On one of my nocturnal sojourns at Pakke Kessang, in western Arunachal Pradesh, I was photographing the foam nest of a tree frog when I instinctively looked above me. No more than a foot from my head, a small snake sat coiled on the overhanging branches. Though startled, I made no sudden movement and gently stepped away so that I was out of striking distance of the snake. From my new position I examined the snake. As I shone my torch on the reptile I gathered that the slender snake was just over a foot-and-a-half long. A good look at the snake revealed that it was one I had seen before and could identify – an Assam snail eater.
The Assam snail eater (Pareas monticola) is a docile, non-venomous snake that is seen quite commonly in North-East India. I have seen the snake earlier in both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh from the foothills right up to 2,000 metres in the mountains. The snake’s colour is variable from reddish-brown to a dull brown. It has a series of dark bands all the way down its body. Another feature that helps to identify the snake is its rounded blunt snout and head. The snail eater is called so because it mainly feeds on snails. Some people also call this the common snail eater or the common slug snake.
The snake’s scientific name monticola means ‘inhabitant of the mountains’ in Latin, aptly describing the habitat in which it is found. The snail eater had already sensed my presence, and its forked black tongue flickered in and out of its mouth. The snake’s tongue was believed to be a sensory organ used for smelling, but recent studies have shown that some snakes also use their tongues for tasting. While the sense of smell comes from air particles, the sense of taste comes from touching solid objects in their habitat. Reaching above me, I gently took the snake in my hand and walked with the snake to the moth screen, where the rest of my colleagues were standing. Holding the snake in my hands, and making sure that I was not hurting it, I showed the snake to my friends, as well as the local people who were with me. The discussion on snakes is always an animated one. Showing the snake to the people with me, I told them about it, highlighting the fact that it was a harmless non-venomous snake. Before releasing the snake into the wild, it was important for me to show the local people that the snake was harmless, and not to be harmed. In too many places in India, snakes are feared and loathed, and many of them are needlessly killed, despite being harmless and non-venomous.
Did you know that snakes are actually friends of people? The main food for many snakes is rodents, which in turn feed on stored grains and crops in the field. By controlling the rodent population snakes actually help us. Please don’t kill snakes that come to your home or neighbourhood. If you don’t trouble the snake, it won’t bother you either and will probably slither away to safety.