Snakes come in from the cold

The children learn the truth about snakes and other reptiles from Rom.  

THEY ARE worshipped, feared and as the adage goes, their very sight could make an army panic. But that is history. Today, snakes are not the stuff of lore and mysticism. Their place in nature is understood by many, and fear has given way to respect for their ecological importance.

A slithering snake attracts everyone's attention and tempts some playful youth to pick them up. Some obscurantist villagers might fear an ill omen and harm the reptiles. Though India is a nation with a long history of co-existence with snakes, it is a mixed bag for the fortunes of the reptiles.

Well known herpetologist, Romulus Whitaker traced the importance of snakes to a group of children, who were brought to the Crocodile Bank by Wild Ventures, under the `Sanctuary Asia-Britannia Kids for Tiger' programme.

After talking about four types of venomous snakes in the country, Mr. Whitaker faced a volley of questions from child participants. He told them that a recent study revealed that four types of cobras are found in the country - Spectacled, Monacled, Black and Andaman Cobra. As with the prints in the palm of human beings, which varies from person to person, no cobra is identical to another, he said. On the poorly appreciated role of reptiles and amphibians, he said that geckos, garden lizards, frogs and toads have a vital role to play in the ecosystem. Many in a fit of rage or due to aversion kill these reptiles, without realising the fact that they eat away many insects, which are harmful to humans.

One of the participants wanted to know what kind of snakes were consumed by people as food. Mr. Whitaker replied that human beings ate every species of snake.

Sighting a snake in a jungle could be difficult, but if you visited a paddy field in the rural areas, you could find hundreds of them, Mr. Whitaker said. Rats are found in large number in and around paddy fields and the snakes are attracted towards them. There, one can see a large number of snakes. Sadly, even some misinformed farmers look at the snakes as their enemies and kill them, while the intelligent ones realise their role in pest control, he said.

Recalling an incident, Mr. Whitaker told the children that while passing through a village in Maharastra, he saw a snake being burnt by a group of people. He stopped his vehicle and wanted to know why the villagers were killing the reptile thus. One of them came forward and told him that he was the last person that the snake set its eyes upon, and if it died later, it would `remember' him. As the myth goes, its mate would get the same image and kill him. To eliminate it immediately, he had burnt it, the villager replied. Laughing at the explanation, Mr. Whitaker said several such myths surround these reptiles, which is not at all true.

When the children asked about the `Anaconda', he was critical about the way the reptile was projected in the movie. "Actually, anacondas are slow, shy reptiles, which are found in swamps of South America. But the film created wrong impressions about the reptile," he told the children.

Talking about the Irula tribes, Mr. Whitaker said during the early 1970s, many of the Irula tribals killed lakhs of snakes, as there was a good demand for their skin, which was used for making wallets and belts. But, when they were educated and told about their importance in the food chain, the killing was brought down to a great extent, he said.

The children were selected from 46 schools in the city, which participated in the programme on earlier occasions. "A visit around the Croc Bank, a puppetry show for which the children had to select the theme and conduct the programme were the highlights of the event," adds Swarna Ramakrishnan of Wild Ventures.

By Oppili P.