Learnings from my journey as a snake conservationist and rescuer

  • Sharebar

By Jose Louies

Spectacled Cobra by Vivek Sharma

“He was bitten by a cobra which he rescued two days earlier. It happened when they were photographing it at his place, his friends took him to the hospital, but they could not save him.”

I remember this conversation which took place a few years ago. It was a snake rescuer in his early twenties, who had been bitten by the snake which he loved so much that he risked his life to save it.  So did the snake not recognize his saviour’s love? In rural India, the betrayal of a close friend is often compared to the behaviour of a snake that bites the hand that feeds it milk. Both analogies are myths. Neither do snakes have any understanding of human love nor do they drink milk.

In the recent past, there have been a number of cases where so called snake lovers and snake rescuers who have been bitten have lost their lives. While the reptile gets blamed when a human dies we must note that the snake is not the villain here- barring a few cases, it is mostly the carelessness and overconfidence of the rescuer which results in such mishaps. When one tries to handle a snake it considers this action as a threat to its life and does what it is best engineered to do which is to strike and bite.

I must have caught my first snake when I was less than ten years old. I was naive and had no idea what species of snake I had caught under the stones in the rubber plantation. Absolutely no idea about the snake and whether it was venomous. I used a stick to drive the small snakes into a plastic bottle so that I could observe them at ease. Perhaps the little snakes were non-venomous as I have lived to tell the tale. My mother was furious and threw me out of the house with the bottled snakes – for her every snake was highly venomous and her beliefs have remained unchanged to this day.

Learn before you start :  When I started as a ‘professional snake rescuer ‘ with Snehal Bhatt  at Vadodara, the first thing she taught me was how to identify each snake species. It took some time for me to identify the common venomous and non-venomous snakes found in the area. Until she was sure about my knowledge, she ensured that I didn’t handle snakes. Instead, she assigned me to cleaning snake boxes and drying them in the sun.

If you are interested in snakes, you need to learn more about them and come to a stage where you can identify a snake without making a mistake. In case you are not sure about the identity of the snake, treat it as the most venomous snake in the world.

Your equipment is the key: Let me share another story of my stupidity when I first forayed into snake rescue. It was more than fifteen years ago, when I used to attend rescue calls in Vadodara.  While going on a rescue call, I would often go without a snake stick or a bag as there would usually be no time to go and collect these essential items. Vadodara was blessed with the big four – Cobra, Krait, Russell’s and Saw Scaled Viper. Most of these were aggressive enough to give me a tough time. On reaching the rescue location, I would ask for a pillow cover or a plastic bottle from the onlookers and then search for a stick to handle the snake. There were occasions when we would put a snake into a pillow cover only to see that it coming out through a hole at the bottom. I finally learnt my valuable lesson after an attack by an angry six foot long Russell’s viper. The snake was in the backyard of a house and defiant at the slightest approach. I was almost bitten a couple of times before I could safely bag it. This was a close call and I finally leant my lesson. After this incident I made sure I had my grab stick and snake hook before embarking on a rescue call. And the snake hook became a permanent fixture on my motorbike then onwards.  Mistakes are opportunities to learn. So the next time you embark on a snake rescue, make sure you have the necessary equipment in place.

Snake rescue kit

All Discovery and NatGeo wildlife heroes are not real:  Yes, they are not as cool as they are shown on TV.  What you see on TV is an edited version of what happens in the field. What is not aired is the kind of back up they have during the shoot.  The production house arranges expert doctors, medicines and transportation facilities for the high value presenter – in case of an emergency, they have everything from the first aid kit to a helicopter on call to take him to the hospital with all expenses paid. 

So now when you get inspired by a show on NGC or Discovery, and become a local rescuer, do not forget to use safety equipment while in the field. Be extremely careful. Do not get carried away by the cameras and the faces behind the cameras. Snakes bite when you least expect them to bite you. 

Let there be zero drama in a rescue call. You are there to rescue the snake, not to get bitten and be rescued yourself.  When I go for a rescue, I first rescue the snake, secure it inside the box and lock it, then explain to the onlookers about the snake and if possible negotiate a way to release it in the same locality. I would advise you to never take the snake out in your hands and start talking to people - even if it is a non-venomous species.

Does every snake need to be rescued?:  This is often the toughest question to deal with. I have rescued snakes from almost all kinds of places and it has been a conscious effort on my part to not rescue a non-venomous snake. Here you use your inter-personal skills, talk to people and make them understand that a non-venomous snake is as harmless as a bulbul in the garden and they need not worry about it. It is a tough task to negotiate for a venomous snake which is rescued from the middle of a crowded area. If it is a non-venomous snake, then you should not take the snake away, the snake was surviving there and it should be left in the locality. There is always a possibility of a venomous snake taking the place of a non-venomous species that gets removed from a particular area.

Snakes are not your pets: You rescue them and release them at the earliest!  About three years ago I visited a snake rescuer friend. I happened to be in the same city so I called him and he was very happy to welcome me to his home.  As I had a day’s stay in the city, I thought I could go around with him for a possible snake rescue. I was shocked to see his collection of snakes, all rescued from the locality and kept in plastic boxes. A few of them had been with him for weeks. On enquiring he mentioned that they were being used for snake awareness workshops and would be released as soon as the workshop season was over.

Do follow the IUCN guidelines for the release of rescued wildlife.  Collecting a large number of snakes from a city and releasing them in the same place in the nearby forest is the worst micro ecosystem disaster. The released snakes will fight for food, space and other resources with the resident snakes.  The released snakes could also be carriers of diseases that can get transferred to the resident snakes.

Follow the law, to make sure the law enforcement guys do not follow you: In an emergency, you can rescue a snake without any permission from the forest department; in fact you don’t need permission even to save a tiger in distress.  As per the law if you are in possession of ‘wildlife’ you are expected to intimate the nearest forest officer or police officer within 48 hours of such a possession. To handle wildlife, you need permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state or an authorized officer.  Rescuing or handling snakes without the necessary permission is a punishable offence as all snakes found in India are protected under various sections of the law. Hence before you start providing snake rescuing services in your area please do visit the Divisional Forest officer and ensure that you have written permission to rescue snakes.

Rescue of snakes and educating people about snakes and snake bites is in fact a service to society as it minimizes the conflict between humans and snakes and in doing so saves both humans and snakes. Every rescue and relocation of a snake should be done responsibly and only after undergoing proper awareness, training and orientation.  Remember to respect the snake instead of loving or fearing them. Snakes do not understand human emotions. 

About the author:
Jose Louies is the founder of IndianSnakes, which started as the website indiansnakes.org 2010. He is a member of  IUCN Viper Specialist Group and an experienced wildlife conservationist who has been working in the field for over 15 years. He dreams of a world where no Indian dies of a snake bite, no snakes are killed out of fear and retaliation and myths around snakes are demolished with science based facts.