It was around 9:30pm when Babita Roy reached into her cupboard at her Mohali home for a piece of clothing. Something fell out. Something black, may be a belt. Babita didn’t think much of it and stepped forward to reach into the cupboard again. That’s when she noticed the ‘black belt’ move near her feet, followed by a sharp sting on her right leg. In pain, she took a closer look and what she saw chilled her veins – a pitch-black snake, staring back at her.
“I was not at home at the time. Babita called me on the phone. A guard on duty took her to the nearest hospital. She was conscious on the way to the hospital, but passed out later. Her body had turned blue,” says Vivek, Babita’s husband, who is employed with the Army, recounting the night.
“She was confirmed to be out of danger only at midnight. She was given 21 shots of anti-venom,” he adds.
It’s human to want to label Babita’s escape from death as miraculous, but it’s actually quick-thinking on the part of multiple people that built up to her survival. She was rushed to hospital immediately after being bitten and the people who helped her didn’t forget in the panic situation to click photographs of the snake. They showed the photos to the doctor who started the appropriate treatment as soon as it was determined to be a cobra, one of the four deadly snakes in India that commonly venture into areas inhabited by humans.
While man-animal conflicts involving leopards, crocodiles and even elephants often make news, snakes top the list of offenders when it comes to animal attacks in India. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not a problem limited to rural areas. Snakes sneaking into households and bites similar to the one Babita Roy suffered are becoming increasingly common in sub-urban cities, outskirts of metropolitan cities and newly built townships.
A study by scientific journal eLife estimates that on an average, 58,000 people die of snake bites in India every year.
Surya Keerthi is a Mysore-based snake rescuer and wildlife conservationist who handles five to seven snake bite calls every week. “Inside a house, snakes are more likely to be found in the kitchen, bathrooms and toilets. Next most common areas are in the living room near the entrance or near the drainage pipes. They could have just entered the house and slithered under the sofa or behind the TV stand,” says Keerthi.
THE BIG FOUR
India has more than 300 species of snakes, of which around 60 are venomous, 40 are mildly venomous and around 180 are non-venomous, says Roohi Narula, Press Officer at Wildlife SOS.
Wildlife SOS is a conservation non-profit whose primary objective is to rescue and rehabilitating wildlife in distress. And it’s been a busy monsoon for their rescue team in Delhi. The team rescued 64 reptiles in the national capital and adjoining areas in July alone. The numbers were higher in UP’s Agra at 167 reptiles the same month.
A rescuer with the group says that in July, he rescued 20 reptiles within 72 hours in Delhi, a challenging and dangerous accomplishment. “We rescued three Indian cobras, seven common sand boas, three monitor lizards and seven Indian rat snakes. Two rat snakes were found entangled in nets!”
The rescuer recounted some chilling moments when Delhiites came face to face with a snake:
- A Common Krait snake was spotted preying on a crow in the swimming pool of a farmhouse in Bijwasan area in June
- A Buff Striped Keelback snake was rescued from a Moti Bagh residential complex near the Sadhu Vaswani International School for Girls
- A family in Delhi’s Sarita Vihar discovered a nearly five-foot-long Cobra inside a duffel bag
- An Indian Rock python, measuring nearly five-foot, was found slithering away on a footpath near the Qutub Minar Metro Station
- Residents of Paryavaran Complex in Saket discovered a Common Sand Boa in a basement parking lot. The snake was coiled up under a metre reader
Of the venomous snakes found in India, only four – referred to as the ‘Big 4’ – commonly feature in snake bite incidents – The Spectacled Cobra (scientific name: Naja naja), Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Russell’s Viper (Daboia usselii) and Saw-Scaled Viper (Echis carinatus).
“In 70% of the instances of snake rescue, we find them to be venomous. We commonly get around six to seven species of Russell’s Viper, Cobra or a Krait. Saw-Scaled Viper is very shy and found in dry regions and in the outskirts of cities,” says Surya Keerthi.
SAFER HAVEN IN CITIES
The increasing urbanisation of the landscape has meant that animals, especially reptiles, have learnt to defend themselves more ferociously and are also better at camouflage. Some snake species have proven to be highly adept at surviving and finding prey in concrete landscapes.
Surya Keerthi says Cobras and Vipers are, in fact, better at surviving in the cities than in the wild. “Cobras and Vipers are rescued more from the cities because of their survival skills. Russell’s Viper especially is an ambush predator. It will just go and sit in the burrows, and wait for a rat or any other animal to enter and then grab hold of it,” he says.
Experts also suggest that snakes have adapted their diet to the urban landscape. “They have adapted to the expanding urban jungle by making changes in their diet, habitat and behaviour. They have become a part of the urban ecosystem. Numerous studies have pointed out that snakes do not just stray into urban areas, but are actually very well assimilated in the regions and navigate an intricate network of drains and ditches,” says Roohi Narula.
Another hotspot in the city are the garbage heaps. The food waste in them attracts the rodents who then become prey for the reptiles lying in wait.
Keerthi, in fact, says that while anthills, burrows and piles of rock are widely believed to be safe haven for snakes, these have been replaced by drainage pipes, waste heaps, concrete slabs and small pockets in buildings.
“People have created safer shelter spaces for snakes than what would have been naturally available to them,” adds Keerthi.
BUT WHY DO SNAKES BITE?
Conflict between reptiles and humans is nothing new, nor limited to a particular geography. But wildlife experts suggest that often these conflicts share a pattern.
Surya Keerthi says most snake bites are likely to happen during the darker hours as most snakes are nocturnal by nature, that is, they are active during the night. Only Cobras are diurnal, which means they are active during the day.
Most bites are also inflicted in the lower half of the human body, from the knee to the foot since snakes are ground-dwelling creatures. They generally bite when stepped upon or when they feel threatened, says Keerthi.
Priyanka Kadam is part of WHO’s roster of snakebite experts and President-Founder of Snakebite Healing & Education Society, a civil society working on snakebite mitigation. “Snakebites can be avoided simply by wearing a closed pair of shoes, especially during monsoon and by using a flashlight at night. Inside the house, one can prevent snakebites by using a tightly tucked mosquito net and avoiding sleeping on the floor. Controlling rodent population can also help reduce interactions with snakes,” she says.
Kadam says that while snakebite incidents are more likely to occur in the rainy months between June and October, there’s no telling whether indoors are safer than the outdoors as there’s a 40-50% chance someone might get bitten inside their home.
MORE DEATHS IN RURAL AREAS
At present, no concrete data exists on the ratio of snakebite fatalities in rural and urban areas. But field experts suggest the death toll is higher in rural areas.
“The reason behind more deaths in rural areas could be the lack of timely access to life-saving treatment. In many states, primary health centres do not treat snakebites. They refer patients to far away district hospitals without ventilator support. Let’s say a snakebite victim is 60 km from a district hospital, the chances of death while being transported are higher,” says Priyanka Kadam.
Medical experts also say that though the anti-venom is available in rural areas and primary health centres, the problem lies in lack of infrastructure and expertise to handle such cases.
“If you have limited resources and limited hospitals, where can the patient go? They can die on the way to the hospital. Even if the anti-venom is available, it has to be administered by a registered doctor. But the problem is that there are a lot of professionals who don’t have enough knowledge on snakebites and anti-venom,” says Dr (Col) Vijay Langer, a Delhi-based plastic surgeon who has treated snakebite victims.
FACT VS FICTION
Snakes hold a special place in Hindu mythology as thousands celebrate the festival of Nagpanchmi in July-August every year wherein devotees offer milk to the snakes. Experts, however, say such gestures were initially not part of the festival and were adapted to real life from the reel.
“It was only after watching movies with such scenes that people started offering milk to snakes. I have mentioned publicly to not pour milk or any such things as snakes don’t drink milk because they are reptiles. Snakes don’t have mammary glands to produce milk. So why would a snake drink cow’s milk?” asks Surya Keerthi.
Snakes have been the hero and the villain in several movies across India, most notable being Nagin (1954), Nagina (1986), Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani (2002), Sheshnaag (1990) and the recent Tollywood hit RRR (2022).
The most common trope used is where a snakebite victim’s life is saved by someone ‘sucking the venom’ out of the wound, an action that has no basis in science. The other misconception popularised in movies is cure by tantriks, which in real life would delay actual treatment, proving to be potentially fatal for the victim.
“When snakebites occur, people panic and end up succumbing to fear psychosis. Tantriks take advantage of such people because they know that majority of snakes are non-venomous and the majority of bites are raw bites, this is they have no envenomation,” says Dr Aaruni Rahul, who works at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. The doctor, however, adds that instances of people believing in tantriks to cure snakebites have dropped considerably in rural areas and are almost negligible in the cities.
Snakebites are also often dry bites, wherein the bite does not inject sufficient quantity of venom to envenomate the victim. Snakes often use their venom judiciously or in some cases may have exhausted the venom in a previous attack on a prey.
THE BIG PICTURE
It is estimated that more than 12 lakh deaths occurred in India because of snakebites between 2000 and 2019, at an average of around 58,000 per year, says a study published in eLife journal. Other reports suggest that more than 2,32,000 people suffer from significant disability annually because of snakebites.
The study adds that 70% of snakebite deaths occurred in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. “In these high-burden states, the age-standardized death rate was about six per 100,000,” it says.
The official data, however, represented a minuscule part of the problem. In Parliament in 2018, then Health and Family Welfare minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey said that only 689 snake-related deaths occurred in the country that year.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2020, deaths because of snakebite poisoning stood at 9,829, while deaths because of other animal, reptile and insect bites stood at 1,000. The death count because of other animals was 1,305.
Snakebite cases and deaths remain largely underreported since the casualties are mostly in rural areas and the cause doesn’t fall in the ambit of a proper healthcare centre.
But it cannot be ignored anymore that the instances of conflict between humans and snakes have been increasing. The annual deaths reported because of snakes outnumber those reported in another animal attacks many times over. It’s time to separate the myth from the menace and educate both urban and rural population on how to defend against the reptiles.