Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, South India. She reports on health, development, culture, and gender issues and has been published in the New York Times, the BBC, Reader’s Digest, NPR’s Goats and Soda, and more.
In the Indian city of Madurai, a volunteer group deals humanely with emergencies of the reptile kind.
MADURAI, INDIA—On a humid summer evening last July, Srinivasan Venkataswamy, 42, a property consultant in the South Indian city of Madurai, was lowered an inch at a time into a 30-foot well. When he reached 15 feet, a wave of dizziness and nausea engulfed him. The air was sparse, but he needed to focus.
Clinging to the sides of the well, he trained the beam of light from his head torch into the inky darkness below and listened in rapt attention. He could hear a faint hiss. The people who had alerted him a few days ago were right: A snake had somehow found its way into this abandoned well, probably fallen headlong while hunting for prey. The children in the area were throwing stones at it; it was a miracle the snake had survived.
Venkataswamy was no stranger to panic-stricken summons from all over the city whenever locals spotted a snake. But this was one of his toughest rescues yet.
When Venkataswamy couldn’t breathe, he had to be hauled out. Twenty minutes later, once he’d had a drink of water and filled his lungs with air, he was ready to try again. For the second time, the men lowered him into the five-foot-wide opening. In one hand, he clutched a thick gunny sack, the mouth of which was tied tightly over a plastic pipe. He brandished a long metal hook in the other.
This time around, he was better prepared when the waves of dizziness hit. At the very bottom of the well, he spotted it—a spectacled cobra. Left to itself, it could have starved here. It didn’t take Venkataswamy long to guide the cobra into his sack with the hook, ensuring that it slid through the pipe. The entire operation had taken two hours.
Venkataswamy is the head of a volunteer group called Isha Serpent. It was established in Madurai in 2009, when training was provided by the Isha Foundation, a large yoga center based four hours from Madurai in the city of Coimbatore. (The Isha Foundation’s spiritual leader is a lover of snakes.) Since then, the group has been engaged not only in snake rescues, but in warding off other man-animal conflict as well.
Over the past few months, the volunteers have relocated beehives without using chemical pesticides or smoke; caught a monitor lizard and several turtles that had strayed into local homes; nursed injured eaglets back to health; and rescued a cat from a well.
Most of their work, however, involves attending to distress calls from locals and ensuring the safe capture and release of snakes. On average, they receive three to five calls a day.
Over the years, the group has rescued 2,200 snakes in and around Madurai, a city of about 3 million people located 100 miles from the Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs parallel to India’s western peninsular coast. The Western Ghats is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the eight most biodiverse regions in the world.
The Indian subcontinent is home to more than 300 species of snakes, but a few venomous species abound in this area. They’re often referred to as the Big Four: the spectacled (or Indian) cobra, the common krait, Russell’s viper, and the saw-scaled viper. “I’ve seen all of the Big Four within city parameters,” said herpetologist Krishna Chaitanya, who has studied the area’s reptiles extensively.
As the city’s borders bleed into surrounding scrub area, the loss of habitat, heavy rains, and extreme temperatures are driving snakes indoors, Chaitanya said. “In rural areas, people more tolerant of snakes—even the venomous ones,” he said. “I’ve heard that villagers in the Agumbe rain forests leave their homes when a venomous snake occupies it, and live with a neighbor until it retreats.” But that kind of accommodation is difficult in an urban context, and fearful Madurai residents often kill reptile intruders.
It is this fear that the members of Isha Serpent, brought together by their love for snakes, try to dispel. “Our work is as much about rescuing the snake from people as it is about protecting the people from snakes,” Venkataswamy said. “People don’t understand that snakes have always lived in close proximity to humans. They are secretive creatures and will not attack unless provoked.”
In their meetings twice a month, the group’s eight active members—who are all men, and include a shopkeeper, a TV mechanic, and a computer-graphics instructor—compare notes and share experiences. The team has encountered cobras and Russell’s vipers in offices, curled up in pipes in homes, slithering through toilets and gardens, and hiding under tiles.
Shivan Pandi Nagaraj, 33, a teacher who lived for many years on the outskirts of a forest, says he joined the group because snakes are misunderstood and persecuted. “People would beat a snake the moment they set eyes on it, even though most of the species found in and around Madurai are non-venomous,” he said. Many snakes are not just harmless to humans, but beneficial—they keep the rodent population in check.
Volunteers release the snakes they capture in a nearby area with water tanks on the outskirts of the city. “We always check for a water source and the availability of prey before releasing the snake,” said Venkataswamy. They document each incident and file forms with the local forest department.
No one has been bitten so far, the men say. “Someone who knows what they’re doing will never suffer snake bite,” said Venkataswamy. However, he added, “I always warn new volunteers that one careless mistake ... could cost them their lives.” Members have invested their own money in strong, breathable sacks to trap the snakes and a snake hook for venomous species. They receive no payment for their services, except for an occasional 100 rupees (about $1.40) to cover fuel costs.
Bragging and posting snake pictures on social media are out-of-bounds. Members find it unethical to treat snakes like trophies; also, it can lead to dangerous situations. (Earlier this month, an Indian forest ranger posed for photos with a python around his neck, and was caught on camera as the snake started to choke him.)
In recent years, snake rescue has come under fire from conservationists. Rescuers may release snakes too far from their original home or in an area where prey is in short supply. Janaki Lenin, a wildlife researcher and writer, and her husband, the herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, have studied the habits of Indian snakes, particularly the king cobra, for many years. “Remove a snake from its home, and 75 percent will probably die,” Lenin said. “They try to return home, get reckless in their distress, [and] are run over or killed by people.”
Home territory is central to the snake’s existence. “To teach people to recognize venomous and non-venomous species and to avoid confrontation with snakes is ideal,” Lenin said. This is an uphill battle in cities.
But fear of snakes is not all bad—as Chaitanya points out, the fear arises naturally in humans (and dogs and monkeys, too) from generations of conflict with snakes, and it helps keep us safe. Excessive fear can be overcome through knowledge and experience.
When I met the members of Isha Serpent, I didn’t know that they had recently bagged a harmless rat snake. Venkataswamy held it in his hands, and I backed out of the room—it was only four feet long but flicking its tongue rapidly. Snakes tend to do that when they’re agitated, he explained.
Once the snake was calmer, he urged me to touch it. I swallowed and ran a finger gingerly over its scales. I expected it to be rough or slimy, but it felt smooth as silk. “You wouldn’t fear it so much if you realized that it’s just another life form, trying to survive,” he said.