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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.

These days you find the snakes that like sewers and rats. Rat snakes which can live just about anywhere are the most common. The Spectacled Cobras which enjoy the sewers and Checkered Keelbacks which live in sewers and feed on the rats and frogs are also common.

Con Con: What are the various conservation practices you’ve been carrying out to mitigate snake-human conflicts?

Gerry: Mitigating snake-human conflict starts with education and spreading awareness. Unfortunately, snakes have this very raw deal when it comes to their reputation. In fact, dogs are a lot more dangerous than snakes. No snake will ever attack you without reason. Packs of dogs in villages and cities regularly attack people and children. But people don’t have that stigma about dogs. However, there is this stigma about snakes and all snakes are painted with the same brush.

About 1,000-2,000 years ago, some even looked at snakes as supernatural beings. If you have a snake which is two-feet long and it gives you a cut which is less than a millimetre and kills you, the only rational explanation was that it must have some supernatural powers. Hence, a lot of myths have developed around them and snakes are given this reputation that they want to come and bite us, and will take revenge if attacked. Moreover, a lot of people don’t really see a snake well enough. When you look at a snake, your mind is usually seeing the snake, more than the brain is. That’s why people create these visions of “25-foot snakes” which are black and have open mouths. People don’t mean to lie. It’s just that the fear has created this vision of the snake.

So, education is our biggest tool. But simply making presentations and telling people about snakes not being dangerous, is not going to work. We are dealing with centuries upon centuries of conditioning. What really works is contact with snakes. When we work in a community we never go in there saying we want to help snakes. For most people in rural India, snakes are a problem. So, we enter this entire scenario with a way to help people. With respect to snakes, the conservation will happen when people stop killing them.

For example, In the village I live in, things have been changing quite a lot. When we go to a person’s house for a snake rescue, we don’t take the snake away. In fact, taking the snake away kills it. What we do is we take it from inside the house and keep it outside. The villagers are fine with it for every species except the Russell’s Viper. I can’t really blame them because the Russell’s Viper is a very scary snake. It hides in camouflage, waiting for its prey. When it bites it causes a lot of tissue damage and the mortality rate is very high.

Lastly, if you don’t want to see a snake, clean up your surroundings! You can’t have stacks of stuff everywhere and then expect snakes not to come in for it. We have been teaching children that and they go home and tell their parents so people are realizing this and reducing the amount of garbage around their households. This is a tiny step towards achieving the bigger goal of human-snake coexistence.

Con Con: What are the ways snakes can be dealt with in urban areas?

Gerry: In an urban setting, there are lesser chances of snake-bites and it is much easier to reach people because of mediums like social media. The Indian Snakebite Initiative which is a group of herpetologists, snake rescuers, doctors, toxicologists and a bunch of people who are very good with PR and social media have been trying to spread information about snake bite mitigation through education, awareness and through better scientific practices to treat snake-bites. However, there is a lot of information going around which is wrong as well and we are hoping that eventually some level of intelligence will prevail.

📸 Avijan Saha

Con Con: Has there been a funny snake-rescue call you’ve had to deal with?

Gerry: Yes plenty! The funniest was in this village where there was a snake in the toilet and the guy who called me, didn’t have a particularly good stomach. He didn’t use the toilet but sat outside until we got there. As soon we got the snake out, he didn’t say anything and just ran into the toilet! So, we generally take humour with us. There is enough of a dire aspect to snakes. In fact, whenever we catch a non-venomous snake, we let the people touch it before releasing it. It might be inconvenient for the snake but at least there is a bit of ‘fear’ that we are removing. These days we get rescue calls from people who find snakes and then they call back a few minutes later saying it is just a rat snake and they don’t mind it being around them.

Con Con: Which snake do you relate with?

Gerry: I would have to think of the wisest snake! (that was a joke!) Well, let me tell you the snake I’m closest to. That would be the Spectacled Cobra. That’s possibly because I’ve grown up with the species around me and I know it well. In Tamil, an Indian language, they call it the “good snake” and it really is, especially when you handle them. India has many snake rescuers showing off tricks with Spectacled Cobras. It might give them the sense of being cool but Testosterone aside, that Cobra actually doesn’t want to bite them and waste its venom. Because when the Spectacled Cobra wants to hunt, there is no human that can get out of its way. So, the reason that humans can handle this snake so well is because it allows us to. So, I hope that I’m in sync while handling one and defensive just like this cobra, when I have to be.

📸 Gerry Martin

Con Con: What leaves you optimistic about humans coexisting with snakes in India.

Gerry: I went to this village called Panswala in West Bengal, North-east India, about 20 years ago. The people in this village, worship a Goddess named Jhanglai Devi who they believe manifests herself in the form of the Monocled Cobra. Even today, you will see these cobras moving freely. When I wanted to take a photograph of one of them and I wanted it to hood up, it would not do so because it did not see me as a threat. That shows that peaceful coexistence is possible. The people know these snakes are venomous but they treat them with respect and give them their space. I actually saw an old woman sweep a cobra out of her house. That’s how calm they are. So, if it is possible there, it is possible anywhere else. I spoke to the elders of the village who said there have hardly been many snake bites and even if they were it was mainly because someone stepped on it by mistake. So, these snakes don’t see people as threats. I have always lived with snakes around me and never had a problem. They are beautiful creatures.

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