On the lazy overcast sunday of the extended Diwali weekend, Noushadya and I were watching Jai Bhim, a well made movie inspired from real events based on the discrimination of Irular tribe by society, police and legal system of Tamil Nadu. The Irular tribe is known for their snake catching abilities amongst others. Half way through the movie, Devi, who takes care of the animals at the farm, spotted a snake hiding in the cooking area of the animal shed, came running to the house and in a hushed voice informed us of the impending danger. While we have seen snakes several times in the past at the farm, they have been mostly non-venomous ones and never so close to the house or the animal shed. We were so engrossed in the movie that for a moment, we were confused whether to take the intermission. In the midst of a very interesting court scene, with a heavy heart, we followed Devi. Now, we are very thankful we did.
We have informed everyone working and visiting the farm that we don’t intend to hurt snakes or any other animal at the farm, for that matter, especially when we know that they are not going to hurt us. So, on spotting the serpent, Devi didn’t panic and informed us immediately. The other women also looked at the snake and helped us identify the snake. Having watched a lot of videos on snakes by Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, we could identify it as the Russell’s Viper.
Russell’s Viper alone accounts for 43% of all snakebites in the country, more than the Indian Cobra, Saw-scaled Viper or the Common Krait. Russell’s Viper is known as Kannadi Viriyan (கண்ணாடி விரியன்) in Tamil because the pattern on the body resembles a series of spectacles placed end to end.
In 2019, our friend Deepak from Bengaluru was visiting us to help us build the mud house. He rescued a Viper from the well when a few people were digging a side bore. We watched in awe from 50 feet above as he skillfully rescued the snake in a sack along with help from another worker at the farm. He released it far away from the farm where it would have been left to its own devices.
We immediately called the local Forest Range office at about 4:45 pm so that they could rescue the snake before it got dark. While waiting, we occasionally kept an eye on the snake, which was mostly still. A few feet away, we resumed and finished watching Jai Bhim while waiting for someone from the forest department to show up. Velraj, a Forest Guard, reached in an hour. Within 5 minutes of arriving, he very carefully rescued the snake in a sack with just a wooden stick to hold the snakes head and jaw tight. He said that, thankfully this one had eaten something recently and didn’t move much – that’s why the rescue was swift; other rescues with Vipers usually take much more time. He said he would release the snake in the forest near Kadana Nadhi Dam, close to the Kadayam range office.
We have been careful not to pile up wood and crop waste near the house or animal shed or where people regularly move in the farm. After the onset of the monsoon, we stacked the firewood in the cooking area rather than in the open to prevent it from getting wet. We need to be extra careful so that this doesn’t repeat often.
The snakes that we have spotted in and around the farm most frequently are
Indian rat snake (சாரை பாம்பு), checkered keelback (தண்ணீர் பாம்பு) and bronzeback tree snake (கொம்பேறி மூக்கன்). All three are non venomous snakes and we have gotten used to their presence. We have spotted them in the presence of women workers and had educated them that they are non-venomous snakes.
I believe that we have faced minimal rice crop damage by rats in the three years of running the farm because we have abundance of rat snakes around. It is a perfect example of the prey predator relationships found in nature helping humans doing agriculture – not that any one in particular intends this consequence specifically. If we had been indiscriminate about killing all snakes, as is the practice here, we would have been suffering from harvest loss not just from peacocks but also by rodents.
Because the venom of a snakebite of any of the big 4 is extremely powerful and is often fatal, there is profound fear in the populace around about snakes, not just the big 4. Usually, the first response on spotting a snake around here is to take a stick and beat it to death. Discussion on identification of snakes and whether it is venomous or not is sidelined often and the treatment meted out to them is brutal. Snakes are demonized even though they have been part of cultural and religious practices or idols. Eventually, we want to be able to educate people around about the importance of snakes to ecosystems, how to identify them and what can be done to avoid their presence.
MCBT’s content on reptiles have been very helpful to us in learning about these graceful creatures. Those who are living in a farm or who are planning to move to a farm, this video is a must watch. It is available in other languages as well including Tamil.