Thursday, April 18, 2024

Mitigating the human-snake conflict through selfless service

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This week for our weekly edition of the Community Wise, The Pioneer connects with the founder of Friends of Snakes Society, that’s working towards raising awareness towards snakes.

SHIKHA DUGGAL

Friends of Snakes Society from the city want people to know snakes need not be feared — they are educating the public about snakes because the founder believes they are a misunderstood part of our environment. Most of them are not dangerous, and all of them should be left alone!

Howbeit, this society came into being? Well, founded in 1995 by Late Rajkumar Kanuri, the organization began its journey by rescuing snakes and creating awareness. The general secretary Avinash Visvanathan instructed, “We often find ourselves in unique situations where our expertise in handling venomous snakes comes into play, and occasionally, we get involved in rescuing people from unexpected encounters. One such incident stands out vividly in my memory — it was a typical day when a family reached out to me in distress regarding a small cobra inside their home. A cobra had somehow found its way into their residence and laid eggs inside their home. Usually, gravid snakes lay eggs at suitable sites and then leave, with the hatchlings emerging after about 60 days of incubation. Upon arriving at the scene, I successfully rescued a very young but menacing baby cobra that had entered their kitchen. While I successfully completed the unassumingly routine rescue, I received another urgent call from the same household just as I was leaving. They reported another cobra hatchling in their kitchen. Two snakes in a single household’s kitchen were far from normal! I decided to be extra cautious, considering the unusual circumstances, and searched their entire house, inch by inch. To my disbelief, every utensil that I overturned yielded a snake or two. In the following hours, I meticulously removed about nine hatchlings, making sure that their house was snake-free.”

To his surprise, the saga did not end there. The following day, he had to return to the same house to remove about five more hatchlings that had managed to find hiding spots during his initial visit. This extraordinary incident left him in awe of nature’s unpredictability and the resilience of these young cobras. It also served as a reminder of the crucial role they play in safeguarding both people and snakes in our efforts to peacefully coexist with these mesmerizing creatures. He continued, “Preserving snakes from extinction has become of utmost importance because they play a vital role in maintaining the delicate ecological balance. They contribute immensely to controlling various prey populations, ranging from insects to large mammals, which helps mitigate significant economic losses caused by pests. Additionally, snakes occupy a crucial position in the food chain, serving as both predators and prey for other animals! This interdependence ensures the stability and resilience of ecosystems. While human interventions may offer short-term solutions, they often prove to be costly and unsustainable in the long run.”

Friends of Snakes Society has been a strong advocate in this sphere. As a member of the various regional committees, such as the State Board for Wildlife, they have been striving to protect conducive spaces for snakes and wildlife. Fear of snakes and snakebites can only be alleviated by spreading knowledge. They carry out awareness outreach programmes at various schools and colleges, in an attempt to demystify snakes and understand their importance on this planet. “From humble beginnings as a small group of snake enthusiasts, our society has grown exponentially, with more than 150 members spread across various districts of Telangana. Our dedicated volunteers work tirelessly each year, rescuing close to 10,000 snakes, ensuring their safe relocation and minimizing human-snake conflicts. In addition to our rescue efforts, we firmly believe in the power of education and awareness. Through these workshops, we aim to dispel myths and misconceptions surrounding snakes, fostering a culture of coexistence and respect for these mesmerizing creatures. The journey has been both challenging and rewarding, with countless lives saved and communities enlightened,” added the general secretary from the community.

Research is the foundation for effective conservation. Only when they fully understand these animals, will they be able to steer policy decisions of the government favourable towards the conservation of these animals. Their research is focused on taxonomy, spatial distribution, phylogeny, captive management of snakes, and snake-bite mitigation. Furthermore, he said, “The human-snake conflict arises primarily due to the expansion of human settlements into previously untouched areas, resulting in the loss and fragmentation of natural habitats for various wildlife species, including snakes. As human populations grow, we encroach upon the territories that were once exclusive to wild animals, forcing them to adapt and often leading to encounters with humans in urban and rural settings. In our country, the human-snake conflict has become a pressing concern, with approximately 56,000 human lives lost each year due to snake encounters. Beyond human fatalities, the conflict has wider consequences, including morbidity, livestock, and domestic animal mortality, and costly treatments for snakebites. The rehabilitation process for rescued snakes involves temporary housing at the Snake Rescue Rehabilitation Centre in Bowrampet, before their safe release back into the wild.”

Snakes found on the outskirts of the study site are relocated to nearby forest blocks while avoiding human settlements. In urban areas where suitable spaces are limited, snakes are translocated to forest areas across the state, as designated by the forest department. The selection of relocation sites is based on species occurrence data and the availability of preferred habitats at the proposed release sites. They collaborated closely with the forest department, seeking their consultation and guidelines throughout the site selection process. It is essential for the public to have a specific awareness about snakes to ensure their safety and promote coexistence.

So how do they go ahead? He explained, “Promoting awareness about appropriate first aid protocols is equally vital. In the event of a snakebite, people should be informed about the immediate actions to take, such as keeping the affected limb immobilized, seeking medical attention promptly, and avoiding harmful practices like using tourniquets or attempting to suck out the venom. Rajkumar Kanuri was deeply moved by the realization that these misunderstood creatures were often subjected to cruelty even when they were merely going about their natural behaviours. Armed with an unwavering passion for conserving snakes, he took the initiative to establish the society as a platform to promote snake conservation and raise awareness about the importance of snakes in nature. His compassion for snakes to their protection laid the foundation for a society that continues to make a significant impact in the realm of snake conservation and awareness in the region.”

One notable case study of their anti-poaching efforts involves the practice of snake charming during the festival of Nagpanchami. In the late 2000s, they observed a distressing trend of several hundreds of defanged and mutilated snakes being used by snake charmers during this festival. The exploitation and mistreatment of snakes on the pretext of worship were rampant, posing a severe threat to their populations. Hence, he shared, “In response to this issue, we collaborated with the forest department on raising awareness among the general public about the ill practices associated with the festival and the harmful consequences for snakes’ well-being. Over the years, our collective efforts to spread awareness bore fruit. The general public became more aware of the plight of the creatures that they worship, leading to a significant decline in snake charming in the city. The numbers of such instances fell drastically to single digits, showcasing the positive impact of our anti-poaching and awareness initiatives.”

This case study highlights the importance of public education and collaboration with authorities in combating poaching and mistreatment of snakes. By fostering understanding and empathy for snakes, they have made considerable progress in curbing harmful practices and protecting these vital members of our ecosystems.

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