By Ajay Giri
Is handling snakes risky for rescuers and the snakes? If yes, then how can the risk be decreased? Can we also at the same time successfully mitigate human-snake conflict?
I have tried to answer the above questions on basis of my experiences. First of all, we should all take a moment to consider that maybe catching and relocating every snake, which is considered a threat, may not be the best method of mitigating human-snake conflict. There, of course, always will be some situations where intervention is required but it is important that there be a standard, researched and reviewed protocol followed in every single case, which includes implementation of safe methods for rescue and release when needed. Awareness can play a very important role in minimising the need of ‘rescue’, making the people understand what’s at stake and reducing the risk for the handlers. Here are a few instances from my personal rescue diary which for me exemplified when a rescue may be needed and when sensitisation leads the way.
A risky rescue: A spectacled cobra had been seen on the roof of a house for a few days. The owner had requested me to remove it and relocate it away from the house. The day I went over, the snake was right there on the very edge of the roof, under the tiles. There was no way around this. The cobra was in no mood of coming down and he had to be removed from the home. The owners were understandably scared of a cobra moving around for a few days on the roof, accessing different rooms searching for rats. They understood that the snake was not there to harm the humans, that it was just looking for rats but like most normal people the idea of having a creature they did not understand, slithering around the house with enough venom to kill a human, naturally did not sit very well with them.
I must mention here that this rescue was taking place during the monsoon and the roof was quite slippery. I climbed the roof and was trying to simply stand but an electric wire over my head was making this quite difficult. Bend, with a not so firm grip, or be electrocuted were my only options. Just as I was about to reach for the snake, the tiles under me broke! I had managed to (somehow) remain standing, but had moved too close to the snake and any attempt to move around and reposition myself was disturbing him. Now the risk for me wasn’t so much the snake, who inexplicably was still simply resting there but rather was falling down through the roof on something sharp or metal (or both!) or coming in contact with the looming electric wire. To cut a long story short, I didn’t fall through the roof nor did I get electrocuted. I somehow managed to bag the snake and after having a chat with the residents, and getting their consent, the cobra was released in its home range just a little further away from the houses.
The Ideal ‘rescue’: March and the following few months are mainly the breeding season of the king cobra, when the male begins his journey in pursuit of the female to breed with and in that journey establishes territories by flighting off other males in ‘combats’ (a ritual with dance like movements to claim dominance). The pursuit of the male is aided by the scent trail left by the pheromones of the female king cobra, on the path that she takes during their breeding period.
In April 2013, I got a call from a village where two king cobras had been spotted in a burrow just beside a house. The locals were naturally scared and requested me to take the snakes away. This is where a rescuers role really comes in, when we are presented with two options. Option 1- just do what the locals want, bag the snakes and relocate them. Option 2- talk to the residents and somehow convince them to let the snakes just be since it was breeding season. Since the king cobras weren’t actually inside a house, I decided to give Option 2 a try before thinking about Option 1. After a long discussion with the locals, I managed to convince them to the let the snakes be, till they moved away on their own after they were done with breeding. I stayed in the village to keep an eye on the snakes and to educate the locals about the ecology and importance of king cobras. In a fifteen day period, there were sightings of six king cobras- one female and five males all distinguishable by size, snout pattern and colour. However, I didn’t need to catch even a single one of them and people were happy to learn new information. More than that they were happy to see this magnificent creature live in front of them, see their male combats, watch a dominant male protect the female from other males, who then retreated on their own. There were three king cobras in a village seven km away. We repeated the same set of awareness exercises there and we didn’t need to catch a single snake.
We are still getting calls from these areas, now more just to let us know about sightings near human habitations which they are careful not to disturb. Unless and until it’s a complicated and difficult situation, we aren’t called in for rescues anymore.
We need to fill in the current lacunae with more people who want to learn about wildlife and ecology to help with human-wildlife conflict mitigation. These people, in the absence of rescuers can then become public ambassadors and make other people aware of the importance of flora and fauna, the connection between humans, wildlife and nature in the ecosystem and the importance of co-existence. This is much better than the increasing number of rescuers who only translocate snakes.
About the author:
Ajay Giri is an Education Officer at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS).