A colourful, vibrant personality with amulets, rings and heavy chains dangling from his neck and arms, M S Balasubramania—popularly known as Snake Shyam—is a naturalist on a mission to save mother nature and educate children about it.
Not a trained herpetologist, Mysuru-based Shyam, as per official records, has caught 32,200 snakes in and around Mysuru district in 20 years. He continues this vocation with the same zeal and fervour, and is ready to go on a mission every day to catch and release them in the forest.
The 50-year-old makes sure all understand the basic ethics of “not catching and/or translocating a snake if it could be safely left where it is found”. “A big part of the problem is solved if people learn to identify snakes and tolerate the non-venomous varieties to stick around,” he says.
During such sessions, he educates the public about snakes and encourages them to understand them. A school bus driver and a councillor from Mysuru’s Ward Number 17, Shyam rescues snakes from houses, barns, fields and bathrooms for free.
Shyam has formed a team of catchers who help people catch snakes in his absence.
Rescuing and rehabilitating snakes, he has documented many varieties of them. Sometimes he is called to hospitals to identify a snake species before treating a bite victim. He also holds workshops for volunteers to teach the art of catching snakes.
Catching snakes was a self-learned art with the help of a stick and bag. He slowly picked up the technique of catching all kinds of snakes. Between 1994-1997, he was bitten four times—thrice by the Spectacled Cobra and once by Saw Scaled Viper. “When I was bitten by a cobra for the third time, I almost died. It was my will power and efforts of doctors that revived me. The doctors at K R Hospital in Mysuru have told me that I would not survive another poisonous bite and anti-venom injections would no more work on me,” says Shyam, who has won many laurels and has been featured on the National Geographic channel.
He has some interesting stories to narrate. “Three years ago, I was called to catch a cobra, which was hiding in 1.5X15 feet hole. As soon as I caught the snake, I heard a hissing sound again, and found another coming out of the hole. While catching this one, my sandals fell inside, and two more snakes popped out. This was the mating season of snakes. All four snakes were later released into the forest,” he says.
Once, a Muslim lady called him to catch a five-feet long cobra that had entered her hut in a Mysuru slum. “When I refused to take money from her, she said, ‘Tomorrow, when I offer my namaaz (prayers), I will pray for you. Blessings of such people have helped me survive this long’.”
He says urbanisation has led to destruction of our ecology, while cropping and tourism has robbed wildlife of their food. “Now we see big cats, pachyderms and even ungulates raiding crops and attacking humans in the process. We need to educate people on simple issues such as never touch tiger or leopard cubs if found in the fields, the moment you touch them, their mothers abandon them,” he says.
Shyam’s van features paintings of snakes and his slogans, “Snakes are not as poisonous as human beings” and “Care for the rare”. “Your fear and panic is actually communicated to the snake. Usually viper and krait are never touched by hand, I always catch them with a hook,” he says.
He conducts environmental awareness campaigns across the state by visiting schools, colleges and voluntary organisations, as he believes education on such issues should start early.
Shyam, who started catching snakes in the 80s when was a student, says, “There is no future without conservation of nature. With depleting water levels, polluted air, changing food habits and increasing human population, we have started occupying the habitat of animals. How can we take away the rights of animals or even the reproductive capacity of elephants or ants? They are as important to nature as human beings. We are a big zero without nature and so save it for our future generations.”
A street in Mysuru has been named after him in recognition of his work and the first urban forest here is dedicated to him and fellow environmentalist Hyder Ali Khan.