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Updated: April 30, 2012 16:05 IST

On the serpent trail

DEEPA VENKATRAMAN
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HISS STORY A snake flicking its tongue. Photo: Deepa Venkatraman
HISS STORY A snake flicking its tongue. Photo: Deepa Venkatraman

The scorching heat did not deter an intrepid group of enthusiasts from tracking and photographing the reptiles

It is pitch dark and our car is zooming along the East Coast Road. My husband is driving us to the Crocodile Bank at Vadanemmeli. The road is empty and we are making good time. We need to reach the Crocodile Bank by 5 a.m.

The plan is to meet up with other members of the Photographic Society of Madras at the Crocodile Bank; to find and photograph snakes in the wild. I've always felt a combination of fear and disgust whenever I've seen one, even if it's only on TV, crawl. I'm now going to be coming face-to-face with them, that too in the open.

It is 5.15 a.m. when we pull over at the Crocodile Bank. A few minutes later, Kali, our guide meets us. He belongs to the Irula tribe. The Irulas are an age-old indigenous tribe renowned for their ability in tracking and catching snakes. In 1978, the Irulas Snake-Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society was established beside the Crocodile Bank. The society aims to harness this special skill of the Irulas by maintaining a venom extraction unit. The venom is extracted and sold to various institutes in the country to develop antivenin to save the lives of people.

Our trek starts at 6 a.m. We pass a few marshy ponds with pretty lotuses, and soon reach the fields. Kali informs us that from this point onwards snakes can be found. He warns us not to talk loudly and to take gentle steps.

Look what's crawling!

We walk across the fields looking for snakes. After a few false starts, Kali suddenly points to a snake hidden in the bush. He holds it in his hand. I look at it from a distance. It's a beautiful green vine snake, around half-a-mt long. It is a female adult. The snake with a blend of greens looks gorgeous against the early morning sunlight. One look at it, and the fear of watching a wild snake in such close quarters vanishes.

In a few seconds, the slender green vine is the model for the photographers. Raj, one of our group members who has handled snakes earlier, twirls it around his hand and Sripad, a first-timer does the same. My confidence increases a tad. I slowly poke my finger out and touch her.

I had heard that snakes were wet and slimy. But, this snake is dry and slightly soft and rubbery. Soon I start photographing her along with the gang.

Twenty minutes later, Kali and his assistant have spotted a tree snake about 50 mt down the path. It's a bronze-back tree snake hanging high on a tree. Kali brings it down with the help of a stick. It is slightly aggressive as it was moved from its resting abode.

Kali picks it up and it suddenly bites him. Surprisingly, there is no reaction on his face. He tells us he has been bitten several times by non-poisonous snakes. This does not deter the others from holding the snake. The snake starts flicking its tongue and the photographers get excited.

It's 8 a.m. and the sun is now beating down the barren fields. Most of the snakes seem to be hiding under the mud. After some searching, Kali spots a hole in the ground. He reckons there is a snake in there. After some digging, he puts his hand inside the hole and extracts a sand boa.

Kali tells us it's not venomous and belongs to the python family. The skin of the sand boa is slightly rough to touch. The tail has dots that look like eyes. This confuses predators as they cannot easily identify which side is the head. The boa is rather quiet and just stays in one place.

Kali's assistant finds a one-ft-long baby green vine snake that had been hiding amidst the cool shade of the bushes. To everyone's surprise, it starts to get black spots as it moves and twirls violently with its mouth wide open. Kali tells us this is the threat display that happens when it wants to scare away a predator.

Considering it's a baby and not venomous, I feel it's time to try holding it. Sripad places the snake on my quivering palm. I feel it slithering on my hand and the obvious happens — I scream. All the same, I'm really excited to be holding a real, wild snake.

We walk ahead and spot a striped keelback in one of the canals. It's 9 a.m. and getting very hot. We release the keelback into the water and sit down under the shade of a tree. Kali shows us a red sand boa. The snake poses for 15 minutes, before slithering away into the green bush.

The heat is unbearable now and most of the snakes have hidden themselves in cool places. We start walking back to the Crocodile Bank. After walking half a km, Kali spots a two-mt rat snake in a bush. The brown-and-yellow snake is aggressively moving its head and flicking its tongue. Kali says it wants to be back in the shade, so we are quick with the photography and then the assistant releases it. I am drained by the time I reach the Crocodile Bank at 11 a.m., but I'm also enlightened.

(The Irula Cooperative Society conducts paid trips into the field for all those interested in the study of snakes and snake photography. For details call, ontact: 044-2747-2466)

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