The Snake Whisperer - Q&A with Gerry Martin

This month, we had the opportunity to meet Gerard Martin, a conservationist in India and Founder and Director of The Gerry Martin Project. With an aim to help people coexist with snakes, he has also launched a snakebite initiative to help reduce the number of deaths due to snakebites in India. Watching him handle a Cobra at his quaint home, in Hunsur, situated on the outskirts of Bangalore, India, Gerry shared his thoughts on how the conflict between humans and snakes in India, could be mitigated.

Con Con: How did your journey with snakes begin?

Gerry: I started handling snakes foolishly when I was a kid. I always found them enigmatic and charismatic creatures. The first snake I caught was the small and domicile Striped Keelback. I remember chasing it into a bucket and then catching it. I caught my first venomous snake, a Saw-scaled Viper, when I was about 10 years old. I picked up the snake on a branch and dropped it into a bucket. Since then I’ve worked with a lot of different species of snakes. Right now, the ones that I am working with the most are the venomous snakes which are also medically significant. In India, snakes like the Russell’s Viper, the Spectacled Cobra and the Common Krait are the most medically significant. But, I’ve also found many of these snakes are responsible for deaths. The numbers there are high since many people die due to cobra and viper bites. So right now, it’s all venomous snakes that I’m working with.

Con Con: In India, what are the different factors which trigger human-snake conflicts?

Gerry: We have a very high population density in India. Much of that population is rural and teetering just above or below the poverty line. With agriculture being the main source of employment for many people in the country, you have a whole bunch of people who work in fields without protecting themselves appropriately. For example, some don’t wear shoes in the field which is dangerous because there are snakes in the fields. So, in such cases, conflict is generally inadvertent.

Moreover, people carry out their chores like they are on autopilot. Unfortunately, ‘look for a snake’ is not a part of that autopilot module. So, when a person in a field is cutting grass or picking up a pile of leaves and not really looking at what is being done because it is an everyday task, that’s when a conflict happens, because there might be a snake there.

Lastly, many people in India live in old houses and snakes are usually found hiding in the cracked holes or sewers of these houses. People might be asleep and might find a snake when they roll-over. Or when they pull out an old mattress they might find a snake there. Basically, the fact that there are a lot people and a lot of snakes living close to each other, conflicts are bound to occur.

Con Con: Compared to other countries in the world, how bad is the human-snake conflict in India?​​

Gerry: Until recently, India could be compared to Africa with respect to the number of snakebites. But, today Africa has got its act together and has fewer deaths because of snakebites. India loses about 40,000-50,000 people every year because of snakebites. It is by far the highest in the world. So, we have a really terrifying human-snake conflict here. Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reinstated snakebite as a neglected tropical disease. Unfortunately, the issue still hasn’t received the amount of momentum it deserves. With 50,000 people dying in a year, everyone should be in crisis mode. Sadly, it’s all poor people who die and those voices never get heard. But, things are changing now and there are a lot of people who are actively working to resolve the issue.

Con Con: Tell us a bit about how the number of deaths due to snake bites in India are being reduced.

Gerry: According to The Million Death Study (MDS), a survey on the various causes for mortality in India, Snakebites were a leading cause of death. But, besides this, the number of people who are ‘affected by snake bites’, is yet to be quantified. Nobody has even begun to look at the psychological effects of snake bites. It is a near death experience and also needs attention. Education and awareness is the first way to do this because it is also the best way to reach a large number of people. Besides this, there is a lot of work on the treatment of snakebites itself. There are some people who are working on the ambulance service so that the initial treatment can begin in the ambulance itself.

We are also working very hard on producing better anti-venom, which is the only thing that works with snakebites. Anti-venom is an antibody produced in another species which has to be injected by a medical expert. With the anti-venom in India, we found out that it is of very poor quality. It is developed by injecting the venom into an animal like a horse, which then develops antibodies. It is those antibodies which are harvested and used as anti-venom. So, there are lots of new methods and protocols that need to be used for the production of better quality anti-venom. Different species of snakes have different types of venom. Unfortunately, out of all the species of snakes in India, venom for anti-venom comes from the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society (ISCICS) which is located in Chennai, South-East India. In this place, snakes are collected from a 35-40 kilometre radius and those snakes are not necessarily representative of the snakes of the entire country. So, what we need to do is to have venom coming in from all over the country. Good WHO protocols could help producers make better anti-venom which is more effective and cheaper.

Con Con: Have there been any species of snakes which are now extinct or endangered because of the conflict?

Gerry: When a human-snake conflict occurs, people usually kill the snake. In fact, globally, that’s what happens to snakes when they are seen. However, it’s mainly habitat loss, pollution and infrastructure development which are much bigger threats to snakes.

But, there are actually some species of snakes which do well around humans. As humans, we are particularly dirty and attract a lot of the snake’s food. We attract insects, rodents and some amphibians as well. Snakes love this. So, we are good for some species. However, for some of the specialist species we have to work on protecting their habitat. For example, I grew up on a farm outside the city of Bangalore and I used to find about 18 species on the farm. Nowadays there are mainly 3-4 species. We don’t find many Vine snakes anymore. That’s because things like the hedgerows have been replaced by walls. The Vine snakes need contiguous vegetation. Moreover, the use of pesticides has killed a lot of insects which the amphibians fed on so there aren’t as many toads as there used to be. Snakes like the Green Keelback have vanished completely. They haven’t been seen for about 10-15 years now. Bronzeback Tree Snakes have also vanished completely. Some of the snakes that relied on leaf litter or dead vegetation like the Banded Kukri Snake have disappeared. There used to be a healthy mix of abundance and diversity of snakes which doesn’t exist anymore.