Some voluntary snake rescuers were found involved in smuggling snakes or keeping them in captivity, prompting forest department to fix eligibility criteria for such persons
The Maharashtra forest department is going to issue identity cards to sarpamitras – volunteers who catch snakes found in residential areas and release them in the wild. In a pilot project, some 40 out of 100 sarpamitra applicants in the Nagpur forest circle have been identified as eligible for ID cards by a department committee, headed by additional conservator of forests, P K Mahajan.
Sarpamitras, who were earlier respected in Maharashtra as rescuers of snakes, are nowadays mired in controversy due to increasing cases of malpractice by people in their community coming to light. In early 2013, it was found that many sarpamitras were involved in smuggling snakes and their venom. Minor offences they are found to be involved in include display of captured snakes and keeping snakes confined for more than the stipulated 48 hours from the time of capture, before releasing them in the wild.
It has also been noted that the department had no mechanism for monitoring these snake catchers and their activities since they were totally unorganised and were working as part of different formal or informal nature groups, or even independently. On July 8, last year, at a joint meeting between the department officials and representatives of sarpamitras, the criteria for determining sarpamitra eligibility were decided. These include proper knowledge and experience in capturing snakes, knowledge about different species of snakes, ability to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, knowledge of first-aid in case of snake bites, five years of experience in snake-handling and a valid life-insurance policy.
Talking to Down To Earth, Mahajan said that eligible sarpamitras will be issued identity cards, but will not be paid any remuneration by the department. The work of catching snakes and releasing them in the wild will have to be done on a voluntary basis. To get these ID cards, sarpamitras will have to give a written undertaking on stamp papers that they will not misuse captured snakes for money or display them in public.”
He added that authorised sarpamitras will have to report a capture to the nearest forest office immediately and the work of releasing snakes will have to be performed at the earliest, in coordination with a forest official. Sarpamitras having less than five years of experience in snake-catching will have to work with senior sarpamitras till they become eligible for IDs.
Monu Singh, a sarpamitra based in Hingna in Nagpur district and the president of the Vidarbha Sarpamitra Samiti (an organisation of sarpamitras), said that IDs will be a great help to sarpamitras because at present they are harassed by officials and citizens who suspect their credentials. “Since our work is totally voluntary, we have to spend our own money for travel to catch a snake and to release it. Often, while travelling in forests for releasing snakes, sarpamitras get stuck without help or meet with accidents. At such times an ID can come in handy while seeking help from citizens and government officials in the region.”
Singh rued that due to awareness drives on snake handling, a lot of untrained people have started going around as sarpamitras, and a few unwanted ones have also found their way into this work which is purely for the benefit of society. “It is very difficult for us to keep track of bogus sarpamitras,” he says. “Our organisation has 150 members but we don’t know how many others are actually working as sarpamitras in the Vidarbha region, and how many of them are bogus.” IDs will also be a great help to groups of sarpamitras to eliminate bad elements from their fold, he said.
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