Wildlife Institute of India fellow Nidhi Singh chronicles her survey of the park and her first encounters with creatures she fears the most
This is the first of a two-part series on a wildlife biologist’s exploration of the Colonel Sher Jung National Park in Paonta Valley of Himachal Pradesh, India.
After two years of working in the forests of the Himalayas and the terai landscape, I (fortunately) was yet to have any direct encounter with reptiles of any kind. For someone whose biggest fear is that of a house lizard, one can imagine how difficult it would be for me to keep calm around a snake. However, considering I am a “wildlife biologist” by profession and wandering in forests was what the job mostly entailed, I knew I would have to face this fear of mine sooner or later.
And then, at this one fortuitous fieldwork, it all happened; I saw the object of my fear crawling and slithering in front of me. They came in various sizes and colors, with different patterns, and with or without fangs.
It was the summer of 2021 when I got an opportunity to work in Simbalbara National Park, also known as Colonel Sher Jung National Park, located in Paonta Valley of Himachal Pradesh, India. This is where I had my first opportunity to work closely with a herpetologist. Was I thrilled? I am not sure. Was I scared? A little bit.
I met Saurav Chaudhary (the herpetologist) on our first reconnaissance survey of the national park. He had recently finished his master’s in wildlife sciences and after doing internships in the fields of vegetation and mammals in different parts of India, he had decided to work on herpetofauna.
Landscape of Simbalbara National Park. Photo: Saurav Chaudhary
As our team of four researchers continued the survey through the dense forests of sal trees mixed with eucalyptus, we came across a small natural pond. We were all standing there quietly, noticing the birds and the habitat, when something happened — it was so sudden we could not understand what. But the next moment, we saw Saurav standing next to us holding a turtle from the pond.
As it turned out, he had sighted a turtle crawling out from a side of the pond and, falling and tumbling, he rushed to catch it. The rest of us stood there in utter shock. This was new for us, not something that we saw daily.
I asked him why he ran like that. He replied, “Well, it was not going to wait there forever, they are very quick to escape. This is an Indian flapshell turtle.” For the next five minutes, he told us all he knew about turtles. He took measurements of the turtle and released it back into the pond.
Indian flapshell turtle. Photo: Nidhi Singh
During one month of working in the National Park, I had seen various lizards and frogs getting captured and photographed. From Indian cobras to rat snakes, cat snakes to keelbacks, I encountered many snakes during the survey as well.
Spectacled cobra, a venomous snake. Photo: Saurav Chaudhary
Saurav would always carry his ‘snake stick’ with him and tell me general facts and stories about snakes, while walking on trails or during breaks on the field. “You know there are four widespread species of terrestrial venomous snakes on the Indian mainland, also referred to as the “big four” of the snake world, namely, the spectacled cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper. These four venomous snakes are responsible for the majority of the mortality and injury cases in the country,” he said.
He often lamented how the common people, upon encountering snakes, handled them carelessly and, at times, killed them as well. He told me snakes do not drink milk and that they rely on their sensory organs (Jacobson’s organ) to sense the movement of the prey and hunt. These facts fascinated me, and I wondered if everyone knew these things.
Saurav handling an Indian rat snake in Colonel Sherjung National Park. Photo: Nidhi Singh
And just when I thought I had seen it all, mother nature surprised me again, this time with an 8-foot-long snake. It was a sunny afternoon after two days of rain in the park. As we could not do much survey on those two days, we were relieved to go out and continue our work.
Half our team was conducting vegetation sampling in another part of the National Park, while Saurav and I were walking on animal trails to look for signs of mammals in the region while photographing the birds on our way.
It had been around six hours of the survey, and as it was already lunchtime, we decided to stop beside a meandering stream of water. It was a shallow, temporary, rain-fed stream around three metres wide. We cleared the litter of the leaves — it was the time of year when sal trees shed their old leaves for new ones — and made ourselves comfortable in the shade of the tall trees.
As we ate our food, he mentioned how a saw-scaled viper could coil and sit under a litter of leaves this big and one wouldn’t even know until they step on it and get bitten by them in self-defense. This bit of general knowledge did not make it easier for me to swallow my food. Now, I was eating nervously and anxiously.
After a while, we packed our bags and stood up to cross the stream to go to the other side.
Saurav was leading the way. As he started to walk, he took two steps forward, stood silently observing something in the water for less than two seconds and suddenly took three steps backward, almost making me fall on the ground. I threw him a “What is it now?” expression. He calmly replied, “Nidhi, please get back and stand quietly at a distance”.
And that is when I saw it. There was something in the shallow waters, breathing heavily, camouflaged with the leaf litter. I wanted to scream at that very moment. An Indian rock python.
Indian rock python. Photo: Saurav Chaudhary
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.
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