Every hour, up to six people die of snake bites in India. Despite being the biggest man-animal conflict in the country, there is very little information on these deaths. Even data varies from 1,000 snakebite deaths a year to 50,000 deaths a year. Data on the distribution of snakes in terms of vulnerable populations and which species of snakes they are most prone to is limited. The absence of such basic information makes it almost impossible to form national and state-level policies that would help in developing better snake anti-venoms and help hospitals stock them accordingly.

To address this lacunae in our understanding of snakes – which are both revered and feared in India – Jose Louies, from the Wildlife Trust of India has developed an Android app. The Big4 Mapper app helps conservationists and herpetologists map out the distribution of snakes and incidents of bites reported in the country. The project is being led by the Indian Snake Bite Initiative. By collating incidents at the ground level, the app attempts to help researchers and policymakers get a clearer picture of the scale of the situation. The app can potentially save lives, once it reaches its critical mass and if received well by the government machinery.

The idea is deceivingly simple: get snake rescuers to download the app and take a photo of the snake every time they go on a rescue. When rescuers take a photo of the snake in the place they found it, the app automatically logs in the GPS coordinates, time and the date. The rescuer also logs in which species and whether the snake was found inside the house, or outside or whether it was found dead. To prevent fake entries, photos can be taken only through the app and cannot be uploaded later.

A “Sarpa Mitra” (Friend of the Snake) rescuing a snake who has lost its way in urbanscapes and will be released safely in its natural habitat. Photo Credit: Dinesh Valke/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]
A “Sarpa Mitra” (Friend of the Snake) rescuing a snake who has lost its way in urbanscapes and will be released safely in its natural habitat. Photo Credit: Dinesh Valke/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

“There is no dearth of snake rescuers in the country. There are at least 6,000 of them who are officially registered with the forest department,” said Louies who heads the wildlife crime control unit of the Wildlife Trust of India.

India has about 300 species of snakes, of which 52 are considered venomous. However, it is the “Big 4” – Indian cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper that cause 95% of all snake bites in the country. “The app logs only the Big 4 now, but we will add 30 more [species] by December,” said Louies.

The app, which relies on crowdsourcing of incidents at the grassroot, has got more than 10,000 downloads and more than 5,000 entries so far. Though the current version of the app can be used only by snake rescuers and those who are part of the Indian Snake Bite Initiative network, Louies said it will be updated in December this year and later in June next year for the layperson as well as emergency service providers like 108 ambulances to use.

For the common man, the app would pull up the contact person of the nearest snake rescuer and the nearest hospital. “We will also upload videos, photos and information on snakes in India on the app,” said Louies. The app, in the future, will help the ambulance and emergency medical technicians reach the victim faster by relaying GPS data from the victim’s phone in real time.

Louies is ambitious in his reach. “I want at least one rescuer for every 50 square kilometre across the country registered on the app. The data that we can collect can provide so many valuable insights – from helping in research in developing anti-snake venoms to mitigating snake bites,” he said. Finding out which snakes are more prominent in different localities will help researchers develop more efficient snake antivenoms and help hospitals stock them accordingly.

The app, currently meant for snake rescuers, logs the “Big 4” snakes in the country, which are behind 95 percent of snake bites. Photo of Big4 Mapper app
The app, currently meant for snake rescuers, logs the “Big 4” snakes in the country, which are behind 95 percent of snake bites. Photo of Big4 Mapper app

Better data can help develop better antivenom

India at the moment only has polyvalent serums that are a combination of serums extracted from the Big 4. While doctors don’t have to waste time in diagnosing which snake was the culprit when someone is bitten, these serums are not very effective. In regions where the Big 4 snakes are not found, the serums do not even work. “The safest place to get bitten by a snake is in Kanchipuram district in Tamil Nadu,” joked Shravan Krishnan, a Chennai-based snake catcher and an animal rescuer, while speaking to Mongabay-India. This is because the venom for anti-venom serums that is used all over the country is collected by Irula tribes in Kanchipuram. Several researchers believe that for the serum to be effective, the venom needs to be collected in the same region as the snake.

“Even within species, there are so many variations when they are from different states. For example, while the spectacle in cobras is clearly visible in south India, it is not the case in Madhya Pradesh,” added Krishnan. “With different changes in diet, geography the venom of snakes from different parts of the country is bound to be different. Mapping of common snakes and their abundance is the first step that is needed to provide more efficient anti-snake venoms,” he said.

The director of the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, a government body for biomedical research, Dr. Nishigandha R agreed that there is a genuine need for data collection for understanding the epidemic better. “Our forest officers (in Maharashtra) collect a broad range of data, which might be difficult for snake rescuers to collect – like length, weight of the snake and even a sample of its venom for research. But just geographical data, along with the time of the day and different seasons of the year from across the country can give valuable insights that will help us further our research,” she said.

With increasing urbanisation of the country, mitigating snake bites – especially of cobras – is of paramount importance, Louies said. “We have created the perfect environment for them. Piles of garbage attracts rats, which is the main prey for cobras. Our sewage system also gives cobras an efficient transport system to travel with cities and towns – helping in the growth of the population,” he said. “Not only do these civic issues need to be addressed, but our understanding of snakes need to improve vastly,” he added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.