“We are not snake catchers, we are conservationists… we consider everything living around,” says Vijay Neelakantan, a nature conservationist and wildlife photographer from Kannur district.
Vijay and a few others like him help in the survival of snakes by protecting their eggs and rescuing them from humans, and they strongly believe that snakes are not to be caught or sent to forests.
The conservationist recalls how he waited a whole night at a house where the family had spotted a spectacled cobra eating their kitten.
“I could’ve rescued the snake from the house. But if I did that and released it somewhere else, the first thing it’d do is to vomit the kitten. It takes a lot of time for snakes to catch a prey and they expend a lot of effort in eating it. So, I waited at their house to give it some time to digest the food a bit,” he explains.
Vijay also believes that to rescue a snake one doesn’t have to touch it. “I have rescued numerous snakes, I don’t even recall the number, but I must have touched only six or seven with my hands. We can rescue them without them even knowing it,” he adds.
KTS Pannyal, another conservationist from Kasaragod, also strongly advocates snake rescue without any ‘performance’.
“We have seen videos of people catching snakes with a lot of performance. But that is not appropriate. I use a stick, pipe and bag. You don’t have to touch them. Even a snake that has fallen into a well can be rescued without climbing into the well. We rescue the reptile using a tree branch. The snake bites because it is uncomfortable when we touch it. I’ve been doing this job for the last 20 years, I haven’t been bitten by a snake even once,” Pannyal says.
The conservationists also object to releasing country snakes in forests. They say that these reptiles will not be able to survive in forest areas.
“We’re removing them from their natural habitat and leaving them somewhere else. How will they be able to adjust? There can be many adverse factors there due to which they can’t survive,” Vijay points out.
Temperature, humidity, and other animals that prey on snakes can all be adverse factors. “Take the case of vipers… they live in dry areas. So how can they survive if we release them in a forest?” Pannyal said.
According to the conservationists, snakes should be rescued and released within a kilometre so that they don’t lose their habitat. “That is where they live, where they know the water and food sources,” Vijay adds.
Ahmed Basheer, a conservationist from Wayanad, says whereas earlier he used to catch snakes and release them in forests he later turned to scientific rescuing. “Many years ago, we used to catch them, keep them and release them together into the forest… which is not the right way. Now we have changed our approach,” he says.
He adds that people who shoot adventure shows with king cobras are actually disturbing the reptiles. “Cobras raise their head when they are on alert. We see videos of people kissing and playing with them but they misuse their natural features of the reptiles,” he says.
Usually forest department personnel and even some snake rescuers protect the snake’s eggs until they hatch and then release them in forest areas. But these conservationists prefer maintaining the eggs in their natural habitat.
“Until and unless it is absolutely necessary, like if the eggs were laid inside a house and the people are scared, we prefer keeping them in their habitat. We don’t touch them. King cobras are the only snakes to build a nest and lay their eggs inside it, usually near a water source and also at suitable humidity,” Vijay says.
He also adds that maintaining the natural habitat is necessary to keep the food chain. “Of the more than 20 eggs laid by a cobra, very few survive. Some of the eggs are eaten by other animals such as monitor lizards or ants. It’s their food, so maintaining the food chain is necessary to preserve ecological balance,” he points out.
Pannyal also emphasises that maintaining the food chain is important for environmental conservation. “We wouldn’t rescue a snake if it is being attacked by a mongoose. Snakes are prey too for many other animals and birds. Snake hatchlings are preyed upon by a lot of other animals,” he says.
When people call rescuers to catch a snake, they expect that the snake would be taken away somewhere. “We convince them that eggs or snakes should be in their natural habitat. We persuade them to release the reptiles nearby. If eggs are laid on private land, we convince the owner to keep them and protect them from human intervention. Luckily many of them understand, they are the real heroes,” Vijay says.
These conservationists don’t just catch snakes, they aim to change society’s mindset and create awareness that snakes are not enemies.
“In my village, nobody catches a non-venemous snake. Even it is venemous, people now understand that they have the right to live in their habitat. I was able to bring a change in my village, I wish people all over have this awareness too,” Pannyal says.
Ahmed says that hatchlings can be released in a different habitat as they might adapt, but a rescued snake cannot survive in a different habitat.
“Even then, hatchlings cannot be released in deep forests, semi-forested area is fine. We used to release rescued snakes near where they are caught. If the local residents are not convinced, we release the snake nearby without them noticing,” he adds.
He used to retrieve snake eggs from construction sites or urban areas and keep them in the forest office for hatching. “I’d ask the range officer not to inform others so that there is no disturbance to the eggs while hatching,” he says.
He points out that keeping your surroundings clean and your house rodent-free will keep away snakes.
“Snake bites are just accidents, they happen very rarely. We take precautions, harming a reptile is not a solution,” he adds.