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Snake hunting in Mysore, India.

It's a hot summer morning in Mysore in southern India and across the road from where I stand is the Ambavilas Palace, a magnificent example of Indo Mogul architecture. The palace was built by the Wodeyar dynasty, rulers of this region for more than four centuries until 1947 (when India gained independence from British rule). But I am looking for something else.

Ah, here it comes ... a battered red Maruti. The car stops, and from behind the windshield a beard breaks into a grin. It's Balasubramanya a.k.a. Snake Shyam of Mysore.

"We have to rush to Nirmala Convent School," he says. "They have spotted a snake."

I get in. Without a backward glance, Shyam slips into the hopeless commotion that we in India call traffic. "What kind of a snake?" I ask, barely able to control my excitement. This is why I have come, to see how he catches snakes, to find out why he does it.

He shrugs. "They don't know. Most people can't identify snakes. That's why they are such a maligned species."

Anyone seeing Shyam for the first time will wonder if he's actually one of those inscrutable mystics that India is famous for. He has nineteen rings on both his hands, five necklaces around his neck, nine bangles on his right wrist and a myriad tattoos on his arms--eagles, serpents, fish, lotus, eyes, and even a skull and crossbones. I personally think this accouterment is a clever strategy on his part, to stand out, to leave behind an indelible impression. As we drive on, it becomes obvious that he has succeeded in great measure. All kinds of people hail out a greeting to him--students, housewives, auto rickshaw drivers, even a police constable who waves a gloved hand.

When Shyam started catching snakes twenty-seven years ago, people in his neighborhood called him 'Snake Shyam.' The name stuck. In Sanskrit, Shyam means blue black. He isn't of course that color; he is a robust brown. But Shyam is another name for the blue black Hindu god, Krishna, who is believed to have, as a boy, toyed with a colossal serpent before vanquishing it. I wonder what this man will do with the snake that he's going to catch at Nirmala Convent School.

Suddenly I become conscious of a funny smell, a smell of decay. I turn around. On the back seat are four plywood boxes with numerous small holes. For ventilation apparently. Shyam notices my wrinkling nose and laughs. "Snakes smell like that. I just finished giving a demonstration of snakes in a college. I showed them a trinket snake, vine snake, sand boa, wolf snake, cat snake, rat snake ...

"Made the students, even girls, handle them. They were all so excited. I hope they will now teach others to leave snakes alone. To not believe the silly myths that has been around in our country for ages. What India needs is hundreds of people like me. To disseminate the truth about snakes." He says it so seriously, without a trace of egotism, that I am quite taken in.

We take a detour to avoid the traffic. To the left is the grayish Chamundi Hills, atop which stands a temple dedicated to the goddess Chamundeshwari. Legend has it that she defeated a dreadful demon, Mahishasaru. Mysore is a corruption of the demon's name. Finally, we reach Nirmala Convent School, established by the Carmelite Sisters of St Teresa half a century ago. The school is closed for the weekend but in the backyard a gardener waits near a drain.

"Where's the snake?" asks Shyam.

"Somewhere inside," the man quavers. We go there and peer into the drain but all we can see are the ends of two pipes and loose soil. There are a few gaps but they don't reveal anything because light can't penetrate inside.

"How can I catch it if it's in there?" Shyam mutters and asks for a mirror. By this time, a few teachers have gathered a safe twenty feet way. One of them brings a mirror. Shyam reflects the sunlight into the cavities around the pipes. Nothing. He straightens up. "Frogs? Have you got any frogs?" he asks the huddle of saris and habits.

A lady in a cream sari shuffles off, probably to the school's zoology lab. She brings a toad the size of a child's hand. Shyam ties one of its legs and tells us not to move about because the snake, if it's really there, would sense the vibrations through the ground and won't come out.

He dangles the bait in the drain. Seconds pass. Then a flash of an intricate green pattern. The toad vanishes into a gap. The string tautens. Shyam pulls. The string resists at first, then relaxes. The toad comes out. But no snake. Shyam tries again. This time he waits for about a minute before pulling the string. Ah ... the head of a snake, its mouth clamped on the toad's leg. Shyam reaches down and catches the snake behind its neck and brings it out. It lets go of the toad (which seems well and alive) and the teachers burst into clapping.

"Checkered keel back," Shyam announces, as he allows the green and cream creature wind its body all over his arm. "Moves very quickly. Difficult to catch. It loves to be in the water. Has a nasty bite but absolutely non-venomous."

Shyam is 39 and earns a modest livelihood by driving about thirty children to their schools and back to their homes. He uses a van for this purpose. "Earlier, I had an auto rickshaw (a three wheeler). But it wasn't economical." Since driving children to and from school takes only a couple of hours in the mornings and evenings, he uses the intervening time to take calls from people who have spotted a snake.

He narrates how it all began. "A girl in my neighborhood started screaming that she had seen a snake. Some days previously I watched a movie where a boy places a stick just behind the head of the snake and catches it. I did the same thing. My hands shook. In fact my whole body shook. I am not sure how I continued to hold the snake. Maybe it was with divine help. I ran to a far off place and released the snake in the bushes. Only afterwards did I learn that it was a krait. It's very swift and its venom is several times more lethal than a cobra's."

In those days as there were no cell phones, people would come to his house once or twice a week and ask: would he kindly catch a snake that they have spotted in their garden or backyard? But now of course he has a cell phone whose number is widely known (9448069399).

"Mysore is being raped," Shyam says. "We had so much greenery everywhere. Nearly half of it has gone to make way for apartments and roads. That's why snakes are straying into houses and buildings. When I catch a snake, some people pay me hundred, two hundred rupees, some don't. It doesn't matter; I am not doing this for money. I just love to do it, to save our snakes, to tell people to stop killing them."

A paradox, because from ancient times snakes have always enjoyed a special significance in Indian culture. The cobra is especially venerated by Hindus because of the legend that the Shesh Nag, or the thousand hooded cobra, supports our planet on its hood. There's even an annual festival called the Nag Panchami in honor of the cobra. Devotees offer milk and flowers and recite prayers in front of abandoned termite mounds where a cobra might have taken up residence.

"But people don't realize that the snake won't come out because you are there outside," Shyam points out. "When you pour milk into the holes of the termite mound, some milk can clog the snake's nostrils and even travel down into the lungs. That causes pneumonia. The snake can die. That's why I keep telling people: when you pray, don't kill!"

Snakes, he explains, are vital for a predominantly agricultural economy like India because they control the rodent population. Rodents are one of the fastest breeding animal species, giving birth to their young after only three weeks of gestation. "As it is they destroy nearly a quarter of all food grains we produce, not only in the fields but also in the granaries where they are stored. Without snakes, the destruction would easily double. Also, rodents are carriers of dangerous diseases. Plague is just one. There are several more like meningitis, leptospirosis, typhimurium, and typhus. "

"But isn't it natural to fear snakes?" I ask. "The snake may be poisonous and a bite can be lethal."

"True. But since we are the most developed of all animal species, we have a responsibility to understand all other species. We need to co-exist. Only then can the ecological balance be preserved. The sad thing is that any imbalance takes a generation or two to manifest itself. So people don't worry about it until it is too late. By that time nothing can be done. The species is lost."

Of the 200 odd species of snakes found in India, only four are truly venomous and widely distributed: the spectacled cobra, the common krait, Russell's viper, and saw scaled viper. These four account for the more than 10,000 deaths (some estimate it at 20,000) every year in India. It also explains why snakes as a whole have acquired a vile reputation.

"A snake bites to protect itself from being molested or trampled," Shyam says. "Even the King Cobra, the largest of all venomous snakes, prefers to avoid humans. This is because all snakes have a fragile skeletal structure that can be easily damaged. Can you blame them for biting when stepped upon?"

The fatalities are mostly in remote villages and fields where medical care is scarce. By the time a victim is taken to the nearest hospital for administration of anti-venin (manufactured by Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, the polyvalent serum is potent against bites of all the four poisonous snakes), precious time is lost and the victim succumbs. "What people should do on spotting a snake is call up the proper authorities, like the zoo or the forest department. Keep the telephone numbers handy. Instead of using the stick, use the telephone."

Shyam talked about one of the strangest calls he'd received. It was from Srirangapattana town, half an hour away on the Mysore-Bangalore highway. "The man said it was a big and heavy snake. I thought it was the Russell's viper. I heard someone in the background shout "It's a python!" Python? How could such a large snake stray into a town? When I went there I saw this beautiful specimen on a wall of the old fort, basking in the sun. It was indeed the Indian rock python. It weighed 18 kilos and measured 9 feet. The previous two days there was a heavy storm. The python must have been washed away from the jungles."

Shyam claims to have caught more than forty thousand snakes. "I started catching them from 1982. But I did not keep a record. Only from 1992 did I keep a record. So, officially I have caught 14,110 snakes." He shows me his register: pages and pages of names and addresses of people who summoned him and the type of snake he caught. Against each entry is a signature or an institution seal. "Anyone can claim anything, no?" says Shyam. "This register helps dispel doubts."

He releases nearly all the snakes in the nearby jungles of Bandipur. The rest he donates to the Mysore Zoo. "Right now they want a Russell's viper. It's not common in these parts. The most common is the spectacled cobra, followed by the rat snake."

Shyam's family comprises his wife who works in a factory, two children, Surya and Prakurti, and his ageing parents. His wife initially was against his 'creepy' hobby but later got used to it. "She's only worried whether I am alive or not," Shyam says with another grin. "So, soon as she returns home she calls me up and asks, 'Is everything all right?' "

Just then his cell phone rings. It's from Infosys, the computer software giant. Someone has seen a snake near the helipad. We speed off to the campus and after some wrong turns finally locate the spot. There are three security men standing around a bush. "That's one thing I like about Infosys," Shyam comments. "They post a few men around the place where the snake was last seen. They won't move until I come."

Shyam asks the security men, "When did you see the snake?"

"Half an hour ago," replies the man with a big moustache. "It's still there."

Shyam starts to beat the bush with his metal rod that has a hook at one end. A flash of pale brown. Shyam thrashes the leaves again. Another flash of brown and this time a good part of the body. Shyam must have recognized the species because he reaches down with his bare hand.

"Ouch," he cries, withdrawing his hand. The snake has struck at a finger. A small gash and a trickle of blood. "Nothing to worry," he says with an embarrassed laugh. "It's a rat snake. Non-venomous. If it were a poisonous snake there would be two puncture marks because the fangs are like hypodermic needles for delivering venom."

Once more he beats the bush and this time he's successful in pinning the head. He puts the snake in a cloth bag and ties the end. He will send a bill to Infosys later.

Under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 (Schedule IV), all snakes are a protected species in India. Violation is punishable by a fine of Rs 5,000 and imprisonment up to 7 years. Yet, the law is hardly enforced, because poachers and smugglers are hand in glove with powerful authorities. Also the police and forest department are severely understaffed and ill-equipped.

The skins of the cobra, king cobra, Russell's Viper and the rat snake are highly prized in the illegal market. They are smuggled out of India for making wallets, belts, bags and pouches. The Python molurus bivittatus is also hunted for its popularity as pets in foreign countries. Also, tribal people in certain parts of India like Tamil Nadu and Kerala consider python meat a rare delicacy.

The last big seizure of snake skins was in July 2002. The police arrested one person in Bangalore and seized 35,100 snake skins (mostly rat snake and cobra). The skins were being taken to Chennai on the east coast to be shipped to Singapore. The haul was valued at more than U.S. $200,000 on the international market. Way back in 1977, a staggering four million snake skins (mostly rat snake) were legally exported.

The trade was so extensive that it played a major role in the huge increase in the rat population, which decimated huge amounts of stored food grain in the '70s. Export of snakeskin products was banned in 1986. Reptile traders protested vigorously and a stay order was secured, but, mercifully, the ban was upheld in 1997.

In 1999, the Indian government publicly burned 160,000 snake skins and over 5,000 reptile skin shoes and bags at the National Zoological Park, New Delhi. These stocks had been held for several years by a government establishment dealing in the export of leather goods.

Shyam's cell phone rings again. He listens for a while and tells me, "We've to go fast. A snake has been spotted near a house."

When we arrive at the spot, a dozen people are out on the street. One of them stands in the open drain flanking the street and two others hover about a bush. "It's here," says one, pointing to the bush.

"Can you see it?" asks Shyam.

The man shakes his head. "But I know it's here."

The sun has set by this time and it's difficult to see clearly but nevertheless Shyam takes his stick and clambers down into the drain. I stand at the edge, ready with my camera. Shyam pokes here and there and then I see it, a golden brown tail slipping deeper into the bush.

"It's there, Shyam," I shout. And I don't know what makes me say it, "I think it's a cobra."

"Where, where?" he shouts, as if he's hunting snakes for the first time. I turn and ask the people to get a torch. A little girl sprints away and comes back with a torch. Shyam holds it with one hand and with the other goes on poking the bush. Suddenly he lets go of his stick and bends. The snake is less than four feet long but Shyam holds it away from his body and keeps shaking the snake. "Someone get a pillow cover fast," he says.

There is some delay in getting that. Meanwhile Shyam stands on the road and keeps shaking the snake every time it doubles up and tries to strike at him. At one point he gets a little tired and places the snake on the ground. The snake briefly flares its hood and then put its head back on the ground. A boy brings a pillow cover and while Shyam turns to take it, his concentration wanes a bit. That's sufficient; the snake slips from his grasp and wriggles away on the road in desperate winding movements. An excited flurry of whispers and cries erupts but Shyam is on the snake quickly and puts it away in the pillow cover.

"That's a cobra, right?" I ask Shyam. He nods and gives a tired smile. As we walk back to his car, some people come up and thank him and one of them enters details in his register. Shyam's phone rings again. He listens and turns to me. "Another snake. Want to come along?" he asks.

Ramesh Avadhani is a freelance writer based in Bangalore, India. He has a background in marketing and journalism, and has had over fifty articles published in India, the United States, Europe, the United Arab Emirates and Australia. Some of the diverse publications that have featured his work include Living Now, Dragonfire, Citizen Culture, Reptiles magazine, Gastronomica and Woman this Month.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE
Author:Avadhani, Ramesh
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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