This was written in partnership with AIF Clinton Fellow Naomi Tsai.
Loren: As one might expect, as a farmer, I spend a majority of my days working outside. There are many opportunities for contact with nature and the dangers, big and small. From swarms of mosquitoes to two-inch thorns; or for example, this week I almost stepped on a scorpion. All these encounters serve as a reminder that I am working in a space that borders on the wild. When I first got to my AIF Clinton Fellowship host organization, Kattaikkuttu Sangam, I was, to say the least, quite worried about snakes. As I walked through the gardens, I easily recognized that it would be a space that snakes would be at home in. Indeed, within the first few weeks of my time here, I saw several.
Often when the students would see a snake – instead of leaving it alone and letting it go away – they would go after it and try to kill it. There is a good reason for this as roughly 46,000 people die every year from snakebites in India (1).
Naomi: With the most snakebite deaths of any country, India is known as the snakebite capital of the world. My fellowship host organization, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (Croc Bank), focuses much of our work on snakebite education. This past January, we recognized the World Health Organization’s first Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) Day. Snakebite envenoming has been included as an NTD since 2017. Snakes can be found in both rural and urban parts of India, though snakebite deaths primarily occur in rural areas due to poor healthcare facilities.
Out of over 270 species of snakes in India, roughly 60 species are venomous (2). The majority of snakebite deaths however, are caused by only four species, the “big four” (3). While most snakes you encounter will be nonvenomous, it makes sense that many people are still afraid of snakes.
Loren: My biggest fear in seeing snakes was that I had very limited knowledge on snakes in India. In Kentucky, I could tell you which snakes are venomous and which are not, the habitats they prefer, the best ways to avoid them, and warning signs they might give off. In India, I couldn’t even tell you how many kinds of venomous snakes there are or what any of them look like.
Naomi: I don’t think I had any experience with snakes prior to coming here, so it was a quick learning experience for me! Especially coming from the city, snakes aren’t really something that we ever really think about…
Loren: I quickly noticed when I asked questions about snakes that many people didn’t know much about them. I found that there are many myths about snakes. One myth, I learned, was that rat snakes have poisonous tails and that if a snake hits you with its tail, you might die. This is untrue. The rat snake’s tail is not poisonous. Although, it can be very painful if the rat snake’s tail hits you while it is moving fast to get away. Another one is about a snake called the brahminy blind snake which is as small as a worm. It is commonly believed that if it licks you, you will get a rash that would cover your body, though there is no proof of this. Many people believe that if you attack or kill a cobra, it will come back to enact revenge on your household. In addition, if a cobra is killed, the body is burned and milk is poured on the remains. It is believed that the milk stops the snake from coming back alive and masks any scents that would attract other snakes.
Snakes also feature prominently in Hindu mythology. Snakes primarily represent rebirth, death, and mortality (4). Several Hindu gods take on the shape of a snake or are associated with snakes. Often Lord Shiva is depicted wearing a snake around his neck and Lord Vishnu is seen performing yoga on the back of a snake (5). Consequently, snakes have been both feared and worshiped for thousands of years in Hinduism.
Naomi: Since 2016, the Croc Bank has run snakebite education workshops throughout Tamil Nadu. Our goal is to teach people the role that snakes play in an ecosystem, and to teach people to respect and not harm them. The workshops are held at schools, government organizations, villages, and more. Using a variety of presentations and educational videos, we discuss different types of snakes, where snakes are commonly found, what to do if you encounter a snake, and how to mitigate and treat snakebites.
Loren: Last month, we held one of these workshops at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam. During the workshop, we learned about the four most common venomous snakes in India: common krait, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper, and spectacled cobra. We learned about the best ways to avoid snakebite and what to do when someone is bitten by a venomous snake. Do not cut or suck the wound, keep the extremity with the bite very still and reach a doctor as soon as possible in order to receive anti-venom. Now, not only am I more informed about snakes for when I work in the garden, but so are the students and employees at Kattaikkuttu Sangam.
Naomi: My day-to-day work is all done on site at Croc Bank, so it was extremely interesting for me to see a snakebite education program happen in the field (not to mention the opportunity to visit Loren’s host organization!).
Another snakebite initiative Croc Bank is involved with is the Irula Co-op, where visitors can see India’s “big four” snake species (mentioned above) and the venom extraction process. Known for their snake hunting prowess, local Irula tribesmen and women now utilize their impressive tracking skills to catch snakes and bring them to the Irula Co-op. Venom is drawn from each snake to use in the production of anti-venom. Each snake’s venom is extracted four times, then the snake is marked and released back into the wild.
Anti-venom is the only solution for snakebite, but it isn’t a perfect solution. There is still much more work that needs to be done. Venom from the same snake species can be highly regional, meaning that anti-venom produced in Tamil Nadu may not be effective for snakebites of the same species in another state or region. Transportation to hospitals, location of hospitals, healthcare fees, and the cost, transportation, and storage of anti-venom are more barriers to proper snakebite treatment. Hopefully, the work we do educating others on snakebite will bring this major issue to the forefront of Indian and international awareness.
- Srinivasa, Kalyanaraman. “Snakes in Hinduism.” Speakingtree.in, 20th Feb, 2014.
- Sachan, Dinsa. “This App Is Saving Thousands of Nsakes (and Humans) in India: The Big Four Mapping Project’s Conservation Tool Helps Prevent Snakebites and the Killing of Common Venomous Species.” Smithsonian Magazine, 5 Oct 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/app-saving-thousands-snakes-and-humans-india-180970467.
- Pimputkar, Sonali. “5 Nagas and Their Prominent Roles in Hindu Mythology.” The Free Press Journal, 27th July 2017. www.freepressjournal.in/cmcm/5-nagas-and-their-prominent-roles-in-hindu-mythology
- Subramanian, Samanth. “India Snakes Kill 46,000 a Year.” The National, 16th May 2016. https://www.thenational.ae/world/india-snakes-kill-46-000-a-year-1.173328