It was around 4am on 9 February when wildlife conservationist Vijay Neelakantan’s cellphone pinged. A six-year-old had been bitten by a Russell’s viper. The alert was from a local snake rescuer, part of a WhatsApp group of snake rescuers in Kannur district, Kerala.
Within 20 minutes, Neelakantan, who created the group late last year, had rushed to Ramatheru village, nearly 20km away, and taken the child to a hospital that administers anti-snake venom.
This WhatsApp group helps district rescuers and forest officials, who connect on the SARPA (Snake Awareness, Rescue and Protection App) app, communicate quickly. Meant to be an aggregator of snake rescuers, SARPA was launched by the Kerala forest and wildlife department and the NGO Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) last November. It’s one of a handful of recently created Indian apps that collate information on snakes, how to respond to snakebites, how to connect to certified rescuers in real time, and which hospitals to rush to.
SARPA currently has about 5,500 active users in Kerala, including general users and rescuers, and has responded to 1,600 rescue calls.It has also enabled its 828 department-certified rescuers (520 of them volunteers) to coordinate and protect snakes from harm by capturing and releasing them safely.
Snakes are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and possessing or harming them can lead to jail terms and/or fines. “The centralised system for Kerala is helping us bring transparency in monitoring the rescues; whether rescues are happening in an ethical and sane manner,” says Jose Louies of the WTI.
India sees around 58,000 deaths from snakebite every year, according to a 2020 study led by the Centre for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto, Canada. The centre, along with partners from India and the UK, estimates that the country recorded 1.2 million snakebite deaths between 2000-19. Close to 70% of the deaths occurred in nine states—Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. And half of these took place in the monsoon season (June-September), especially in rural areas.
Some of the deaths could be attributed to lack of information about what to do, where to seek help, even a dependence on faith healers. Naturalists, researchers, doctors and state wildlife departments have started using technology to try and tackle this situation. At least seven Android apps—SARPA, Snakepedia, SnakeHub, Snake Lens, SERPENT, Snake Friend, Snakebite and Poison Information—have been launched in the last four years. Other than SARPA, all the apps have a pan-India range.
Each app offers information on, and photographs of, Indian snakes, ways to identify the venomous ones, snakebite management, a list of local rescuers and hospitals with anti-snake venom. Usage, however, is so far limited largely to urban and semi-urban areas. For these are non-profit initiatives, run by state government departments or NGOs and developed either with the founders’ own money or through fund-raisers—and knowledge of their availability is limited.
So far, most of the queries from general users relate to questions on whether the snakes they have spotted are venomous. All they need to do is send a photograph to the app to check or call the rescuer for their region. In Snake Friends, for instance, rescue calls are passed on to the local rescuer/s or their number is shared with the caller.
Direct calls on snakebites are few, though the apps do list hospitals equipped to treat such cases (it’s still work in progress). Some, like SERPENT, offer GPS services too.
Undoubtedly, one of the hurdles to on-ground penetration, especially in rural areas, remains knowledge of these apps. “I am not a marketer, I am a researcher. The reach is limited as of now, with the app downloads happening mainly due to word-of-mouth,” says Vivek Sharma, co-founder of the nine-month-old SnakeHub. The app, which saw a major update in April, is currently available in English, Malayalam and Marathi but Sharma is trying to raise funds to add Bengali and Hindi versions as well.
Other hurdles are language and a user-friendly interface. It’s not enough to translate snake names; the apps have to provide local names so users can understand, says Varad Giri, senior scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society. “Unfortunately, we provide information without understanding what people want. For instance, for snakebites, everyone offers dos and don’ts, the hospitals, etc. Yet bite cases haven’t reduced. People still go to spiritual healers first before heading to the hospital. While these apps are doing a good job of raising overall awareness, we need to tailor the information based on the issues faced in a particular region,” he says.
Treatment protocols are another issue. There is a set protocol for treatment of bites from the Big 4—Common krait, Russell’s viper, Indian saw-scaled viper and Indian cobra—which lead to the majority of deaths. The process isn’t as streamlined for other venomous snakes, though.
Snakepedia is working on educating doctors. Its bilingual app— in English and Malayalam—has a panel of experts available 24x7. Over half the queries they get are from medical practitioners. “If the doctors are able to identify snakes, they can record the clinical symptoms, which in turn will help in planning the dosage of anti-snake venom and treatment. Also, the venom toxicity within a same species differs from region to region. The data will help in designing region-specific anti-snake venom dosage too,” says Sandeep Das, co-founder of Snakepedia.
Snake rescuers, of course, are the biggest users of these apps. And the apps discourage any tendency to turn rescues into dramatic performances for social media fame. It’s a lesson Maharashtra-based software engineer Amol Jadhav, who created Snake Friend in 2017, only learnt after two rescuer friends died of snakebites. To encourage safe rescue methods, Snake Friend now connects rescuers to suppliers of rescue kits—which include a long stick, tong, ring net and snake bag.
Priyanka Kadam, president and founder of the Snakebite Healing and Education Society, believes the apps are making a difference to the rescuer community. “These apps are a great tool to reach out to young rescuers and build their knowledge. Many youngsters become rescuers for instant fame. They are untrained and play with the snakes for social media likes. It’s dangerous not just for them but will also harm snake conservation,” says Kadam.
The app creators, meanwhile, hope to change negative perceptions of snakes and reduce human-snake conflict. “In certain parts of Kerala, we are definitely seeing people’s attitudes towards snakes shift for the better,” says Louies. It’s a start.