Snakes freak out most of us. This is primarily because we’ve been thoroughly brainwashed since we were toddlers that snakes are deadly. In many cultures (like ours), they are also revered, while in others, they are, sadly, reviled. The Chinese, of course, will eat them and tell you that drinking fresh cobra blood will up your mojo.
As afraid of snakes as we are, they are also equally scared and keep out of our way as far as possible. In over 35 years of walking on the Old Delhi Ridge, I’ve glimpsed snakes, perhaps, half-a-dozen times — mostly wriggling into the undergrowth at top speed. If you are trekking through a snake-friendly habitat, stomp heavily; they will feel the vibrations and make themselves scarce. But the monsoons are when they tend to tangle with us — in the cities or in villages, in homes, schools, offices, car engines, et al, where they shelter when their holes get flooded. At home, keep your kitchen, pantry and bathroom scrupulously clean; if you have rats, it’s an invitation to an open buffet to snakes. The best thing to do, once you spot them, is to lock them in (if possible) and call professional snake-catchers who are now proliferating in every city. No macho heroics or snake charmers needed.
We are criminally neglectful in the way we behave around snakes. Half of all annual worldwide deaths from snakebites occur in India — 50,000. Most occur due to recklessness: working barefoot in flooded paddy fields, keeping a messy kitchen, storing garbage. Snake venom, derived from saliva, is not a pleasant substance to have coursing in your bloodstream. It may shut down your nervous or respiratory system, and put you in terrible pain before killing you, if you don’t get treated in time. Many just die from the shock.
Of course, all snakes are not venomous — of over 3,700 species worldwide (by one estimate), perhaps 600 to 700 are venomous (though some estimates are far lower). In India, the “big four” which are responsible for most deaths are the cobra, the common krait, the Russell’s viper and the saw-scaled viper. All sea-snakes — found in the Pacific and Indian oceans— are highly venomous, though apparently timid and placid by nature.
They’re carnivores and take down prey by biting, constricting or simply swallowing them alive. They have a trick jaw which can, in some species, open wider and swallow gigantic meals. They hunt by sniffing out their victims with that notorious forked tongue, or sensing their presence with the infra-red heat sensors, embedded near their mouths, or, by waiting in ambush. Meal over, the snake takes a long digestive break. Pythons may ingest a small deer and not want food for months afterwards.
In the West, snakes (especially pythons and anacondas) are often kept as exotic pets — possibly because it might seem macho to have a Burmese python draped around your shoulders when the neighbours drop in or because they are low maintenance. What often happens is that the reptile grows far too powerful to handle, is taken out and abandoned (the Florida swamps are apparently teeming with giant Burmese pythons), or worse, little Chuck Jr. doesn’t make it to the breakfast table.
A general (libelous) belief about snakes is that they are slimy and icky. They’re not; they’re smooth and dry, their scales often lacquered and enameled as perfectly as a Rolls-Royce’s coachwork and stunningly patterned — they are one of the most beautiful of creatures.
They are cold-blooded creatures, which lay eggs (some birth live youngs) and are not heavily into parental care, though some will guard their eggs until they hatch. The magnificent king cobra makes a nest, waits till her babies hatch and then takes off — because she knows she has an appetite for snakes, whether they are babies or not. The babies, too, are as venomous as their parents, and demand to be respected.
The only treatment for a venomous snakebite is to be given the relevant anti-venom as soon as possible. Anti venoms are made by injecting horses with small amounts of snake venom until they develop immunity to it and then drawing their blood and fashioning the antidote from it. The snake venom is obtained by “milking” snakes after catching them. The Irula tribals from south India are renowned for their snake-catching abilities — and thanks to people like Romulus Whitaker (who has done more to promote the cause of snakes and other reptiles than any other person in India) have used their talents to good effect. Equally good would be if schools could mandatorily hold “snake (or reptile) appreciation lessons”, where children are taught how to behave around these beautiful if dangerous creatures. I think they’d prefer it hands down to 45 minutes of Algebra.
(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)