Born and brought up in Bikaner, part of the Thar Desert, Jitu Solanki has a passion for elusive wildlife. A man adept at multitasking, he plays several roles for domestic and foreign tourists, including being a bird-spotter, a tree identifier, photographer, reptile-explorer, fox tracker and a snake saviour. The young man also doubles up as tour guide and SUV driver negotiating the tough terrains of the dry Rajasthan desert.

It all started around a decade ago, when Solanki was still at college. Crew from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had arrived in Bikaner, eager to document the elusive saw-scaled viper that lives in the desert. The viper is a beautiful creature, small in size but highly poisonous. Solanki was deployed by his professor to accompany the BBC team into unknown topography as an interpreter. He, in turn, engaged the services of a villager who was an experienced snake charmer living off the land.

The plan was to start before sunrise when the weather is cool and apt for tracking inconspicuous reptiles. The motley group assembled at a secluded location and time, fortified with hi-tech recording equipment. Even before they started the hunt, strangely, the snake charmer called off the mission saying that the wind speed was not right to locate vipers. There was disappointment and some even got angry, particularly members of the BBC who had come all the way from London. Solanki had to explain that without the expertise of the snake charmer, the chance of locating elusive snakes was extremely slim.

The next day, at the crack of dawn, the team again gathered to take off with the serpent specialist and he, once again, picked up a fistful of sand and spilled it slowly to test wind speed and direction. This time, the hunt for the viper began enthusiastically in the seemingly barren sand dunes.

A young Solanki asked the snake charmer the reason for testing the wind speed. He was told the viper is rarely seen and the only way to find it is through tell-tale spoor on the sand surface. Hence, it was prudent to check the wind speed to ensure that the side-winding locomotion of the snake leaves behind a distinct pattern that can be followed to locate the whereabouts of the snake.

Rustle of scales as warning

After an hour’s search, the saw-scaled viper was seen slithering and when it sensed somebody was nearby, it did not flee. Instead it curled up like a spring and raised its triangular head, sensing with its forked tongue, ready to strike.

“The snake is aware that it is loaded with a high dose of venom and is sure of its fast-striking capabilities,” explained the snake charmer. At first it warns its enemy by rubbing its serrated scales in a coil and the caution sound thus produced is an excellent defence mechanism. This was precisely what the BBC team was wanting to record; the subtle rustle of scales of the viper when it is angry. Unlike other snakes that hiss, the saw-scaled viper used its rough exterior to notify “I am venomous — keep off”.

This interesting episode with the viper, the BBC team and the snake charmer in 2007 impressed Solanki. He felt this wonderful knowledge of natural history with the villagers needed to be preserved and propagated. He studied the snakes of the Thar Desert for his Ph.D thesis, from 2010 to 2015.

But he realised that acquiring degrees did not provide him a livelihood and began to work as a tourist guide. He soon transformed into a wildlife specialist and was sought after as a naturalist.

Solanki’s popularity grew and he slowly started personalised desert safaris by jeeps and camels and even held camps in the middle of desert dunes to experience the nuances of its barren beauty. To augment his earnings and with the help of his parents and grandparents, he converted part of his ancestral property into a home-stay with eight rooms equipped with basic amenities.

This, too, became popular and is featured in travel books like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides . Solanki says that both domestic and foreign tourists seem to love the guest house and relish home-made Rajasthani cuisine.

Finally, Solanki admits that in India, venomous snakebites remain an enigma. Although ineffective first aid treatment that is centuries-old continues to be used by people bitten by snakes, important factual information is still missing. That is why, apart from rescuing injured eagles and providing food for vulnerable vultures, reaching out to snakebite victims with antidotes is also part of his job.

He is so passionate about educating the public about snakebites that whenever he finds time, he briefs students on the benefits of snakes to society and how to differentiate the poisonous from the non-poisonous variety. His love for seducing serpents continues.

The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida