Snake charming has long been associated with tradition and religious veneration in India. Abusing the faith of temple visitors, snake charmers display snakes at temples. What people don't realise is that these snakes are poached from the wild and are brutally tortured. In case of venomous snakes like the cobra, the snake's fangs are crudely crushed using metal pliers and the venom glands are painfully gouged out or punctured, disabling the snake's only means of defence.
As a result, the snake is condemned to a slow and excruciating death as venom is also crucial to its feeding and digestion. Since the extraction process is crude and improperly done, the risk of lethal mouth infection usually kills the snake. Non-venomous snakes like sand boas and rat snakes are not spared either. Their mouths are stitched shut, making it impossible for them to eat.
The snakes are kept in tiny, dark and cramped cane baskets for the few weeks that they survive. As a result, they tend to pick up parasitic infections in the baskets. Additionally, by denying them sunlight, snakes will not be able to carry out basic metabolic functions as they are ectothermic creatures. This, combined with starvation, results in an brittle skeletal system that is prone to fracturing.
Snake charmers in possession of red sand boas use the snake to dupe people into believing that the snake brings good luck and medicinal value. Such blind faith has resulted in exposing the species to various dangers, despite it being protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Section 2(16) of the Act defines the hunting of animals as the capturing, coursing, snaring, trapping, driving or baiting of any wild or captive animal, and lists all Indian snakes under the schedules accorded protection by the Act. This makes the capturing of snakes a punishable offence under Indian law.
The cruelty meted out to the snakes is also illegal as per the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. This forbids the causing of unnecessary pain or suffering to an animal. It is vital that people and law enforcement agents be made aware of the illegality of such acts, take steps to eliminate such practices and curb the rampant poaching of snakes.
For favourable solutions
As human populations grow and urbanisation destroys forest cover, highly adaptable animal species like snakes are forced to live within the limits of urban environments. Encountering a snake in one's home or office can be quite scary for people who aren't able to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous snakes. Snakes are found in drains, backyards, bathrooms and any other area that may house a substantial rat population on which the snakes can feed. Often, fear drives people to mercilessly kill the snakes.
However, the most favourable solution is to call in a trained snake handler who can rescue the snake and release it to its natural habitat with the help of the Forest Department officials. A major part of rescue work involves controlling crowds, pacifying scared bystanders and even dealing with snakebite instances. The majority of snakebite cases across India are by four species of snakes: cobra, common krait, saw-scaled viper and Russell's viper.
There are various efforts underway to rescue captured snakes. For instance, snakes captured by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in Bengaluru are released in Turahalli forest. Wildlife SOS, a conservation non-profit, provides a critical support to the Forest Department by rescuing snakes in Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, and releasing them in safe locations.
It is vital that tourists and local residents never encourage the use of any animal for any sort of entertainment. Encouraging snake charmers by paying them for performances or pictures will promote hunting and illegal possession, and continued cruelty towards snakes. People should instead alert rescuers and the local police or Forest Department officials about such persons to ensure that the law is upheld and these important reptiles are protected.
(The author is retired principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)