Snakebite is considered a “neglected tropical disease” by the World Health Organisation, and it kills more people in India than anywhere else in the world; 45,000 fatalities per year is the official figure, though it is almost certainly an underestimate, due to many snakebites either being recorded too vaguely by hospitals (i.e. as ‘animal bites’) or not recorded at all. Meanwhile, people who survive envenomation can suffer debilitating after-effects which impact their ability to work and lead to crippling medical costs.
In terms of which Indian species of snake are most responsible, the focus is usually on the ‘Big Four’: the Indian or spectacled cobra (Naja naja), the common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli) and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus). But the knowledge of which snakes bite people in different areas of India is far from complete – and that is a serious problem, since anti-venom, the only effective treatment for snakebite, is only likely to work for the species whose venom was used to produce it.
The organisation Captive and Field Herpetology, headed by Ben Owens of Bangor University and Vishal Santra of the Simultala Conservationists Foundation, is working to help with the situation. This year, they made an expedition to Himachal Pradesh in the northwest of India, where the number and distribution of snake species is particularly poorly known: the goals were to survey different areas and learn which snakes were present; collect morphological and genetic data for population studies; and educate the local people in avoiding snakebite, without needing to kill the snakes. In August 2018, I volunteered to assist on the last two weeks of the six-week expedition, on what was my first ever trip to India.
Arriving in Chandigarh, I met up with Ben and our driver Vipin; following the arrival of fellow volunteer Jasmine Torrez, we headed north up the winding mountain roads. Entering a misty forest at an altitude of about 1500m, we stopped for a couple of nights near the town of Solan, where the expedition had found white-lipped pit vipers (Trimeresurus septentrionalis) in previous weeks. Here, we surveyed during the day walking up a hill to the Karol Tibba temple, and at night along the forested roads. With it being the monsoon season, there was plenty of rain, and plenty of amphibians to go with it. Among these were two species of toad: Duttaphrynus himalayanus, which can be found up to 3,500m above sea level; and Duttaphrynus melanostinctus, which is currently causing problems as an invasive species in places such as Madagascar, where the native predators have no immunity to its toxins.
The expedition then headed further north into the Great Himalayan National Park; after an entire day of driving, we arrived at the Forest Rest Lodge in Ropa (altitude 1520m). Vishal Santra, his assistant Hindol, and their driver Akshay, were waiting for us there, along with a couple of venomous snakes they had picked up from a snake-catcher in Dehra: an Indian cobra and a common krait. Jasmine and I were able to practice handling the snakes with a snakehook, and assist in their scientific processing. Every snake found on the expedition was processed to some degree, the venomous ones in the most detail: this involved measuring the snakes; sometimes taking scale counts to look for variation; collecting blood and scale samples for genetic testing; and determining their sex. The latter is done by inserting a small probe into the cloaca, which goes in further with males than with females. (More male snakes were found on the expedition as a whole, as males tend to disperse more.) We also helped to hold the snakes securely in plastic tubes, while their venom was collected through encouraging them to bite a film-covered beaker; this venom would be sent to an Indian institute for study.
We had seen some spectacular mountain scenery on the drive to Ropa, and there was more of it all around us at the Forest Rest Lodge. There was a logging road nearby, leading up a hill to a small village; walking up to this village during the day, we spoke to the residents about the snakes they had seen in the area, and provided them with educational material about dangerous snakes and what steps can be taken to reduce the risk of snakebite. Sadly, we were later provided with the body of an Indian rat snake (Ptyas mucosa), which some locals had killed; this species is not dangerous to humans, and will in fact do them a favour by eating rodents.
For our next stop, we headed west, and down out of the mountains to Palampur. Up to this point, snakes had been elusive, but searches in Palampur turned up a non-venomous trinket snake (Coelognathus helena) and a mildly venomous common cat snake (Boiga trigonata). Two more snakes had also been brought from Dehra for processing: another Indian rat snake, and a black Indian cobra, who was always ready to spread his hood and hiss loudly when brought out of his bag. (Indian cobras from Himachal Pradesh typically turn black in adulthood.) A particularly curious find in this area was a population of leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) – normally associated with dry desert habitats – living in a stone wall. Since I own a pet leopard gecko, seeing a wild one was a particular pleasure.
While in Palampur, we received a couple of calls to come and remove snakes from local homes. On the first call, the residents believed they had seen a cobra in a bedroom. The room was a good example of how these low-income urban environments can easily attract snakes; there were not only clothes and various items piled all over the place, but evidence of rodents – so, both food and shelter for a snake. Despite a thorough search, the snake could not be found, having either escaped or gone inside the walls. On the second call, from a different house, the snake had gone into a pile of rocks outside. The residents believed it to be a Russell’s viper – but it turned out to be a buff-striped keelback (Amphiesma stomatum), perfectly harmless, aside from when it defecated on my hand as I held it.
After three nights in Palampur, it was time to head west again, back into the mountains to the district of Chamba. Here, Ben and Vishal had found road-cruising to be an effective method of surveying, looking for snakes warming themselves on the road after dark. One survey turned up a road-killed Naja oxiana, one of the target species for the expedition; little is known about Indian populations of this cobra, which can be found at higher altitudes than its cousin Naja naja. Also found were two live specimens of another target species, the Himalayan pit viper (Gloydius himalayanus). The locals in the mountains are vulnerable to bites from this snake as they harvest fodder on the slopes; in fact, we were introduced to a woman who had recently suffered a Gloydius bite – her foot was swollen and still causing her pain. Seeing this emphasised the purpose of Captive and Field Herpetology’s work very effectively.
Later, in the town of Chamba, Vishal gave a presentation on snake awareness and management to representatives of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, and allowed them to practice proper handling with the black cobra. From there, it was back to Palampur for one last night, then a flight from Dharamshala back to Delhi – at least, that was the plan, until that flight was cancelled, and Ben and I found ourselves being taxied for two hours to Pathankot Airport for our Delhi flight instead!
In all, it proved to be an exciting and productive two weeks: even though snakes are notoriously cryptic and difficult to find in the wild, we saw 11 different species during my time on the expedition, along with 5 species of anuran (plus another one that we only heard) and 8 species of lizard. The journey gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about the local culture, and to see some beautiful landscapes among the Himalayas. Most importantly, this first-hand experience helped me to appreciate even more what a serious issue snakebite is in India, and the challenges involved in reducing its impact, much more than simply reading about it could.
Thank you to Ben, Vishal, and Captive and Field Herpetology for giving me this opportunity. More information about their work can be found at http://captiveandfieldherpetology.com/.