A mapping exercise for snakes in Uttarakhand, including a component on king cobras, is underway in the Himalayan-foothill state to enable a safer snake-human co-existence. The Uttarakhand forest department is undertaking the mapping exercise as part of its community-based human-snake conflict mitigation project in the Kumaon Himalayas where there is a need to enhance the capacities of local communities in proper rescue techniques.
Uttarakhand has both plains and hilly areas. It is home to more than 30 species of snakes and most of them are non-venomous. But ample forest cover makes the state an ideal place for four of the most venomous snake species – common cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and king cobra to reside in. Snakes encounter humans mostly during summer and monsoon months. According to the project document, snakebite death cases are “not uncommon” in the region.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 81,000-138,000 people die each year from snakebites worldwide, and about three times that number survive but are left with amputations and permanent disabilities. In 2019, WHO called for halving global snakebite deaths by 2030. A 2020 paper estimates that more than a million people died from snakebites from 2000 to 2019 in India.
“People living here [in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon] are not afraid of snakes because they are used to living with them,” Tejaswini Patil, Chief Conservator of Forests in South Kumaon Circle, who leads the project, told Mongabay-India. “It may seem like a conflict for those residing in metro cities like Mumbai because there’s hardly any forest cover there which makes human-animal interactions a conflict.”
“However, here in these villages, you step out and it’s all forest, we practically live in a forest. And people also consider snakes to be an incarnation of their ancestors, so the snakes are not killed or harmed by people since there is no fear,” said Patil, adding that the project covers five forest Divisions of Western Circle (Tarai East, Tarai West, Tarai Central, Ramnagar and Haldwani) and Nainital Forest Division of South Kumaon Circle of Kumaon Himalayas.
These forests are part of the larger transboundary landscape called Terai Arc Landscape, which is subjected to numerous anthropogenic pressures due to high human density and the resulting growth in development. Hundreds of villages dot forests-within and along their periphery.
Reports of conflict mainly come from the villages which are located on forest fringes where snake and human habitations tend to intersect with each other.
“Whenever a snake ventures into human habitats, the snake rescue teams in place are informed,” explained Patil. “They also have a snake rescue helpline and the response time does not exceed more than half an hour unless it is a remote area. The forest rangers are also equipped with snake rescue kits and trained in the same so the conflict resulting in deaths due to snakebites or killing the snakes is a rare incident here (in the Kumaon hills).”
The people residing in the villages are cooperative and more than willing to contribute to the safe rescue and release of a snake and are opposed to harming it.
“However, since a lot of these villages are in remote areas, the locals have devised their snake rescue techniques which are not completely safe for them or the snake,” she asserted. “Hence, this conflict mitigation project intends to train the locals in the proper rescue techniques and provide them with the right equipment so that they can safely mitigate conflicts.”
The project is segregated into three components – mapping/research of the snake species and populations. Mapping the population of king cobras, longest of all venomous snakes, at higher altitudes owing to their abundance in the state’s Nainital district; and training local communities for the safe rescue of snakes and conflict mitigation.
The project will be jointly implemented by Haldwani Zoo Safari of Uttarakhand Forest Dept and Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. The three-year project, sanctioned under the National Mission on Himalayan Studies by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, will include the research, training and equipment purchase.
The goals are to develop a database of venomous and non-venomous snakes, an inventory of human-snake conflict and a policy framework for herpetofauna conservation along with a large mammalian conservation action plan, among other deliverables.
The forest department has kickstarted the first two parts of mapping and research. Members of local communities who are interested and have volunteered to train for the same have been identified.
To ensure social distancing as per Covid-19 guidelines, small videos have been made and circulated for the selected volunteers. When the situation is better and allows for safe one-on-one training, the snake rescue teams will visit the villages and provide hands-on training to the people interested.
“We will first teach them with artificial snakes or pipes so that they know how to do it and then when later they do come across a snake, we’ll go with them to ensure they learn how to handle it,” said Patil, expressing optimism on starting the actual training process in the next two to three months even as the lockdown as sparked considerable interest among the public in biodiversity.
King cobra at higher elevations
A video showing the Uttarakhand forest department rescuing a king cobra from a house in Nainital caught the public’s attention this year. Recently, a king cobra was sighted at an altitude of 2,400 m in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand which, according to reports, is an unusual height for king cobras to be at.
However, Abhijit Das, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun observed that it is not so unusual for king cobras to be present at higher altitudes since there have been recorded sightings of the animal at higher elevations (2,500 m) in northeast India.
In October 2012, a king cobra hatchling was found at 2,303 m in the Indian Veterinary Research Institute’s campus at Mukteshwar, Nainital. According to the study “most sightings of the snake were near human habitation and nests often occurred in disturbed/degraded forests, some even in private fruit orchards.”
Das elaborated that there are two categories of habitats where animals are known to move in: suitable habitats and marginal habitats. Suitable habitats are the habitats where certain animals are mostly found. In the case of king cobras, suitable habitats are low-lying areas with high moisture content and plenty of feed such as areas of the Shivalik hills and Tarai belt in Uttarakhand, where elevations are less than 1,000 m. Marginal habitats are the habitats that support very few animal species due to difficult environmental conditions.
“With king cobras, areas higher up in the Himalayas with elevations more than 2,000 m are slowly becoming the marginal habitats where they are not spotted often but they do live sparsely,” said Das.
Because snakes are cold-blooded animals, higher elevations for them tend to become marginal habitats where their density is less. “They are most likely found in rainforests which are at lower elevations,” said Das. “In a generic way, we can say that climate change affects animals but there are too little data and experiment to say anything so yes it is important that we conduct research to find out more about how climate change is affecting snakes.”
With this range of movement, it is only natural for humans and snakes to come in contact. But incidents of snake-human conflicts in the hills may appear to be less frequent because of remoteness. “Since mountainous areas are often really remote, contacting snake rescue teams and reporting a conflict might not be as easy as in the plains which is why it may appear as though incidences are lower in the hilly areas,” Das clarified.
Uttarakhand is home to more than 30 species of snakes and most of them are non-venomous. Four of the most venomous snake species – common cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper, and king cobra – are found in Uttarakhand. Photo by Karthikraja Krishnamoorthy.
This is corroborated by health experts stressing that are many unexplored species of snakes and other venomous species in the Himalayas whose bites go unreported and there is a lack of information about the wide clinical spectrums associated with these bites. Scorpion bites are common in the Himalayan region, particularly in rural areas.
There is a “high range of mortality among victims because hilly terrain leads to delay in transportation, delayed initiation of proper treatment due to lack of developed tertiary care centres and the challenge is further compounded by local indigenous practices that back herbal medications in the treatment of these victims”.
Conservation in the mountains
The remoteness of villages and difficulty in accessing health care also shape perceptions of local mountain communities towards snakes. To them every snake is venomous and they tend to be extremely wary of encountering snakes and chances of snake bites.
“So to protect themselves, they deal with the snakes in a very harsh way,” added Das. “Their (people living in the mountains) insecurity of residing in remote areas and being far away from help, makes making them aware about snake rescue extremely difficult in comparison to educating the people living in plain areas.”
“The second reason is that there is not much knowledge about the kind of animal populations that are scattered across the mountains and since the mountains are vulnerable to impacts from developmental projects, a decline in the number of these animals might also go unnoticed which again make their conservation a constraint,” he said. When it comes to the plains, conservation becomes easier because people know help is within reach and can be made aware of snake rescue practices.
While the current mapping exercise is limited to Uttarakhand, Das and Patil agree that taking a project like this if replicated in other Indian states will contribute significantly to the conservation of snake species across India. It will reduce conflict situations while raising awareness and thereby making coexisting safer for humans as well as the serpents.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.