stipulates, Kangralkar, who lives at the edge of the national park, in Vartak Nagar, Thane, makes a trip to the forest once a week with his bags of snakes in search of a water hole and a spot far from bastis.