Wildlife & Biodiversity

Snakebites in rural India: A slow suppuration

Most people in rural areas die from snakebites during the monsoon season; a quarter of these are children less than 15 years of age

 
By Sumeet S Gulati
Published: Tuesday 25 August 2020
A juvenile spectacled cobra. Photo: Sumeet S Gulati
A juvenile spectacled cobra. Photo: Sumeet S Gulati A juvenile spectacled cobra. Photo: Sumeet S Gulati

On February 8, 2020, the four of us — Krishna, the farmer (name changed) Dincy, Shruti and I — sat in the shade of Krishna’s single-storey bungalow. We were in a village bordering the Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple (BRT) Wildlife Sanctuary, studying the human costs of conflict with wildlife in Karnataka.

The research was joint between the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada and the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru, Karnataka. “We aren’t stopping them (forest officers) from protecting their forests,” Krishna — who had short greying hair, a trim beard and a single leg — told Shruti.

“If they want to save the forests and wildlife, they can. They shouldn’t let forest animals graze on our crops and kill our livestock. It is only fair. If that happens, they should compensate us,” he added.

Forest officers, however, do not show. When they do, the compensation is typically a fraction of losses, especially after accounting for bribes. To Krishna, trying to get compensation is a worthless endeavour.

“They only come when we tell them that an elephant is dead and the body is nearby. Once the first officer arrives, we catch him and tie him up. It is the only way to get them to care about our losses,” he said.

***

Every morning, Shruti and Dincy mapped a route to decide the order of villages to cover for the day. As the only one who spoke Kannada, Shruti conducted all the interviews. When we got there, she approached a farmer, bowed a namaskara (greeting) and began a practiced introduction.

Shruti and Dincy were students, while I was their professor. We were there to research human-wildlife conflict. Would the villagers agree to be interviewed? For the two days I was there in the field, nobody said no to Shruti.

Every evening, we retreated to BRT, that became a tiger reserve — the highest level of protection under India’s national wildlife sanctuary system — in 2011. It has an area of 540 square kilometres and is located 80 kilometres south east of Mysuru.

The road to Hotel Mayura in the BRT Tiger Reserve. Photo: Shruti Suresh

Classified a part of the Western Ghats, it also bordered the Eastern Ghats and was a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a large collection of contiguous forests and reserves named after the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu.

We drove approximately 15 km on a narrow road, snaking through the reserve to the Mayura, the single-story maroon and white brick building that was our hotel.

The town we inhabited — earlier a Soliga tribal village — had a market, resorts, field stations, a health centre and most importantly, the Billigiriranga Swamy temple. The name combined the location, a billigiri (white hill) and a deity, Lord Ranganathaswamy (Vishnu).

All around us was a deciduous forest occupied by elephants, tigers, leopards, gaur (bison), dhole (Asian wild dog) and other animals. One night, from the top of the temple hill, I heard a persistent bark — the alarm call of a Sambar deer — emerging from the forest below.

***

Krishna bought these two acres of land 20 years ago and lived off it since. Last year, he grew horse gram — a mistake, given the unexpected rain — and maize. So, this season he grew sugarcane and mulberry, two high value crops. He sold sugarcane to the Bannari Amman sugar factory in Kunthur and harvested mulberry to feed six cycles of silkworms a year. The silkworms grew in a temperature and humidity-controlled shed.

After buying eggs from a sericulture agency, he placed them to hatch and feed on mulberry leaves, molting four times in the process. They eventually enclosed themselves in a cocoon of raw silk and were sold to silk processors at Kollegal.

While our questions were mostly about wild animals and their menace, they weren’t the highlight of Krishna’s woes. Yes, pigs bothered him, but as a response he just turned up the electric current in his fence during harvest.

Elephants could break his fence, but they barely came around anymore. “Their forests were cleared and they preferred bananas and ragi (finger millet) closer to their habitat,” he said. The leopards on the hill picked two of his dogs, but “we get new pups when that happens,” according to him.

In the highlight reel of Krishna’s worries were: Dwindling and increasingly erratic rain, low prices for cocoons in the wet season, rising costs of labour and the increasing need for pesticides for each mulberry and maize cycle.

Krishna’s dog — sitting at his feet — suddenly barked, wagged her tail and in a cautious, but friendly manner, inched closer to us. He swatted at her in disdain. The dog yelped and ran away.

A silkworm shed. Photo: Sumeet S Gulati

Increasingly comfortable during the interview, Krishna often laughed or flashed a toothy smile. We asked most farmers if they used the forest for firewood and Krishna’s response was typical: With gas connections, firewood is not needed anymore.

We asked him about fires and he said: “People set fire to the forest by throwing their beedis (Indian mini-cigars).” Locals burned the invasive Lantana Camara — a thorny herb — to promote the growth of natural plants and grass for their animals, he said.

To keep the forest department from catching them, they would secretively drop a beedi and walk away. Unprompted, he added: “It’s only the people who take the livestock to graze that do this, not us.”

“Please forgive me if I’m rude, but could you tell me what happened to your leg?” Shruti asked. “Snake thorn,” said Krishna. “What does that mean?” asked Shruti. “There was a dead Russels Viper lying on the forest floor. I stepped on it accidentally and the tooth went into my sole,” he said.

This was 37 years ago. His wound festered unattended for 15 years. Eventually, he had his right leg amputated below his knee.

***

Shruti ran towards Rameshwara (name changed) as he disappeared behind a Neem tree. Seventy-three-years-old, he walked with a limp in his left ankle where a wound festered.

He motioned us to the courtyard of his yellow house. The floor was creased, hard, and shiny. I assumed it to be badly finished concrete, but Dincy and Shruti knew it was cow-dung. There were sarees and dhotis drying under the low roof.

The property sloped down to our right. There was a small blue hut, a well and a few trees. Apart from the well was a moped, a heavy grindstone and a few house sparrows: An idyllic setting. His wife sat to our left, sorting pigeon pea. We never spoke to her.

Rameshwara had two sons. One lived next to him in a smaller hut in the courtyard and owned the moped. The other lived and worked in Bengaluru. “I didn't make enough to support myself growing ragi and horse gram last year,” Rameshwara said. We learned that his horse gram rotted in the unexpected rain. He lived off the earnings of his sons.

He saw leopards, wild pigs, deer, peacocks and an innumberable number of snakes. Wildlife damage was a persistent issue, with boars and deer bothering him the most.

But he could not afford solar fencing — it cost over Rs 15,000 (approximately $200) per acre — or the cheaper, high-voltage electric fence, the one some farmers used to illegally kill wild pigs.

In the months before the harvest, he and the other farmers stayed up nights watching over their fields. “Hardship meant farming and farming meant hardship,” he summarised.

Shruti asked him how things were when he was younger. “Earlier, man used to follow the principles of nyaya (justice), neeti (law), dharma (responsibilities) and social order. Twenty or 30 years ago, there was another generation of wise elders. I’m not saying they were perfect or didn’t make mistakes, but most of them thought and acted with good intentions,” he said.

He decried the current generation’s disrespect of elders and their inflated self-belief. “It is because of them that even the rainfall has changed,” he said. A child walked into the courtyard. Rameshwar, fondly, said it was his grandson, from his youngest son. “He just came back from school and wandered here. Go child, go home,” he said.

When Rameshwara was young, farmers often ventured into the forest for water and firewood. Once he and his friend Ampaiah (name changed) were eating by a water hole in the BRT.

They noticed a rogue elephant — in the usual herd of 60-70 — injured after a chase from villagers and the forest department. After they were done, Rameshwara picked up his bag of vessels and led them back to the village. Just as they started back, he heard the irregular flapping of the elephant's ears, and the sound of its heavy exhale.

They turned a corner. There was a trumpet and the elephant charged. Being the smaller of the two, Ampaiah jumped through a hole in the thicket and reached the other side. Rameshwara had no escape. In two strides, the elephant lifted him up. He was dangling in the air. “I thought I would have to make peace with god,” he said.

He remembered his bag of vessels, dropped them to make a noise that startled the elephant, who threw him into the thorny bushes. Rameshwara dove deeper, ripping his clothes. He bled all over, but held his breath. The elephant left.

Disoriented and lost in the forest, Rameshwara walked until he heard the Lambani tribe. Distraught at his plight, they gave him clothes and removed his thorns in a pale lamplight. The next day, Rameshwara returned to the forest to get firewood.

“Sir, I do not mean to pry. I ask purely of concern. What happened to your foot?” asked Shruti. Starting from below his left ankle and extending to a few inches above it, there was a slowly suppurating, white discharge. “A year ago, I was in the stream and a snake bit me. It is getting better now,” said Rameshwara.

***

In their 2004 book, Snakes of India: The Field Guide, Romulus Whitaker and Ashok Captain listed 278 species of resident snakes. Of these, 40 were venomous enough to cause fatalities. The infamous ‘big four’: The Cobra (with four species of its own), the Common Krait, the Russell’s Viper and the Saw-scaled Viper were land-based snakes responsible for most deaths.

Snakes typically bite when they are surprised, cornered or stepped on and usually retreat when humans approach. Most venomous snake bites (85-90 per cent) are not life-threatening, as the amount of venom injected is insufficient to kill.

Farmers are most at risk as they walk barefoot at dusk, dawn or night — when snakes are most active. The bushes, firewood, leaves or crops that farmers walk around provide cover for the snakes. 

In 2020, Wilson Suraweera and others — including Romulus Whitaker — authored a study providing estimates characteristic of a snakebite in India. In 2015, the authors reckoned there were a million serious snakebites, with approximately 58,000 people dying from them every year.

Most died in rural areas during the monsoon season and a quarter of those dead were children less than 15 years of age. The Russel’s Viper caused 43 per cent of these deaths, making it the deadliest snake in their database.

In 2016, Vivek Chauhan and Suman Thakur — writing in the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma and Shock — also determined the Russell’s Viper to be responsible for most serious injuries in south India, including Karnataka. It was the only snake among the ‘big four’ that caused severe local necrosis and gangrene. No author referred to humans bitten by dead snakes.

***

All farmers I met during my trip wore slippers, sandals or stayed barefoot in their fields. Their children did the same.

On my first day out, I interviewed four farmers, of which two revealed serious snakebites. The lack of protective footwear surprised me. Maybe the vicissitudes of farming, and the perils of living close to large wild animals took up most cognitive capacity. Even though the snakes were omnipresent and deadly, they were ignored.

But this did not explain why Shruti and Dincy wore slippers during the field visits.

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

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