Wildlife & Biodiversity

Snake slides: ‘Python Day’ and raising awareness on serpent conservation at Colonel Sher Jung National Park

Wildlife Institute of India fellow Nidhi Singh chronicles her survey of the park and her first encounters with creatures she fears the most

By Nidhi Singh
Published: Friday 06 January 2023
Snake slides: ‘Python Day’ and raising awareness on serpent conservation at Colonel Sher Jung National Park
Indian rock python. Photo: Saurav Chaudhary
Indian rock python. Photo: Saurav Chaudhary

This is the second of a two-part story on a wildlife biologist’s exploration of the Colonel Sher Jung National Park in Paonta Valley of Himachal Pradesh, India. 

In the last part, Nidhi Singh shared anecdotes from the first few days of survey of the park with herpetologist Saurav Chaudhary. One afternoon, the two were crossing a stream after lunch, when they encountered an Indian rock python curled up in the shallow of the stream, breathing heavily camouflaged by leaf litter. Here’s what followed: 

Saurav used his snake stick to pat its back and get it out of the water. (It was evident that a snake that thick could not be handled with his snake stick.) As the python slowly came out of the stream, its patterns were visible. It was magnificent. 

It sat motionless on the leaves, only breathing, for around 15 minutes as we photographed it. The herpetologist stood quite close to it, while I was at least 8 metres away.

Then he said casually: 

Now I am going to handle it manually, as you can see it's too big for the stick. Please click the pictures when I ask you to, I need to take the measurements.

I was too stunned to speak and process whatever he said. This might be a regular thing for people working with snakes and herpetologists, but I, who was terrified of reptiles to begin with, was going to experience someone handling a python for the very first time.

I stood there with the camera as Saurav approached the enormous reptile carefully to get a hold of it. It was an 8-foot python, and so thick that it was challenging for him to hold it properly. But he did not let it go. 

The snake resisted and, as it felt threatened, it charged at him in a defense mechanism and coiled itself around one of his arms. And this is when I started to panic. 

He was on his knees sitting in the stream, trying to calm down the python wrapped around his arm. He kept pushing its body in the opposite direction to untangle it. And I kept on telling him from far away to be careful, to watch out. “This is just a baby, Nidhi, at max three years old. Do not worry, I won’t hurt it.” 

Not to sound inconsiderate towards the reptile family, but it was not the snake I was worried about being hurt. 

After a while, the snake calmed down a bit and Saurav took the measurements, while I moved a bit closer to take photographs. He measured the lengths of the body and the tail, and asked me to capture the patterns carefully. I was not scared now, because the snake was calm, and I knew there was a competent herpetologist around. 

After all the necessary images and measurements were taken, I was once again asked to step back as he released the snake into the water we had sighted it in. Just as he released it, the snake charged at him with all its might one last time, making a leap of more than a metre. It was both scary and impressive. 

We saw it crawl away. We decided to call it a day and return to base camp. On our way back, Saurav kept on explaining that the python charged as a defense mechanism since it felt threatened by him, and its intention was not to attack him just on a whim. 

How was I doing after all of this? I was overwhelmed, not sure how to feel. It surely was a lot to process. A memorable experience indeed.

Shortly after the “python day”, we had the opportunity to interact with the trainee range officers of Uttar Pradesh. Since we had been working in the national park for more than a month then, the staff suggested we take on some of their questions and queries about the wildlife around. This seemed like a great opportunity for us to create awareness, and we utilised it well. 

We began with a quiz about snakes and frogs, and it did not take much time to grab their attention with facts and myths about various species. We also shared our experience with the Indian rock python. 

There was a wave of silent excitement; everyone was intrigued and requested us to show the pictures of the snakes we had sighted in the national park thus far. They surely were curious to learn as we were bombarded with many questions later. 

It was a good day; the feeling of satisfaction inside told me that I was going to sleep well that night.     

Interaction with the trainee range officers of Uttar Pradesh at Simbalbara National Park. Photo: Nidhi Singh

We explored the national park for two more months and my perspective towards the snakes had changed. I was empathetic and informed now about the conservation issues and threats. 

I realised that even though I was a wildlife biologist, there was so much about the world of herpetofauna that I was not aware of. I learned the difference between frogs and toads, saw different stages as a tadpole grew into a frog. 

I learnt how, due to myths and lack of awareness, snakes were being relentlessly killed by people. The more I learnt about snakes, the more my will to spread awareness about their conservation strengthened. 

As the saying goes, charity begins at home. I thought why not start with the people of my village. That is when I realised the real challenge. To convince someone in the field of wildlife about threats being faced by snakes is easy. But to convince a common person who has been taught their whole life to kill the snakes if sighted, was not.

Explaining to them the role of snakes in our ecosystem, in the food chain, gets tough as they know the risk to their lives that comes with being bitten by a venomous snake. Also, half the country gets their facts about snakes from daily soaps – which is a big problem. It is difficult, but I keep trying — creating awareness and spreading the word, one person at a time.

Facts vs myths

  • About 5 million snakebites occur annually, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Around 300 snake species inhabit the varying habitats across the country, of which over 60 are venomous, more than 40 mildly venomous and about 180 non-venomous, according to Wildlife SOS.
  • Snakes usually have poor eyesight. They are smell-reliant hunters; they hunt and notice the presence of a prey by picking up chemical information with their tongues by flicking them in and out using Jacobson’s organ (sensory organ) located at the base of their nasal cavity.
  • In India, snakes are fed milk, especially during “nagpanchami” by the devotees and, also by the snake charmers. However, it is a lesser-known fact that does not drink milk.
    At times when starved for days by snake-charmers, snakes do drink milk to keep them hydrated. However, forcing them to drink milk could be injurious.
  • Snakes do not attack or bite unless they feel threatened. Also, as depicted in daily soaps and many movies, snakes do not avenge the death of their mates.

Indian rat snake. Photo: Saurav Chaudhary

I would like to thank the director and dean of Wildlife Institute of India for this opportunity, my Project Investigator Salvador Lyngdoh, PhD for helping during the field work and providing logistics, and my teammates, who boosted my morale.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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