Unlike our other blog posts, the title of this post is no play on words. Yes, it is about snake bites. I am no expert, but will reproduce information given at a recent session conducted by Snake Researcher, Dr Kedar Bhide, to spread awareness.
The session was an eye-opener! The first question Dr Bhide stunned me with was: “All those of you who call yourselves snake-rescuers. Are you really rescuing the snake? Or are you rescuing the humans from the snake by taking it away from areas of human habitation?”
This is worth thinking. We have always assumed the world revolves around the existence of humans, and rarely begin to think from the snake’s point of view. As snake-rescuers in the crowd sheepishly admitted to their misplaced goals, Dr Bhide pointed out the various problems and mistakes in snake ‘rescue’:
- Snakes are unfortunately captured and released in forest areas which the snake is not familiar with, which confuse the snakes. It should be released in an area closest to where it was captured.
- Different species of snakes are active at a different time in the day. Releasing a nocturnal snake in the day can cause great suffering to the snake and IT WILL EVENTUALLY DIE OF TRAUMA!
- When dealing with a snake ‘rescue’ situation, one needs to DOCUMENT the capture, the time, the details of the place it was found in and details of place it was released.
- Check if the snake is injured and needs treatment before considering rehabilitation.
- DO NOT CLICK PHOTOS or SELFIES with the snake. Not only does it stress out the snake, it is also ILLEGAL to click photos with wildlife.
Dr Bhide is a conservationist and strongly promoted the need for awareness and the need to work WITH the community to understand snakes. He has rightly stated that snake bites is predominantly a problem of the poor, as they are the ones who are involved in farm labour or grass-cutting. Thus, the issue has received very little attention from government bodies. The ignorance of the people and the apathy by officials has worsened a completely manageable problem. Snake bites continue to attract social stigma and often results in the death of the bread-winner of the family, plunging the family into further poverty. For example, the holy city of Benares does not allow the cremation of snake-bite victims. However, the general public is quick to offer milk to captured snakes and treat them on ‘Nag Panchmi’ (Nag Panchmi is another evil in which snakes are captured and starved for several months. Often, their teeth are torn off their mouths without anaesthetic, or their mouths sewn shut. A starved and dehydrated snake will eat/drink anything, and thus it attempts to drink the milk offered even though it doesn’t have the digestive juices to digest the milk proteins).
Dr Bhide raised the concern of lack of research in herpetology in India. Most research is related to taxonomy but very few consider issues such as community involvement, snake health, study of their biodiversity, etc. So young people interested in research – this is an excellent time for you to contribute to the area of snake study and conservation.
The Indian law has done little to protect snakes. In a recent incident in Thane, Hindustan Times reported how snake rescuers found a python in Mumbai curled up in a hole in a tree. In order to reach it, they requested the help of the Municipal tree-cutting officials to trim part of the tree so the rescuers could reach the snake. In their half-hearted effort, the officials cut the tree branch carelessly, cutting the python hidden inside in half! As I shared the news with my family, each of us were filled with remorse for the innocent (and non-venomous) snake that died due to government apathy. Read about the incident here. This is why Dr Bhide calls the situation ‘a lost frontier’ (a phrase I have used in the title to reflect his views).
Children and adults alike harbour an irrational fear of snakes thanks to wrong information, insufficient guidelines, and also myths that are part of our culture. So in reality, in the case of a snake bite, what must one do?
Do what is R.I.G.H.T. This acronym should help you remember to:
- Reassure the victim (ensure they are calm)
- Immobilise the victim completely (any movement increases blood flow to and away from the wound, spreading the venom in the body). Try to remove clothing or jewellery around the wound IF POSSIBLE. If swelling has already set it, do not force any action on the wound site.
- Get to Hospital as soon as possible! In villages and tribal areas, the PHCs should help.
- Time of the bite must be recorded (so the doctor can observe the symptoms and treat accordingly).
In Marathi, ‘Dheer dya, Stheer theva, Hospital-la nya.’ How hard is it to remember that?
There is only ONE TREATMENT for snake bites and that is the use of Antivenin. All hospitals are bound by law to have 10-20 units of antivenin. The treatment involves administering 10 vials of antivenin through IV ONLY BY A REGISTERED DOCTOR. So don’t try any tricks yourself.
By law, the administration of anti-venin is FREE and funded by the government. You are entitled to be treated immediately at no cost. Hospitals often trick patients/relatives by forcing them to ‘replace’ the used anti-venin vials which cost about Rs. 450 per vial.
- DO NOT TRY TO SUCK THE VENOM OUT! That happens in movies. Seriously, they are not experts!
- DO NOT TIE A TOURNIQUET around the bite. Usually, that leads to a concentration of the venom in the region and can cause gangrene. The result would need amputation of the limb.
- DO NOT KILL THE SNAKE that is suspected to have bitten the victim.
- DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH or try to identify the snake. There can be many mistakes and one such caused the death of famous herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt who trusted the incorrect identification of one of his assistants.
- Again, KEEP THE VICTIM CALM and IMMOBILISED.
- Anti-venin is sold on prescription only at major medical stores. DO NOT BELIEVE people when they find illegal sources of ‘snake anti-venin’ (not possible, as processing is not easy) or find homeopathy or naturopathy cures. Think scientifically, there is no way it could work.
- The antivenin used in India is called ‘POLYVALENT ANTIVENIN’ which is the treatment against the venom of four major venomous snakes in India. This makes identification of snakes irrelevant. Tell that to the doctor if s/he demands to identify the snake. The doctor is supposed to treat according to the clear symptoms (paralysis, change in heart rate, swelling, etc) which are related to the venom-type and not according to the snake species.
- The treatment of snake-bites, in rare instances, may cause anaphylactic shock. This is why it is necessary to hospitalize the victim as hospitals are equipped to treat shock.
- Sometimes, victims may not show symptoms immediately and will need to be kept under observation. Either they have received a dry bite or may show delayed symptoms.
Keeping your fear aside, remember that only 1 in 63 snake bites in India actually have venom. That means majority of the bites are ‘dry-bites’ (no venom) this is because most bites are caused by the snake being afraid of the human approaching it and was not prepared for or didn’t want to waste its venom on a non-prey. Snakes are very intelligent creatures…they are not an avatar of the devil.
How to prevent snakes from entering a human residential area:
- Snakes are attracted to its prey, so ensure there is no infestation of rats or frogs in your area.
- Avoid collection of wood-piles or debris which serve as a cool, comfortable hiding place for the snake.
- Snakes find it hard to slither on extremely smooth surfaces such as smooth tiles.
- In some villages, trenches may be built to prevent small snakes from entering an area. However, these may be ineffective against large snakes.
Dr Bhide expressed his regret that there is still very little interest in improving technology and know-how regarding snakes in India. We have an amazing diversity and eco-system that supports a variety of species. Yet we use technology from 1958 for producing anti-venin. Thus, the potency is 1/10th of that which is found in other countries. Funding is also necessary to map and document snakes to develop an anti-venin standard.
Snakes are not your enemies. In fact, considering that 28% of foodgrains produced in India are destroyed by rats, snakes become an important part of our food-production and storage. Besides, they, like us, are also residents of this planet and we need to respect their space as much as we do our own.
To read more about snake conservation or to understand snakes better, take a look at Dr Bhide’s website: http://kedarbhide.com/snake-conservation/
To find a snake-rescuer near you, check this site: http://www.indiansnakes.org/
To read a research paper and more details on FIRST-AID, check this PDF: http://www.japi.org/august_2016/01_editorial.pdf
– Rachael Alphonso
(About the Author: Rachael’s idea of partying is attending such sessions that fill her with wonder and knowledge about the world around us.)