The season of Nagpanchami is drawing close and Sumanth Bindhumadhav knows he has his work cut out for him. As a consultant with Humane Society International/India, he is trained to rescue animals, including snakes. He received word recently that a group of people, purportedly from the snake charmer community, had captured and were holding snakes. With World Snake Day taking place on 16 July, it's important to remind everyone that it's illegal to capture, display and kill snakes in India under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
When Bindhumadhav and his team arrived at the scene, the suspected snake smugglers, faced with the prospect of their contraband being confiscated, threatened the team while others bemoaned the loss of a livelihood. The team was able to rescue the snakes despite spirited attempts to conceal and withhold the animals.
However, not all rescues end like this. Shreya Paropkari, HSI/India's cruelty response manager, said: "Some people can get hostile and even violent. While I have had vermillion, turmeric and milk thrown at me, others I know have even been beaten. I have seen women break their bangles and tear their clothes. Once, a volunteer had a cobra thrown at him by one snake charmer as she attempted to escape."
The motivation for rescuers to enter these often hostile situations is knowledge that the snake's existence in captivity is a cruel one, their misery often ending in a painful death.
The catchers yank snakes from their burrows or trap them. The snake is held tightly around the delicate joints near its head and the fangs are brutally wrenched out...
In the past, when snakes emerged after the monsoon rains flooded their burrows, it was believed that farmers would keep aside offerings of rice and milk. These offerings would attract rats and other small creatures, which would in turn lure snakes. The theory is that by providing them with easy access to their natural prey, farmers hoped to keep snakes away from the fields while they worked and thus managed to avoid being bitten inadvertently. Unfortunately for snakes, these myths and customs morphed into a belief that salvation lay in a snake's acceptance of milk and vermillion.
By cashing in on superstition and exploiting the natural human fear of snakes, these snake charmers are able to get money from unsuspecting devotees, but not without subjecting the snake to tremendous cruelty. At the onset of the monsoon, the catchers yank snakes from their burrows or trap them. The snake is held tightly around the delicate joints near its head and the fangs are brutally wrenched out using a pair of pliers or similar instruments. The venom glands are cauterized with a hot needle and the mouth is stitched up, leaving a small opening for the tongue to emerge. Many snakes develop gangrene at the site of the stitches. The snake is carried around in a cane basket for offerings of milk in exchange for money. A snake suddenly emerging from a basket is a formidable sight, instilling fear in many onlookers. This is when the snake charmer will pull out his been (a traditional flute-like instrument) and pretend to "charm" the snake to do his bidding.
The snake's "dance" is simply a response to the moving been, which it sees as a threat. By this time, having been starved, mutilated and dehydrated, the snake may seem eager to lap up the milk offered. However, snakes lack the enzymes to digest milk and can die from allergic reactions, lung infections or may even choke on the milk. In some cases, even alcohol and aerated drinks are offered, which only result in death. Oftentimes, they are made to fight creatures like the mongoose or are passed around to be held and fondled, thus causing the hapless creature great stress. The snake eventually dies due to infection, starvation, dehydration or overheating. The dead snake is quickly and easily replaced by another and thus the cycle continues. Although it is illegal to trade in snake leather in India, it is believed that the skins of dead snakes are illegally sold and then exported for princely sums.
Furthermore, the unchecked removal of snakes from their wild habitat can have a debilitating impact on the population and impact our food supply. Snakes prey on small animals such as rats, leaving the prey animals to damage or destroy crops and impact the country's food supply.
Should you come across instances of snake display, please notify the Forest Department or animal welfare/wildlife advocates.
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Should you come across instances of snake display, please notify the Forest Department or animal welfare/wildlife advocates. Long-term efforts will necessitate that the Forest Department and wildlife advocates work in tandem to crackdown on the hunting and capture of snakes. Community education and awareness programmes must be initiated, especially in areas where snake capture and display is rampant.
Paropkari notes the number of snakes seized has come down considerably. But this may be because there are fewer snakes to be caught, or that snake catchers and charmers are using a new modus operandi. It could even be that present awareness initiatives are working. Until the facts can be ascertained, the snakes shall continue to suffer the most in ill-conceived notions of celebrations.