A few months ago, wildlife photographer and biologist Kedar Bhide had counted the number of people he knew who had lost their lives while working to rescue or save snakes. He counted up to 29. On March 1, that number reached 30.
That day, wildlife consultant Chirag Roy was bitten by a venomous snake that he was trying to rescue near the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. He died soon after. For Bhide, Roy’s death hit too close to home once more. “Not again, not again,” was his reaction on hearing that Roy had succumbed.
The snakes versus humans conflict is possibly one of the largest examples of human-animal conflict in India today, but it is also largely ignored. The largest number of deaths due to animals in India is caused by snakebites. A study of snakebite mortality in India published in 2011 found that close to 46,000 people die of snakebite every year, far higher than the official estimates from government hospitals of between 1,300 and 1,400 deaths annually. The report said: “Thus, snakebite remains an underestimated cause of accidental death in modern India, causing about one death for every two HIV-related deaths.”
In contrast, the number of human deaths caused by elephants is anywhere between 100 and 300 a year, according to estimates by the World Wildlife Fund and conservation organisation EleAid.
Experts working with snakes and among farm communities have said that the problem is largely invisible because it affects the rural poor. “You go to any forest communities and ask them for three problems or fears from the forest,” said Bhide. “Snakebite will feature in the first three every time.”
The snakes responsible for a majority of deaths are the highly adaptable “big four” species – Russel’s viper, Indian krait, spectacled cobra and saw-scaled viper. They are also a fraction of the snakes seen in India. “Out of some 300 snakes, only 10 to 15 can kill humans,” said Jose Louies, member of the Wildlife Trust of India, who also runs the website indiansnakes.org. “Out of that, only four are commonly found across the country. A large number of snakebites are non-venomous or only slightly venomous.”
Freelance wildlife biologist Soham Mukherjee said that snakebites mostly occur in agricultural landscapes where the density of snakes is much more than in forests. The rodents on farms across India lure in the snakes, who often enter homes chasing their prey.
The victims, said Mukherjee, are mostly farm labourers. However, despite the large number of deaths due to snakebites, even rural communities don’t give enough importance to the conflict. “Each family knows someone either in the family or the neighbourhood or the village who has died of snake bite not too long ago,” said Mukherjee. “They still will not consider it a huge threat but just accept it as something that just happens… You have to convince them to take measures to protect themselves from snakes and convince them that it is a big [threat], that many people die and all of them are potential victims.”
A lack of awareness in general about snakebites also means that few rural doctors know how to treat such or administer antivenom. Misadministering the serum can lead to anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction, and death. It’s no wonder then that untrained doctors are diffident about treating snakebites.
The availability of antivenom itself is an issue. Snake venom and its potency differs between species, and even between snakes of the same species between regions.
For instance, herpetologists have found that if 2-3 vials of a certain antivenom is used to treat snakebites in Tamil Nadu, more than 25 vials of the same serum is required to treat a similar bite in Gujarat. So, a hospital in Ahmedabad that stocks the same amount of antivenom as a hospital in Chennai would run short quickly.
Issues of conservation
The crisis is being recognised and addressed, even if its years late and rather slow. Gujarat, a state with a high incidence of snakebites, set up its first snakebite task force in 2014. Herpetologists have also been working on ways to standardise snakebite treatment. Activists are working to spread awareness on how to minimise risk. For instance, Louies and his friends are working with rural communities in Pithora, Chhattisgarh, to take precautions like avoiding sleeping on the floor, using torches while going out at night, and storing foodgrain properly to keep rodents and snakes, their predators, away.
A healthy snake population is necessary to control rodent pests populations, said Bhide. “Generally people try to deforest spaces around their homes and farms from the fear that snakes will try to enter,” he said. He added that the snake-human conflict is more than just a health problem – it is also a conservation problem. This conflict that inevitably results in human death or snake death also needs to be resolved.
But fear of the killer big four, and other venomous varieties of snakes, has threatened all snakes, even critically endangered species. “For most people, a snake is a snake. They don’t know what is critically endangered and what is killing them. It becomes very difficult to start a conversation about conservation of snakes when snakes are killing so many people,” said Mukherjee.
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