KARWAR: Sometime in 2018, the Range Forest Officer in Karwar received a phone call from a resident, that a massive snake was sighted inside a well at his house near Guttinbeera Temple. He requested the RFO to dispatch somebody to rescue it and Gopal Naik was put on the job.
On reaching the house, Naik rushed to the well and peeped inside. What he saw was a magnificent python, one of the largest constrictors, and a protected species in India. As he gathered ways to rescue the reptile safely from the deep well, he realised that he ought to be careful as there were many curious onlookers around. He told the villagers to drain the water from the well, then lowered himself and saved the snake. This is one of several inspiring stories, highlighting the service of this humble forest guard, who has rescued birds, reptiles and mammals over the years.
Hailing from Anavatti in Soraba taluk of Shivamogga district, Naik’s tryst with animal rescue began during his first posting at Anshi in the Kali Tiger Reserve. He was asked to assist in catching a snake, which happened to be a cobra. “A pharmacist in KPCL took me with him to catch the snake and release it into the wild. It was at his insistence that I touched a cobra for the first time. But like a lay person, I believed that snakes have their revenge against anyone who touches them, and I started believing that my end was near. But I soon overcame these thoughts, and ended up catching about 50 snakes during my stint at Anshi,” Naik says.
There was no looking back for Naik. He was transferred to Karwar three years ago. Since then, over 3,000 snakes have gotten a new lease of life thanks to his efforts. These include more than 500 pythons, a couple of king cobras, over 300 birds, reptiles and a few mammals. “You find a lot of pythons around Karwar. Russell’s viper is the second-most prevalent snake, followed by cobra,” informs Naik.
Locals call him almost every day, whenever they spot a reptile. “One day, I rescued a sand boa from the house of a district judge. The next day, I received a call to rescue a strange-looking animal, whose head was stuck in a box of chocolates. Probably, it was looking for food. There were chances that it could bite me, which would be severe, but I managed to catch hold of its neck and later released it in a tree nearby. It was a civet,” he elaborates.
Once, Naik even rescued a Malabar pied hornbill, whose wings were damaged. “I learnt how to treat injured animals myself. I stitched the hornbill’s wings, took care of the bird and released it when it was healthy enough to fly,” he says, adding that he has also rescued common hawk-cuckoos, plum-headed parakeets, Brahminy kites, whistling ducks, monitor lizards, monkeys, and wild boars.
A graduate, Naik has made use of his knowledge to train the younger generation and educate them about birds and animals. A keen naturalist, Naik is involved in the scientific study of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. “I teach whatever I have learnt to children, particularly in rural areas,” he says.
Naik visits about a hundred schools in the district to create awareness among students. “He teaches them not to be scared of reptiles, and particularly those in distress, or provoke them, or handle them without safety gear,” says Karwar-based journalist Nagendra Kharvi.
But Naik’s task is not devoid of risk. A year ago, he was bitten by a cobra, which he was trying to rescue from a heap of coconuts in Kodibhag. He went to hospital and got himself treated. Luckily, it was a dry bite (very minimal amount of venom injected). He uses gloves and other protective gear when he is out on a mission these days.
“There is risk. I do not display heroics, but just return the animals back home or provide them medical care when needed,” affirms Naik, as he attends to relieve more animals from pain and distress.
A rescue that almost went wrong
At Bandisutta, a 70-kg python was to be rescued. Naik had held the serpent by its head, with others holding it by its stomach and tail. “The task was to put it into a large bin. People were hesitant to come and help lift the python. I asked them to hold it tight by its stomach. But despite instruction, they dumped its tail in the bin first. The reptile immediately used its tail and managed to jump out, before escaping. I had the task of looking out for it again. I finally caught it and told the others to hold it properly before we could recover the animal,” Gopal Naik says.