Old wisdom new world!

Gerry Martin writes about the need to understand snake territories and ecology, things to keep in mind when releasing “rescued” snakes in “natural habitats” far away from their home range and the better option of encouraging a harmonious co-existence with them.
By Gerry Martin

I must have been around seven years old when I saw my first wild cobra. I was walking with my grandfather around our farm and we saw a cobra, a little over four feet, cross the path ahead of us. When it spotted us, it raised its hood briefly and then continued on its way. When I first saw the snake I wanted to turn and run. My grandfather put his arm on my shoulder and said, “If we stay still, it will go away.” Those words have stayed with me.

Over the years, I thought that ‘rescuing’ snakes from situations where people might kill them was the right and noble thing to do. Each time I’d release a snake into it’s ‘natural habitat’ I would feel a sense of accomplishment. I encouraged people to do the same and even trained a few to do this safely. This bubble was burst in the middle of the last decade when it was discovered that relocated snakes stand a very slim chance of survival. Almost all translocated snakes die!

When I helped with the King Cobra Telemetry Project at Agumbe it was apparent that the trans-located king cobras were completely lost and lacked the ability and inclination to adapt to their new ‘natural habitat’. The bottom line is that most trans-located snakes die. I feel terrible about the number of snakes that I, with the truest of intent, must have sentenced to death. Unfortunately, the pace of development around cities is far greater than the rate at which mindsets are changing. Over the last three or four years the number of calls I receive about ‘nuisance’ snakes has risen exponentially! Most people ask for solutions and expect that they will be able to spend some money and remove the problem from their properties. Although it is counterintuitive, snakes that are removed from cities don’t do well in forests.

Let’s get some facts straight. Research has proved that most relocated snakes die. By removing them from a conflict situation we are not rescuing them. On the contrary, we’re sentencing them to quite a frenzied death. Further, our approach to conflict resolution seems to be to remove the less influential party from the conflict! This condescension is magnified in instances where harmless snakes are removed merely because of people’s discomfort with the animal being around.

I’m writing this in the hope that we can come to a better platform for conservation which involves a realisation that the only solution to the human-snake conflict is education and for us (intelligent) humans to start using our skills and learning to avoid conflict. Today, I find it well worth it to spend some time speaking with frantic home owners, factory supervisors and others who find themselves dealing with a ‘snake issue’, convincing them that it is better to simply leave the snakes alone and allow their compounds to achieve an ecological balance. A surprisingly large number of people are willing to change their minds about snakes and accept having them around.

In 1986, uncharacteristically heavy rains flooded the neighbouring lake and brought the water past our house. All kinds of animals scurried for high ground. Our tiled roof provided safe haven for a wide range of wildlife from centipedes and scorpions to various snakes and even a monitor lizard. Again, we deferred to my grandfather’s matter of fact solution. “We better tuck the mosquito nets in tightly!” And so we did. The morning was paradise for a young and ignorant aspiring naturalist! There were animals everywhere!

In the adjoining village, I watched an old lady sweep a cobra out of her house with a long broom. Calmly! Aside from Russell’s vipers (Daboia russellii) snakes weren’t really bothered about. Vipers were not tolerated and were usually killed. As sad as that has always made me, at least, that response comes from a real danger. Cobras, rat snakes and many others were simply ignored. That’s changed!

Today, a snake in the vicinity sends people into a tizzy! They call snake rescuers, police cells, fire brigades and anyone else involved in an emergency. The spotting of a snake sends people out looking to stock anti-venom. There are frantic efforts to clear up anything that is perceived to house snakes. This will include water bodies, lawns, pots, termite mounds and trees! Strangely, this often doesn’t include waste and garbage dumps, building material and junk piles. It should be obvious that our reactions are based on perceptions, conditioned notions and myths. The good news is that we have science on our side. Let’s base our decisions on it. Or better still, we can revert to my grandfather’s eternally relevant advice- ‘If we stay still, it will go away.’

About the author:
Gerry Martin has been working with reptiles and other wildlife for over twenty years now and is currently heading The Gerry Martin Project. He was India’s first National Geographic Channel Adventurer and has been featured in numerous television shows. He was part of the team that first bred and successfully raised king cobras in captivity in India and has worked with a vast variety of other reptiles and amphibians. A key advisor for IndianSnakes’, one of his main aims is tackling the snakebite issue in India and developing platforms by which local stakeholders can gain from and support conservation in their localities.

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