Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Encounters with the slithery kind

Many people have asked me if I encounter snakes when working in the forest. Yes, We do indeed encounter a lot of snakes. This field season was especially good. I and many others came across over five species of snakes in 3 days time. 
The first one was the brown wine snake I saw while going to Upper Kodayar. The snake was crossing the road before Manjolai in the grasslands. I had never seen it before and was quick to get off the bike and shoot some decent images of it. A passing car stopped by and was quite amused at me handling the snake while trying to photograph it. They kept on blabbering from within the comfort of a car about how researchers handle snakes and moved on and for the snake, I shooed it off the road to the side it was trying to head to. 

The next encounter was of a Common sand boa a snake that is far more uncommon that is reported to be, mainly due to its fossorial nature of burying in litter and under soil or more so sand. A team of us with Drs Ganesan, Patrick,  Dr Madhu of medical sciences, Saravana, Myself and John were heading to Thirukurangudi in the southern ranges of KMTR as part of the Tiger census in KMTR in  Dr Madhu’s car. En-route to the place, he stopped the car and backed up saying he saw a snake. I got out and saw a thick snake on the road, I asked for a torch and Drs Ganesan and Madhu came with one and shone on the snake. I was momentarily confused if it was a Russel’s viper or a small Python before seeing it under light. It turned out that the snake was a Sand boa. We did not know which one and felt it was Whitakers. We again took some pictures of the snake and nudged it back to the fields adjacent to the road. 

A few passing villagers on seeing the snake, us trying to photograph it and a forest official who was accompanying us took the opportunity to take a dig at him alleging him to be killing snakes and then going and telling them not to kill snakes! We were quick to explain what we were doing to them and they did not seem to be much convinced. Yet again it was a first time sighting for all of us.
 At Thirukurangudi, we met a famed cop whose love for nature seemed larger than life; just that the interest has gone fundamentally out of focus and his passion is more of a danger to nature than of any better use. He kept blabbering nonstop of all the worthless things in the world and was a big show off. With a GPS dangling on his neck and a hat and sunglasses at night, he appeared to be a comic more than a cop!
At about 11 in the night, he took his harem of male followers (who were equally delusional) to the forest with bright torches and loud talking. They managed to catch a juvenile common Kukri. He paraded the snake around asking people to take pictures of it and bottled it wanting to show it to his child two days later. 
I went to sleep wondering if this insane act of depriving the hungry snake its food for the sake justifies of showing it to his son who was so young that he probably can’t wear his own pants! The next morning, he showed it off to the forest staff who instead of putting him behind bars for handling wildlife without permission were busy ratifying his act and were all praise for him and they were cock sure it was a Banded Krait one of the most feared snakes. It took a while for all of us to convince them that it wasn’t. We then had to part ways and moved to different directions, what happened to the snake, I don’t know and that is a different story.
After a strenuous tough hike of 1000m in over 8 hours, we reached the abandoned tea estate of Chinnamanjolai. Myself and Dr Ganesan went out at night to look for frogs along a stream. We did find some and also saw a snake in a puddle on the rock next to the stream. It was one of the keelback snakes which gave us the slip soon after Dr Ganesan shot a picture. We were expecting to see a lot of snakes in the drier forests leading to Chinna manjolai and feared not to get bitten while on to the morning ablutions in the forest. Good or for bad, we did not encounter any and made a safe journey up and down the hill. A few days were spent in Singampatti field station and then I headed back to kodayar. One the way, I was stopped by the dance of two rat snakes engaged in what is technically called a combat.

They were busy entwined and did not see me for quite some time which gave me an opportunity to take a quick video bite of the drama. I wanted to wait and see how the battle ended and to make sure that they were males as I assumed and not two snakes of the opposite sexes in a courtship ritual. But I was running late and started the bike and went close to them. They were quick then to sense me approach and dis-entangled before escaping into the forest.
During the breeding season, the males come into fights over territory and over females. I have heard that the males try to pin the others' head down and the one which touches down first is the looser. I have not seen this happen personally and would want to some day. The dance of the snakes is also something that people are forbidden to watch. I do not know why. Sometimes, people often overlook the action and term them both to be males or male and female without actually sexing them- a process where the cloaca is checked for the male or female reproductive organs. Something that requires skill and more than one person. 

Snake handling and snake kissing has off lately become a mad hobby for the many self called “Snake friends” they go around disturbing the habitat in search of snakes, capture them and if it’s a cobra, they agitate it and kiss the hood from behind (If they had the balls they would do it from front facing the snake!).
Is this so much of a thrill? Is this something which will help the snake do any better? Definitely not. There are also other kinds who search snakes, capture them, and then get a famous personality to release the rescued snake! I can only have pity for the snake and the men who indulge themselves into this foolish act where the love for nature has simply gone mad.
The cop who I mentioned earlier later narrated and showed pictures of a Montane Trinket which he captured, or rather rescued (Rescued from whom? From its own habitat?). The mildly venomous snake was then handled by his son not more than 4 yrs old. He then showed pictures of him “taming” the snake by immersing it in stream water. As those who got their biology right will know, snakes are cold blooded meaning that they regulate their body temperature with external heat and are quickly fatigued on handling. On top of this, when immersed in cold water, their body temperature comes down drastically and they can get hypothermia and may also die due to lactic acid accumulation in the muscles. The same snake he said was released later by a lady who was chosen to do the honor (for what reason I don’t know!)
I sincerely hope this madness is tuned down and people let snakes be. Snakes are not meant to be kissed on their back sides, they are not meant to be fondled with by children, they are not meant to be mere rope like misfits of evolution to be treated like ropes by the many self made herpetologists. I wonder how much of this madness the TV shows have perpetuated. When wildlife researchers and ecologists have to wait for years to get handling permits on wildlife for understanding them, comics make mockery of themselves by handling,rescuing them form their own habitat and releasing them back!

Over the years spent in kodayar, I have been fortunate enough to have encountered most of the snakes that we do get there right from the rarest like the Shield tails, the King Cobra, Gunther’s vine snakes and the Large scaled pit vipers. Each of the encounters is more enthralling that the previous one and each time many questions come to my mind. About the secret lives of the snakes; their behavior, their activity, what they do and where they go. This knowledge gap is still wide open to be filled up by the many aspiring researchers young and old out there working on the wealth of biodiversity and ecology that we are nothing but more than lucky to be in to work with, to enjoy and to keep them safe for the many generations to come.


  1. wat has been written about is so absolutely real!!ever wondered y it takes u guys such a lot of time to get a permit to study wildlife in a forest area and how come programmes like kisme kitna hai dum or whatever, become popular by making participants eat insects, swallow snakes and wat other nonsense they conjure up... y cant we js learn to live our lives and stop trying to ruin others.. as if the insects or worms have come onto earth without a role to play... Literate people are far more dangerous than the illiterates.. atleast to them ignorance is bliss..

  2. impressive writing must agree sesh..!