Date: 27 and 28th of Jan 2012. Place Mysore
Conducted by P. Gowri Shankar and Snake Shyam
Every professional is bound to tackle a set of FAQs and so do I. Questions such as 'Are you not scared?', 'What to do when I see a snake?', 'I want to handle snakes, will you teach me?' and 'Will you allow me to touch a king cobra?' ! ; followed by a tale of "One day I saw a snake.......” Then there are 'snake rescuers' who exude great confidence, some out of right knowledge some due to ignorance, who of course can do better with a push in the right direction. Hence this one of a kind workshop took shape to answer all these questions and more. The aim was to address basic ethics and right techniques of rescue, relocation and captive management of snakes.
The workshop attracted people from diverse backgrounds from full time snake rescuers, PhD students, software professionals, wildlife biologists, to photographers. Their reasons to enrol was just as diverse, some wanted to act instead of being mute spectators to snake killings, some who had handled non-venomous snakes now wanted to start rescuing venomous ones and few others who had already rescued venomous snakes wanted to get trained professionally.
We kick started the day with an introductory session on snakes. As all participants had filled out a questionnaire prior to the workshop it helped a good deal in understanding their levels. We then delved deep into topics on rescue, relocation and captive management.
'Rescuing snakes' is a very subjective term, and the way I interpret is in the interest and welfare of the snake more than anything else. Hence a point that I stressed very heavily was to 'NOT CATCH SNAKES BY THE NECK' unless absolutely necessary (in cases when other methods are actually stressing the snake or when there is absolutely no time to try other methods). I have seen snakes caught by neck refusing to eat for several days and one king cobra did not accept food for 95 days. Though catching by neck may give an adrenaline rush and display heroism it does more harm to the snake and risks the rescuer's life!
Hence we discussed other effective methods like Butterfly net’ capture techniques, baggers, pipe and bag technique introduced by snake rescuer Anees Mohammed in Bangalore. We then introduced snake hooks, baggers, snake bags (various sizes for different species) and showed how to use, clean, and keep them handy.
Not many realize that the first phone call to rescue a snake is the best opportunity for the rescuer to gather as much information, brief about steps they need to take and calm the caller. If practiced well it can save lot of time, effort and energy.
Attending live rescue calls was a pioneering idea that I conceptualized and it turned out to be a showstopper of the event. Each rescue call is unique, understanding the perspective of the caller, public, rescuers and figuring out how to retrieve a snake from unique situations is what I hoped every participant would learn ;And doing this with the master himself is like icing on the cake. Snake Shyam is an expert who has rescued and documented rescue data of over 22,000 snakes. One can imbibe a great deal from just watching him. Omer Kaiser from XTrails Expeditions http://www.xtrailsexpeditions.in/mtb.html was kind enough to sponsor a vehicle and everyone got a chance to witness Snake Shyam handle the rescue operation. We rescued a sand boa and a cobra on the two calls that we attended. He made sure all understood the basic ethic of 'NOT CATCHING AND/OR TRANSLOCATING A SNAKE IF IT COULD BE SAFELY LEFT WHERE IT IS FOUND'. He also showed how one could use this opportunity to educate public about the snake and encourage them to understand and tolerate snakes around. As Rom says “A big part of the problem could be resolved by teaching people to identify snakes and to tolerate, or even encourage the non-venomous varieties to stick around."
Identifying snakes is very crucial for any snake handler. Participants were taught safe methods of identification through scale counts using restraining tubes and encouraged to use field books. It is quite ironic that many rescuers still have fancy explanations when asked about the sex of the snake. I was once asked by the director of a zoo, 'Why are these snakes not breeding even after keeping them together for two years?', and when I sexed them I found both to be males! He got his answer. Though there is sexual dimorphism in few snakes it requires one to be trained to identify. Hence sexing the snake is very important but at the same time should be done very carefully.
Soon after the rescue many rescuers bring rescued snakes home and keep them for reasons which are more absurd than reasonable; like, calling friends and relatives to have look, pose for pictures and some really weird excuses stating the snake's tail is too thin ...so may be a new species! All snakes are protected under the Wildlife Act, the two pythons and egg-eating snake are listed under Schedule I; the king cobra, common cobra, Russell's viper, rat snake, dog-faced water snake, checkered keelback, and olive keelback under Schedule II and the rest fall under Schedule IV. In other words no snake can be caught, kept or translocated without the permission of the Forest Department.
If a snake rescuer has been identified and granted permission to rescue and keep snakes, he should be trained in captive management of snakes. This demands good understanding of the species and an uncompromising attitude towards proper care.
One need to keep in mind that rescued snakes should be brought to captivity only if its condition is serious enough to warrant medical intervention and if the condition is too serious then it is best left to the veterinarian to attend to the snake. Participants were shown how to shift snakes, feeding protocols to follow, cleaning and maintaining terrariums. During the practical session everyone enthusiastically participated and cleaned up terrariums.
Relocation of snakes is a very delicate topic. Though snakes should be released very close to the rescue point, it is impractical to do so in a crowded urban area. Selection of right habitats, procedures to be followed prior and post release and the actual release was discussed. Participants were asked to do their best to release rescued snakes within 2-5 km from the place of capture.
Other important topics such as maintaining stud books, basic precautions to avoid being bitten by snakes, first aid and the role of awareness was discussed.
This workshop has been a breakthrough and people across the country have come forward to collaborate with me to conduct such camps in their respective states. Gerry Martin (http://www.gerrymartin.in/workshops.html) from Bangalore and Nirmal Kulkarni (http://goawildwatch.blogspot.com) from Goa already conduct herpetology camps and workshops which are good avenues for interested individuals. More such professional workshops will prove as a boon for rescuers and snakes.
I believe, promoting right knowledge to right people at the right time will foster right attitudes towards snake rescue and relocation!
@ Mysore on the 31st March & 1st April 2012
Das, A., Nair, M.V., Gosh, S. and Mahanta, N. 2005. Protocol followed for rehabilitation of Burmese rock pythons (Python murlurus bivitatus) in Assam state zoo. In: Back to the Wild: Studies in wildlife rehabilitation. Ed: Vivek, M., Ashraf, NVK, Panda, PP. and Mainkar, K. Wildlife Trust of India, New Delhi.
IUCN, 2002. IUCN Guidelines for the Placement of Confiscated Animals. Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge,
Miller, E.A. (Ed.), 2000. Minimum standards for wildlife rehabilitation. International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, St. Cloud, MN. 77 pages.
Shine, R. and Koenig, J. 2001. Snakes in the garden: An analysis of ‘reptiles’ rescued by community-based wildlife carers. Biological Conservation. 102: 271-283
White, J. 1993. Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation (Editor: Louse Shimmel). International Wildlife Rehabilitation. C.A. pp 1-10.
Warrel, David A. Guidelines for the management of snake-bites
Notes on rescue capture and translocation of snakes for WTI workshop Kaziranga, Assam, February, 2008, Rom Whitaker.
Follow the IUCN protocol on the placement of confiscated animals for an appropriate decision on the resolution of snakes confiscated from charmers and traders (IUCN, 2002).