When Manasi Nathwani, a housewife in Thane, started rescuing snakes four years ago, her mother Archana opposed it tooth and nail.
“My mother was very scared of snakes,” the 34-year-old Nathwani recalls. “She always dissuaded me, saying that snakes are dangerous and that I would be bitten. Today she proudly tells everybody ‘my daughter is a daring woman. She catches snakes.’”
Vivek Setia laying a trap.
Now, Nathwani runs the Wildlife Welfare Association (WWA) near Mumbai. It rescues wild animals and snakes from residential areas. She says rescuing snakes is her passion and there are 10 snake rescuers in the WWA. Some are professionals, others are college students and others trap snakes on a part-time basis. Aditya Patil, who is president of the WWA and a mechanical engineer, is currently studying for the annual Union Public Service Commission exams. Another, Ketan Patre, is an editor with Viacom 18, a company that produces movies, while another is Rohit Mohite, who works in the travel sector.
These are the faces of India’s new snake catchers.
Previously, snake catching was considered the exclusive domain of illiterate tribal groups like the Irulas of Tamil Nadu, who would trap reptiles to extract venom, the Saperas – the snake charmers of north eastern India, or the of Battis Shirala of Maharashtra, who would catch snakes for the Naag Panchami festival. And these new snake catchers aren’t motivated by money or religious purposes – they do it for a sense of adventure and to preserve nature’s ecological balance.
Manasi Nathwani runs the Wildlife Welfare Association which rescues wild animals from residential areas.
Patil, who is preparing for civil service exams, says snake catching is part of his “fundamental duty”, and cites Article 51A (g) of the Indian Constitution as a motivation. For him, catching snakes is a social service.
“I want to prevent deaths by snake bites,” he says.
Pawan Sharma is head of the Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare, a group that has about two dozen members and 14 volunteers and operates in Mulund, a suburb of northeast of Mumbai. He preserving snakes is essential to check the over-population of mice, frogs, birds and chipmunks.
“No snakes means mice will face no challenge,” the 24-year old says as he sits in a park in Borivali. “That will be a dangerous situation.”
He holds a degree in Mass Communication and is now studying law. He wants to use both degrees to try and mitigate the conflict between humans and wildlife.
RAWW also has an environmentalist in Advait Jadhav; zoologist Chinmay Joshi; an electric engineer, Mahesh Ithape; and several commerce students in its ranks. Registered in 2013, the RAWW runs two helplines for the public.
Similarly, SARRP – the Spreading Awareness on Reptile Rehabilitation Programme – is a large group registered with the Maharashtra government since 2010. According to Santosh Shinde, the group’s founding president and a mechanical engineer employed with a share-trading firm, one of his snake rescuers, Sunetra Wadke, is a veterinary doctor while another, Rishab Pillai, has joined the Australian government as an environment officer. The group also has botany and environmental researchers working with it.
As well as rescuing snakes, the animal welfare groups also conduct public-education workshops, lectures, seminars and campaigns on the important role snakes play in nature.
These groups also work in tandem with the state forest department to rescue and rehabilitate snakes from the residential areas.
“We have to keep the forest department in the loop about each and every rescue of wild animals,” Shinde says.
Unlike traditional snake charmers, this new generation of snake catchers are trained by forestry officials in how to trap various snake species. Gone too are the stereotypical turbans and costumes, moustaches and beards, this new generation is young, educated, well-dressed and are armed with knowledge from books and nature channels on television.
Their methods have changed too. Gone are catching snakes with hands or heavy sticks – this new breed use properly hooked rods, plastic drain pipes and green bags to rescue them. And while others would destroy venom glands, break their fangs and then make the reptiles sway to their wind instruments in public performances for money, the modern-day reptile hunters want to be environmentally friendly and stop people from being bitten.
The groups mostly survive on donations from the public.
“We ask people to contribute for buying cloth bags and other instruments needed to trap wild animals,” says Vivek Setia, a member of RAWW who is in the final year of a degree in commerce.
While previous snake used dubious quick cures if they were bitten by a snake, this new generation relies on anti-snake venom serums at government-run hospitals.
In October 2013 Joshi, the zoologist, was bitten by a cobra snake. He was treated a hospital in Sion, Mumbai, and was given anti-snake venom. He underwent a battery of tests that included checking his blood-clotting time, blurry vision, problems breathing, bleeding from his eyes, eyes and nose, and swelling at the site of the cobra bite.
“I was discharged from the hospital after three days,” Joshi recalls, proudly showing a finger where the cobra struck.
While forestry officials do try and deter snake catchers from showing off, there’s still a temptation to post images and video on social media. Such is the case of individual snake catchers. On February 26, a young snake rescuer, Avez Mistry, was bitten by a cobra in the Naigaon area of Thane. The 19-year old died several days later. Earlier that same month, a youth in Belapur, Mumbai, died after kissing a rescued cobra.
Kedar Bhide, a renowned herpetologist and founder of Reptile, Rescue and Study Centre, a body working to reduce snake bites, says that in last 12 years, 32 people have died rescuing snakes in Maharashtra. He says 23 were bitten by cobras, five were killed by vipers and three by kraits.
Bhide believes the government must ban the pre-handling of snakes to reduce snake-bite deaths. He and other conservationists last month submitted a list of guidelines to the Principal Conservator of Forests in Maharashtra, Shri Bhagwan. They are still waiting for a reply but the list does include a ban on taking selfies with captured snakes.
“If a person is found taking selfies or photographs with the snake, he can be booked under the Wildlife Act or Animal Cruelties Act. My Deputy Conservators of Forests and local police can take cognizance of such crimes”, Bhagwan says.
Snake-catching groups have proliferated in Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi in recent years because the cities have an abundance of forest covers, marshy lands and witness more rains. Moreover, Wildlife SOS, the only major rescue group operating in Delhi, insists on the proper training of its snake rescuers, and do not allow inexperienced youth to rescue snakes.
“Thankfully, there is no such craze for catching snakes here like Mumbai. We also have software professionals, army officers, engineers and architects volunteering for us, apart from reformed snake charmers. We are very careful about their training”, says Kartick Satyanarayanan, founder and chief of Wildlife SOS. It rescues up to 300 snakes in a year. In Mumbai, Thane and neighbouring districts, a thousand snakes are caught in a month.
The snake catchers are also taught to identify reptiles from their colour, hood and stripes and, importantly, whether the reptile is injured and in need of treatment.
Injured snakes are taken to the Society for Prevention of Cruelties on Animals for treatment and then later release.
Four venomous varieties of snakes are generally found in Mumbai; the spectacled cobra, identified by its hood; the Russel viper, identified by spots on its body; the common krait, which has rounded stripes; and the saw-scaled viper, known for having standing eye pupils.
The anti-snake venom is a mix for these four reptiles.
Among the semi-venomous varieties are: common vine snakes, which camouflage with green leaves; Forsten’s cat snake and common cat snake that look like cats; and the dog-face water snake, found in salt water.
Non-venomous snakes include the checkered keelback, the montane trinket, the bronzeback tree snake, the buff-striped keelback, and the common and red sand boas.
Despite the Indian government having given a statutory protection to all wild animals under a 1972 law, there are many snake charmers who are yet to be rehabilitated. These continue to supply snakes to movie and television serial makers, or clandestinely trade in poison.
Narendra Kaushik is a writer based in Uttar Pradesh, India.