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Mahapatra and the art of living in harmony with reptiles

Usha Rai | Updated on May 31, 2019 Published on May 31, 2019

Mahapatra helps mitigate conflicts between humans and wildlife Usha Rai

It’s quite a job to steer rescue and rehabilitation in a country that tops the world snake-bite chart

Reducing man-animal conflict and teaching humans to live in harmony with snakes and reptiles in the rural interiors of Odisha is People for Animals (PFA) and its chairman, a journalist-cum-wildlife activist, Biplab Mahapatra.

Last year, Mahapatra and his team made it to the Limca Book of Records for rescuing 19,555 animals and successfully rehabilitating 19,500 of them in seven years, from 2011 to 2018. With the support of 50 people, the Angul unit of PFA saved largely snakes (17,500), but also monitor lizards (840), cattle (705), Indian chameleons (150), turtles (115) and a variety of birds (86).

Recipient of the Biju Patnaik Award for wildlife conservation in 2016, Mahapatra steers the rescue and rehabilitation operations. Not only does he alert the forest department but works closely with it to prevent poaching of animals. Facilitating sting operations against poaching, he helps mitigate conflicts between humans and wildlife.To take forward the movement in 2018-2019, 260 snake awareness camps were organised in five districts of the State. In Angul alone, 130 camps were held, in Dhenkanal 40, Cuttack 20, Bhubaneswar 60 and 10 in Puri. People were educated on the various kinds of snakes found in Odisha and the country and how to treat snake bite. In addition, the Angul unit trains youth to become para ecologists or eco-warriors, to prevent human-snake encounters and assist in snake conservation. In the last 10 years of working for PFA, Mahapatra has trained 80 youth as eco-warriors, 50 of them now work as volunteers with the organisation.

Of the 80 snake species found in Odisha, belonging to eight families, 20 species are found in the sea and the rest on land and freshwater. Mahapatra’s concern is that the snake population is on the decline due to loss or deterioration of their habitat and decline in their prey base. Since snakes are the top predator within the habitats they are found in, they have an important role in the functioning of many ecosystems. Decline in the population will, therefore, have wider ecological consequences, he warns.

Recognising venomous snakes

One of the important things that people are taught is how to recognise venomous snakes. This is not easy because venomous snakes have different body structures, size and colour. However, some morphological traits can be considered when distinguishing a venomous snake from a non-venomous variety.

Venomous snakes are generally brightly coloured, their heads are long, triangular and their posterior portion is wide. The eye pupils of a venomous snake resemble that of a cat — oblong with peaked ends; an exception is Coral snake which has round pupils. Their neck is constricted and most venomous snakes have highly developed hoods — it is, however, absent in Coral snakes, Kraits and Russell’s Vipers. The teeth of venomous snakes are solid and uniform except maxillary teeth, called ‘fangs,’ which are large.

Most snakes are non-venomous and tend to avoid humans but they can still give a scare. The best way to avoid trouble with snakes is to understand their habits. If you see a snake, don’t panic; just move away slowly. Don’t try to make the snake move; if it’s in your way, simply wait for it to leave. Snakes will move on once they’ve exhausted the food source they have come for, normally rodents.

India tops the world’s snake bite chart, killing five people every hour across the country. It is also the largest producer of anti-snake venom and treatment of snake bite is free in government hospitals, most of which have enough anti-venom to treat both the rural and urban population. However, rural people often treat snakebites as a curse by the serpent gods and go to faith healers. In the remote areas of the country people may have to travel long distances to reach a hospital and in the absence of adequate transport could end up losing their lives.

Most doctors, says Mahapatra, are unable to tell venomous from non-venomous snakes and rely on discredited methods such as pattern of bite marks and number of fang punctures. Other problems include administration of insufficient doses of anti-venom serum, lack of supportive care such as ventilators (for Krait and cobra bites) and dialysis machines (to treat Russell’s Viper bites). To top it all, Indian anti-venom serum is of low potency and huge doses may be required to neutralise the effects of venom. The maximum yield of venom from a single cobra is 742 milligrams, while one 10 ml vial of anti-venom can neutralise only 6 mg of venom.

There is an additional whammy: the venom of some species of snakes varies from one place to another. For instance, venom of the Russell’s Vipers of East and South India are nerve-affecting in addition to blood-deranging. This means that the anti-venom made using the venom of South Indian Russell’s Vipers may not neutralise a bite from the same species in North India.

If you are a farmer in India, chances of succumbing to a snake bite are greater than anywhere else in the world. Snakes are considered friends of farmers since a healthy snake population is necessary to control rodents. In fact, there are more snakes in agriculture fields than in forests. Farm rodents draw snakes into homes in chase of their prey. Farmers can avoid this conflict by simply storing grain properly. It is useful for those living close to snake habitats to learn identification of venomous and non-venomous snakes.

Safety steps

Incidents of snake bite can be reduced by covering the feet and ankles where most bites occur and by sleeping on cots and under mosquito nets. It is also important to keep your immediate surroundings clear of garbage, termite mounds, firewood piles and straw heaps which attract rodents and snakes. At night, it is important to use a torch while walking near fields.

Despite his training and expertise, Mahapatra has been bitten innumerable times by non-venomous snakes. Only once, in 2015, he was bitten by the highly venomous Banded Krait while rescuing it. He was rushed to a hospital close by, before being shifted to a big hospital and treated over five days. He not only got a new lease of life but better understanding of handling and treating a snake bite. The incident strengthened his resolve to bring harmony between man and snakes.

There are thousands of such stories. In fact, every rescue is a story, says Mahapatra. The rescue of a 13-feet long Indian Rock Python from an abandoned well 30 feet deep was memorable! On getting a call at midnight he rushed to the spot with a team mate and after three hours of struggle was able to rescue the unendingly long python.

The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist

Published on May 31, 2019
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