Just minutes before our video interview, Louise Remedios has been bitten on the hand by a python. Remedios and her husband, Benhail Antao, are professional wedding planners but when they are not setting up ceremonies, they are out in the vast green expanses of Goa, rescuing snakes and other wild animals.
“It was a small bite. I just cleaned it under running water. But more importantly, the people who found this snake were quite surprised when I put it into a bag and it just calmed down,” says Remedios, 35.
Also read: What India can learn from Maasai Mara's wildlife conservancies
She explains what had happened. A python was stuck under a fence, close to where Remedios and Antao live in Panaji. Some residents tied a rope to its tail and tried keeping its head down with a stick. Remedios freed the animal but was bitten. “They have this impression that it is a dangerous snake but that’s not the case.”
Antao, 33, an honorary wildlife warden who works closely with Goa’s forest department, and Remedios get plenty of such calls every day—mostly for snake rescues but sometimes also for creatures as big as crocodiles. Now their rescues are part of a new 10-part TV series, Snakes SOS: Goa’s Wildest, which will premiere on the National Geographic channel in India on 10 January.
Antao has been rescuing wild animals for almost two decades now. The couple met 10 years ago and have been working together since. “The way Ben approaches any animal or wildlife is very interesting. His first goal is to calm it down, which is very different from what anyone else has taught me. That’s how I got intrigued. I love watching him (rescue animals) and learning from him,” says Remedios. “There’s a lot of knowledge I have gained from watching Ben. There is that fear I have, but the fear level comes down when you respect the animal,” she says, adding that she has found a “sustainable balance” between being a wedding planner—a steady job that helps pay the bills—and a snake rescuer, which offers a sense of satisfaction.
As the series will reveal, most of the calls Antao and Remedios respond to are for snakes spotted in urban areas. In a single day, Antao gets 3-15 calls. “The most common calls are for snakes. But there are a lot of cases where we rescue injured birds, mammals such as civets, and, in some instances, leopards and crocodiles,” says Antao.
Goa, he says, has 45-50 snake species, most of them found in the Western Ghats region. The list includes the venomous Russell’s viper and Indian cobra, two of India’s “big four snakes”.
Once they receive a snake call—generally routed through the forest department or the police—Antao and Remedios first try to identify if the snake is venomous. Technology helps: Antao requests people to send a photo or video of the reptile from a safe distance.
If the snake is venomous, they advise people to keep a safe distance and track its movements till the duo arrives. In case the snake is non-venomous, Antao tries to convince people to let the animal be. “If it’s a rat snake, it’s actually good to have around (as a form of natural pest control),” he says. “What I have noticed of late is that many people agree and oblige to let the snake be but I would say that in around 50% of the cases, people are too scared and ask us to come and take it away.”
Antao and Remedios use equipment like hook-sticks and cloth bags to rescue the reptile. They enlist the help of the fire department in some cases. Once the snake is bagged, the bag is put in a plastic or wooden container. The reptile is then transferred and released into a jungle area away from human habitation.
“In most of our calls, we educate the people and guide them on their fear of snakes. When they realise it is cool to have the snake around and that they won’t have to call us again—that’s the best way to go ahead. That happens a lot these days,” adds Antao.
The series, which will be available in Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, will see Antao and Remedios address calls at a variety of locations—from Loutolim to Curtorim—in unpredictable and dangerous settings. One episode features them unexpectedly encountering both a Russell’s viper and a cobra under a pile of rubble near some houses, before heading to another location to find a harmless rat snake in an old storeroom at a residence.
Shooting a TV series while capturing a venomous snake can be tricky. “The ethical way of handling snakes is with zero drama,” says Antao, as he describes how he went about his work in the presence of the filming crew. “I had to draw a very fine line where it is entertaining enough to convey a message of conservation to the people watching but also ethical where no harm is done to the snake.”
A big part of what Antao and Remedios do during their rescues is to create awareness about Indian snake species. As Remedios says, conservation starts at home. “When we go for rescues,” she says, “we are often asked, is it an anaconda or a rattlesnake (two species that are not native to India)? I can understand where they are coming from. Nobody talks that much about Indian species. Not too many people in Goa know about snakes.
“That’s something we wanted to do with the show—to educate people about what we actually have in our own backyards and forests,” she adds. “Apart from that, there is a very strong tone in the message being sent in all of the episodes about ethical wildlife rescue and how to coexist peacefully with snakes, which I think is very important.”
Also read: Majuli's boatmakers pitch in to save Assam's wildlife