Snakes in town? Don’t panic! Contact Sarpa team

With delayed mating season & monsoon forcing them out of hideouts, the reptiles are causing more concern than usual; misconceptions related to snakebite and unscientific handling of such a situation worsen matters, say experts
Representational image
Representational image

KOCHI: When it comes to the fear of snakes, this seems the season of double jeopardy! The arrival of monsoon, following the delayed mating season of the slithering reptiles, has the public worried about the increased chance of snakebite.

Moreover, misconceptions related to snakebite, the unscientific handling of such a situation, missteps that follow, lack of knowledge about whom to contact in case of an emergency, etc., contribute to worsening the overall situation.

“In a city like Kochi, snakes are usually forced out of their hideouts during the monsoon by waterlogging. We respond to any emergencies,” says Sreenivas P Kamath, the Ernakulam district facilitator of the Snake Awareness Rescue and Protection (Sarpa) team. In case a Sarpa volunteer cannot reach your location, they will share a message with the authority concerned in the forest department and take appropriate measures, he says.

“There are around 180 licensed rescuers in the Ernakulam range. Of this, more than 60 Sarpa volunteers will be involved in rescue at any given time. They are well-trained in catching snakes,” says Sreenivas. “When a Sarpa volunteer catches a snake, it is handed over to the Ernakulam social forestry division. Following a rescue in a far-flung area, the rescuer himself becomes the custodian of the snake for a short period. The animal is then shifted to the forestry team,” he points out.

“Prior to 2019, on average over 110 people died from snakebite every year in the state. This has declined to 44 after the functioning of Sarpa,” says Sreenivas. Team members are volunteers who don’t take any remuneration, he adds.

Dr Sandeep Das, a herpetologist and post-doctoral fellow, points out that there are around 130 species of snakes in the state, but only four — spectacled cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper, and saw-scaled viper — are dangerous enough to cause human deaths. “There are another 20 snakes, including the hump-nosed pit viper, commonly seen in Kerala, that are venomous. But their venom is not strong enough to harm people,” he said.

Until 2020, approximately 50,000 to 60,000 people died every year in the country from snakebite. The death rate in Kerala has been much lower than the national average, Sandeep adds.

While appreciating improvements in medical facilities and public awareness, he bemoaned the misconceptions related to snakebite. “Anti-venom is the only treatment for snakebite. Herbal therapies, outdated medical practices, and irrelevant delaying of treatment will worsen the condition of a patient.

“Pressure bandaging helps encourage blood clotting, but sometimes it works to the detriment, by causing a blood surge. Delaying treatment to identify the animal that caused the bite will only worsen the health condition of victims," the Sarpa master trainer added.

Highlighting the rise in snakebite cases during the monsoon, Muhammad Anwar Yunus, the assistant conservator of forests with the biodiversity cell, said, “The breeding season of snakes is usually from March to April, but this year it got delayed to May-June. This also delayed their search for appropriate hideouts, which is reflected in the number of snakebite cases.”

There has been an increase in baby viper bites in recent days. But fatalities have dropped as a result of proper medical consciousness, he said.

Muhammad, who is also the state nodal officer of Sarpa, says, “The functioning of the Sarpa team has been key to reducing casualties linked to snakebite. There are medical college professors, advocates, and housewives on the Sarpa team and they are active during rescue missions.”

Avoiding snakes & snakebites

  • Keep homes rat-free (by managing waste) and do not pile on wood, bricks, or garbage around

  • Always use a torch in dark, no matter how familiar you are with the place

  • Keep pathways clear of leaf litter, and cut grass and bushes short, especially around water sources and drainage areas

  • Always use clean pathways to walk

  • Use a stick to move objects and a torch to inspect dark places

  • Make a habit of inspecting shoes and footwear before you wear them

  • Thoroughly check head gear, like helmets

What to do when you spot a snake

  • Keep a safe distance from the reptile

  • Avoid approaching or cornering a snake and allow it to move away

  • Don’t panic but keep an eye on its movement. Do not scare the snake

  • Do not attempt any ‘do-it-yourself’ act to handle or remove the snake

  • Reach out to a trained professional (Sarpa volunteers)

  • Familiarise yourself with common snake species in your area

  • Take note of the snake’s appearance (colour, pattern, length, size, etc.,) and behaviour for identification purposes

In case of snakebite

  • Do not cut open the wound

  • Do not suck the blood

  • Do not burn the wound

  • Do not tie a tourniquet

  • Do not have alcohol/caffeine/painkiller

  • Do not trap or pick up the snake

  • Do not hesitate to hospitalise the victim

  • Do not rely on herbal medicine

Sarpa, an application available for free download on mobile devices, was launched by the Kerala forest department, in collaboration with the Wildlife Trust of India

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The New Indian Express