No other animal is perhaps as metaphorically evil as the snake that, for some, can only be good if dead. But there’s more to this creature than the perceived hiss of death.
“Snakes are among the most misunderstood of all animals. Despite their sinister reputation, snakes are almost always more scared of you than you are of them and most snakes do not strike without provocation,” said VL Hrima, general secretary of Mizoram-based NGO Biocone.
Hrima, 36, is among very few people in Mizoram who rescue and relocate snakes. He is coordinating with other snake rescuers in the state for a common cause.
“We grew up watching a variety of wildlife in our surrounding. Nature was always close to us. We never had to go looking for it inside jungles or up in the hills. When I was four, I caught a tiny Brahminy blind snake, the most widespread terrestrial snake in the world, floating on the water without any movement as if dead. I caught it and discovered it was alive! I was fascinated with its behavior. Watching civet cats, frogs and colourful birds besides snakes in and around my locality has been my hobby as a child,” said the conservationist.
Young Hrima grew up pursuing his passion for wildlife, mostly snakes. “Since the age of 12-13, I was exposed to the rich flora and fauna of my native land while my uncle, who was an Indian Forest Service official, took me along during his rescue operations. As no veterinary care was available, he along with his team tried taking care of those rescued creatures and I helped them with those activities,” he said.
Stories of encounters with snakes on hiking trails, or of them slithering into people's home, are common across naturally-endowed Northeast India. Hilly Mizoram abounds in natural beauty, with its green valleys, swirling streams and cascading falls, awesome fields of exotic blooms, and a rich wildlife population including a wide variety of reptiles. But snakes are miserable there too.
“Road kill is a very frequent way of death for the snakes here. Newly constructed roads in the state are a factor but we are trying to generate more awareness among people. We have started rescuing venomous snakes from the city areas now and releasing them in the wild,” said Hrima.
Knowing the dos and don’ts while encountering snakes is crucial. More often than not, a snake gets killed for its ‘reputation’ of showing up only to inject venom through its fangs.
Herpetologist M Firoz Ahmed said: “It is always important to understand the behaviour of this slithery creature before blaming it for any fatal bite. From 15 years of experience with herpetofauna, I can claim snakes are defensive rather aggressive.”
Many people have an uncontrollable fear of snakes that have long have been used in folklore to symbolise falseness and evil. Snakes nevertheless occupy a valuable place in the fauna of the region. “They have long been the objects of fear because of myths. It is the humans who are a menace to snakes, not vice versa,” said Dr Arindam Kishore Pachoni, Wildlife veterinarian specialising in snakes.
Snakes have glided into superstitious beliefs in Northeast India. Among many supernatural beings in the folklore of the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya is U Thlen, believed to be a huge snake requiring appeasement by human sacrifice. In return, the Thlen is expected to bring wealth and prosperity to a family. The superstition was so deep-rooted amongst the Khasis that until recently in Cherrapunjee (Sohra) – even in and around Shillong – the Khasis dared not venture out alone after dark for the fear of being attacked.
“Those who put their fear aside and seek to understand snakes generally find them beautiful and gentle. Conservation awareness, publications and love for wildlife photography are gradually helping the common people understand this ‘evil animal’ and at least call for a rescuer if confronted with a snake. On the other hand, there are so-called rescuers who pose with reptiles and convey a wrong message to the new generation. This needs to be banned,” added Dr Pachoni.
All snakes tend to be inconspicuous, preferring to move away and hide or lie still in the hope of being overlooked. They will hiss, strike or bite only if they are cornered or restrained. “Snakes are one of the most intriguing components of our natural ecosystem. We should appreciate and just leave them alone if we encounter them in nature. However, sometime they do venture in our habitation. In such cases, we should have a humane attitude towards this creature since it is likely to be a harmless species (most Indian snakes are non-venomous) that might be helping us by preying on problematic mice and rats,” said Abhijit Das, herpetologist, Wildlife Institute of India.
“Our juvenile generation is rather more aware about snakes than adults. But we know more about black mamba (African) and anaconda (South American) than Indian snake species. Snakes are threatened by many of the issues that affect all wildlife, including habitat loss, climate change, and disease. But negative attitudes toward snakes may be the biggest barrier to their conservation because it often impedes efforts to address other threats. On the plus side, snakes help keep in check rodents that threaten crops and carry diseases that afflict man. We simply need to understand its value and follow the alarm towards its conservation. It’s time to un-tag it from the largely undeserved status as evil, cold-blooded creatures,” he added.
“The world will change. We do not know what will happen to the wildlife. Perhaps we can conserve them or restore species like in Jurassic Park or create virtual worlds. But whatever happens, the species we do not know will be lost forever,” said Dr Gernot Vogel of the Society for Southeast Asian Herpetology from Heidelberg, Germany.
(Shikha J Hazarika is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)