The sleepy saw-scaled viper

Largely nocturnal, this brown snake is seen under rocks and fallen logs

By Sanjay Sondhi
Published: Tuesday 15 March 2011

Sanjay SondhiI was searching for herps at a graveyard in scrub forest on the outskirts of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. Herps, for the uninitiated, is slang for herpetofauna, which means amphibian and reptile fauna. Searching under rocks and fallen logs, I came across an old, discarded cement bag and turned it over.

Under it was a dull brown snake, asleep with its head tucked in, under its coils. This bad old naturalist decided to wake up the creature—the snake had large, circular, golden eyes with a vertical pupil. Could it be a cat snake, I wondered. Unlikely, I muttered to myself.

Cat snakes are longer and largely arboreal creatures likely to be found in bushes and on trees, instead of the ground. I took out my camera and captured a few photographs. The snake was small, just over a foot long, and quite docile. I nudged it into a small container I had, and the snake slipped into it grumpily.

imageI pulled out my “snake book”, written by my good friend Ashok Captain and proceeded to identify it. Snake taxonomy involves counting the scales on the body of the snake, as well as examining the scalation on its head. The snake was a saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus, one of the four venomous snakes that you could easily see in your city, along with the spectacled cobra, Russell’s viper and the common krait. I am glad I had not handled the snake and followed the old snake adage—assume its venomous until proven otherwise. The snake’s venom is very toxic, and a bite is almost certain to be fatal if not treated with anti-venom serum.

Do not disturb me!

Having identified it, I released the snake exactly where I had found it. The snake slid away happily and curled up against a wall, giving me the glares, as though complaining about having its sleep disturbed. The saw-scaled viper is largely nocturnal and hunts for small prey such as rodents, lizards and frogs. A couple of days later, I was in the same area again. Once again, lifting rocks and logs and cement bags. And yet again, the sawscaled viper was curled up under it. This time the snake was furious. You again, it seemed to say. Can’t you let me sleep? I had really upset the snake.

Almost immediately the snake raised its head. The angry snake’s coils rolled against each other with really smooth, fluid movements. I heard a loud, sinister rasping sound.

Rasping for self-defence

The saw-scaled viper’s scales are rough and heavily keeled, so when they are rubbed together they make a really, menacing rasping sound to scare away potential enemies. Every now and then the snake’s head would shoot out, as though attacking its predator (which is what the snake thought I was). I got the message.

  It is one of the four most spotted deadly snakes. Others are spectacled cobra, Russell’s viper and common krait  
This time around I was really careful— no head close-ups at all. I shot a few photographs maintaining a safe distance. I covered the snake with the cement bag and was on my way in a jiffy. I had no intention of being an addition to Tuticorin’s graveyard.

All this while a local passerby was watching me aghast. “Sir, its a snake.” “Yes,” I said, “and it is venomous.” “Aren’t you afraid,” he asked, edging away from me, as though by association I was venomous as well. “Well,” I explained, “as long as I don’t trouble the snake, it is unlikely to trouble me.”

“And in fact, you should be glad that there are snakes here; they help control the rodent population, and hence assist in reducing food grain losses.” In the heated discussion that followed, slowly realisation dawned on the person that snakes provide us some benefit too. But I don’t think I quite managed to assuage his fear of snakes.

However, I do believe that I managed to convince him that not only do they benefit mankind, they are not the nasty, creepy, vile creatures they are made out to be.

Sanjay Sondhi, founder trustee of Titli Trust, is a naturalist from Dehradun

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