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Snakes and the city

  • Snake rescuers in Mumbai are working to mitigate the conflict between humans and reptiles
  • There are a handful of registered NGOs in the city dedicated to snake rescue and over 500 “snake friends”

Vaishali Chawhan releasing a rat snake into the wild. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Vaishali Chawhan releasing a rat snake into the wild. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Saket Taduri grasps a 4ft-long rat snake gently, his hands following its undulating contours, allowing it to move. The rescued snake has been bagged for an hour or two and is naturally frightened and as a last-ditch defence mechanism, it sprays a foul-smelling fluid all over its handler. The smell is enough to make you gag but Taduri doesn’t drop the snake or mishandle it in any way. Instead, he walks to a nearby thicket and releases it, watching to make sure it glides into the undergrowth.

This is just an hour after Taduri and his colleague Vaishali Chawhan tussled with a 7ft-long cobra to remove it from a construction site in Bhayander East. The snake flares its hood and strikes, defending itself and its territory against a crowd of concerned builders worrying about the site’s value—it is meant to be the playground for an upcoming school. The cornered snake aims at Taduri’s denim-clad legs, leaving a gleaming streak of venom behind. And yet, the young man carries on, trying to gently nudge the snake into a bag. As the snake retracts, it nearly strikes him again and darts off into the undergrowth. Taduri follows him, waiting patiently for it to emerge for the next 2 hours.

This is all in a day’s work for the 23-year-old snake rescuer who is an engineer by profession. He is a volunteer at Sarrp (Spreading Awareness on Reptiles and Rehabilitation Programme), a Mumbai-based NGO started by Santosh Shinde in 2010 that operates in the suburbs of Mumbai, between Borivali and Virar, attending calls related to snakes as well as other reptiles and birds. Taduri started rescuing snakes after his father killed one that had inadvertently strayed into their home when he was a young boy. Moved by the experience, he trained himself to handle snakes and learnt about snake species, their habitats and behaviour patterns, becoming snake rescuer and activist rolled into one. He collates the data collected by rescuers for Sarrp to contribute to research and conservation of snakes in urban areas. He has rescued over 2,000 snakes so far.

He is accompanied on this particular call by his colleague Vaishali Chawhan. To say that this 42-year-old mother of two is quick on her feet is an understatement. She drops to the ground and darts under a parked car at lightning speed to intercept the rat snake that has just wriggled out of its hiding place inside the car door’s frame. This is one of the fastest moving snakes in India and catching it is no mean feat. As she quickly bags the “rat", as she fondly calls it, two young girls walk up with their mother, looking at her in admiration. And for the crowd gathered at the parking lot of a building society at Mira Road, Chawhan is indeed the hero of the day. A snake rescuer who works with Sarrp as well as Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare (Raww), Chawhan’s love for the reptiles is evident from her tattoos as well as her scooter’s number plate, which carries the words “snake rescuer". Chawhan trained to become a snake rescuer after a chance encounter at her daughter’s school nine years ago, where a snake strayed into the campus and was saved by the timely arrival of a rescuer. Today, she not only rescues snakes but sometimes fosters injured or ill snakes as well as other animals in conjunction with the forest department. Her work is as much about breaking stereotypes about women and their strained interactions with reptiles as it is about rescuing snakes. Chawhan is one of the few female snake rescuers in Mumbai and a senior and respected member of the community. She runs campaigns in schools and colleges and generates awareness among tribal communities that live in proximity to national parks and mangroves. Yet, despite her undisputed skills, she often has to prove herself to the people who report snake sightings. Their first reaction is often to scoff at this woman who arrives on her Scooty armed with a simple snake-catching hook. Her courage holds her in good stead and she can take on a 7ft cobra or a group of men threatening to harm that same snake with equal gumption. She has saved over 3,000 snakes so far, force-fed live chicks to an injured python and has even managed to instil the same passion for snakes in her younger daughter, not shying away from training her in this rather risky vocation.

It is a similar love for animals that Pawan Sharma’s parents inculcated in him as he was growing up. This 26-year-old law student is the founder of Raww. While his NGO deals with snakes as well as other protected species, including turtles and owls, it was an experience with a Russell’s viper that turned him into a bona fide snake rescuer at age 13. The snake had wandered into his building and had unfortunately feasted on one of Sharma’s kittens. In the furore that followed, members of the building society decided to kill the snake in order to prevent further accidents. In order to avert such an eventuality, Sharma fashioned a snake-catching hook out of an old hanger and somehow managed to catch the just fed, slow-moving snake and release it safely in the wild. Thirteen years later, he heads a registered NGO with 25-30 volunteers who operate in Mulund and the western suburbs of Mumbai. He is also an honorary city wildlife warden appointed by the forest department and works closely with it to rescue animals from poachers and traffickers. Sharma alone has saved over 5,000 snakes. Currently he is fostering a python with a broken jaw and taking it for regular visits to the vet. He is happy to report that the snake is well on its way to recovery.

This is a window into a brave new world, where ordinary citizens risk their lives every day in order to save what Mumbai-based herpetologist and snake conservationist Kedar Bhide calls the most “misunderstood of species". They are not paid for their work and often there is barely a “thank you" for their efforts. Unlike cats, dogs or even birds, snakes are feared. There is also a lack of awareness on the fact that there is an equal abundance of venomous and non-venomous species and this makes every snake in the city a threat. “Snakes are treated as pests whereas in reality they are the best kind of pest control," says Bhide. And in a city menaced by rats, this is indeed a truth we tend to overlook. As the topography of the city changed, snake burrows and tunnels gave way to city sewers and drains. And they too adapted to their new home. Is it fair then to kick them out?

“Snakes are very adaptable creatures and most of them live quite well, especially in the suburbs," says renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker over the phone. He runs several campaigns for snake conservation, snake bite prevention and has most recently featured in the show India’s Deadliest Snakes, aired on Sony BBC Earth.

There are a handful of registered NGOs in the city dedicated to snake rescue and over 500 “snake friends", or those who know how to handle live snakes. They work with the police, forest department and the fire brigade to mitigate the reptile-human conflict. Their work is not just about catching and releasing snakes but also about advocacy and awareness. Most snake friends double up as sleuths. They have their ears to the ground and use their wide network of associates to pick up signs of illegal activity like snake trafficking and the sale of antivenom in the black market. As data collection by legitimate snake rescuers improves, anomalies are spotted and these snake catchers masquerading as rescuers are called out and arrested.

“Snake rescue covers both human and snake conflict and the destruction of natural habitat and displacement of snakes. It is important to ensure that what we are doing by rescuing snakes must also be good for the snake," says Bhide, who started one of the first snake rescue units in the city. Since 2017, he has been running the Zero Bite campaign which aims to reduce deaths related to snake bites. He believes that snake rescue works really well as what he terms as “citizen science". Rescuers are able to translate their knowledge about the different varieties of snakes, their habits and behaviour patterns to an urban audience. They also become the medium between the public and the forest department. Even in cases of snake bites, the rescuers bring their expertise to the doctors and help in deciding the best kind of treatment to ensure faster recovery.

“Snake conservation is also about removing the fear that exists due to deaths caused by snakebites, which results in the killing of a large number of snakes," says Bhide. According to him, a problem within the field of snake rescue is the issue of male bravado and showing off the trapped reptile. This foolhardiness also leads to accidents and bites. It is only through proper knowledge and ethical treatment that a snake catcher transforms into a snake rescuer and it is something that most have learnt the hard way. Bhide’s efforts over the last two decades have been to bring about better training and chart a series of guidelines for snake rescue and release in Maharashtra. He says not all snakes that are found in urban areas need rescuing in the first place. A rat snake in a human habitat is actually a good thing because not only does it take care of the rodent problem, it is a non-venomous snake and, like all snakes, keeps to itself so as to avoid human contact. “By removing something like the rat snake from it natural habitat, we open up that space for other, possibly more poisonous varieties of snakes to move in," says Whitaker.

It is a day well spent in the company of these two intrepid snake rescuers, as they traverse Mumbai’s suburbs, attending to all kinds of calls—from a slum encroachment bordering the mangroves in Charkop village, Kandivali, to a multi-storeyed building complex on Mira Road and a roadside nursery in Borivali East. From a 2ft-long rat snake to an 8ft-long cobra, some snakes are rescued, some slip away, while others are left undisturbed. Taduri and Chawhan are joined by their colleague Chaitanya Keer, another senior snake rescuer with Sarrp. All of them look slightly worse for wear, covered in dirt and snake excretions and possibly in need of a shower, but their infectious good humour remains intact as they banter about the ones they bagged and those that got away. Between the three of them, they have saved over 10,000 snakes. Theirs is not just another hobby; it is an inspiring example of small citizen initiatives that go a long way in creating harmony between the urban and natural worlds. Mumbai is a city with a shape-shifting topography and humans as well as snakes lay claim to it. And both get by with a little help from their snake friends.

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