Learning to live with snakes…in the city!

URBAN BIODIVERSITY

Shravan Krishnan with a Cobra - photo courtesy FB

What would a city dweller do if they saw a snake inside their house in the city? Chances are they would reach for a stick or a weapon to kill it. If you ever find yourself in that position, DON’T kill the snake.. It is a protected creature under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and killing or handling a snake is a punishable offence. If a nosy neighbor decided to take a picture of you with the snake, you are in double trouble!

Chennai has its own share of human-snake encounters. In areas like Navalur on Old Mahabalipuram Road, Uthandi on East Coast Road, Ambattur/Padi on the western side of the city, where buildings are slowly but surely taking over open spaces, residents often report snake sightings.

In addition, Chennai is unique in that it is fortunate to have several green spaces inside the city limits – Theosophical Society, Guindy Snake Park, IIT Madras, the Pallikaranai marsh, which have been homes of snakes for years before they became habitats for humans.

To make matters worse, nowadays we find large amounts of garbage piled up on roads, attracting rodents, which in turn attract snakes. Also, uneven development disregarding the natural slope of the land means that in the monsoon there are abundant pockets of stagnant water – breeding points for frogs, naturally attracting snakes!

In short, therefore, it is quite common to see snakes in Chennai. But what do you do when you come across one, if killing or injuring it puts you on the wrong side of law? Call animal lover and reptile conservationist Shravan Krishnan.

Being a reptile lover from a young age, and having learnt at the feet of the legendary Romulus Whitaker, Shravan is an expert at identifying and catching snakes. He says, “Snakes are not coming into our homes. We are moving further and further into their habitats, clearing forests for building, and forcing these creatures to come into conflict with humans”.

Shravan and his fellow volunteers get several calls every single day, as do the forest officials. They have a network across the city, which tries to attend to the call within fifteen to twenty minutes.. If they are delayed much beyond that, chances are the snake has been killed in a fit of sheer panic.

Snake facts to keep in mind

1. Of over 3000 snake species in the world, only 300 are found in India. Of which less than 10% are harmful to humans in any way.

2. The big FOUR, that are responsible for most snake bite cases are:

  • The Cobra
  • The Common Krait
  • The Russell’s Viper
  • The Saw Scaled Viper

All these four snakes are found throughout India.

Watch this video for images of these four, and the most common non poisonous snakes found in Chennai.

3. Most snakes will avoid confrontation and quietly slip away when faced with adversaries. Barring the above four, the bite of other non-venomous or mildly venomous snakes is not harmful to humans.

4. Snakes have a very important role in keeping rodents in check and protecting crops and food produce.. A full grown rat snake, for instance, can eat up to 400 rats in a year. When a rat snake is caught and handed over the Forest department, chances are there is a farmer waiting at the office to take the snake and let it loose in his open fields!

5. Snake venom is being used in research for its anti-cancer properties.

Do’s and Don’ts from Shravan:

  • Take care while clearing vegetation or raking dry leaves in your garden
  • Supervise kids in the outdoors, especially in a green neighborhood
  • Use torch/flashlight at night and wear your shoes when stepping out
  • If your shoes have been out for a while, check before wearing them.
  • Keep your backyard free of junk and make sure your solid waste is managed properly.
  • If you see a snake, do nothing. Step away and let it go.  Do not try to pick it up or kill it. 
If a snake has entered your premises, call Forest Department officers on +91 9444358969/ +91 9566184292 or Professional snake rescuers. Chennai Wildlife Rescue volunteers can be reached on +91 7845018969 and +91 9884461090.

If someone is bitten by a snake, do it RIGHT:

R – Reassure the patient. More people die of cardiac arrest after seeing a snake bite them, than of the actual venom from the bite. As mentioned earlier, the snake is most likely to a non-poisonous one in the first place!

I – Immobilise the bitten part, in much the same way as one would immobilize a fractured limb.

G  H – Take the person to a Government Hospital. These hospitals will always have a stock of anti venom, that can be injected in time to save the patient. Nowadays, combination antidotes are available, which can be administered without knowing the type of snake bite.

T – Tell the doctor of any symptoms that you saw in the patient while bringing them to the hospital.

One last thing Shravan cautions against are myths about snakes – the cobra gives out a diamond once in its lifetime, the cobra can remember the face of the person who attacked it, and will ensure that person’s death, some snakes have multiple heads, and so on. Not only do these myths cause untold harm to these creatures, they render us incapable of appreciating that the world belongs equally to all creatures, great and small.

About Meenakshi Ramesh 13 Articles
Meenakshi Ramesh is Involved in civic initiatives in Chennai and she anchors the Chennai edition of Citizen Matters. She has also worked with Pratham. She can be reached at meenakshi@oorvani.in

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