Close Encounters of the Slithering Kind

These are not just encounters, but close encounters. In these situations I have either touched or been too close for comfort with certain members of the suborder Serpentes

I'd never imagined that such a day would dawn. In 2008, I visited the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) with friends PD, Zak and Subbu. I must mention here that I was so scared of snakes that I was almost on the verge of being ophidiophobic.

We were roaming the campus when station manager Prashant’s 4-year-old daughter found a baby Common Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) and caught it to show us. All four of us were stunned at the girl's courage. PD took it from the girl's hands and handled it easily as he was used to working with snakes during his stint as a volunteer with the Gujarat Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (GSPCA). Then Subbu mustered the courage to hold it. Next was Zak.

All this while, I was chewing my fingernails. I too wanted to handle it but my inner voice hissed, "Don't get any bright ideas dude, that's a bloody snake!" At the same time I could hear PD saying, "Dude, it’s just a baby snake." Finally PD's voice won over my inner voice and I did it! The mortal fear dissolved away as I watched the little green fella slithering around my arm, once in a while flicking his tongue to 'taste' the air. This was a big milestone for me. I had held a live snake!
The first touch
The Indian Rock Python (Python molurus) is one of two kinds found in India. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists it as NT (Near Threatened). Threatened or not, these snakes can be found every once in a while at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka (NITK) campus in Surathkal. I had seen them there twice in a span of 18 months.

I first saw a python when some security guys were showing it off to bystanders by catching hold of its tail and throwing it from one side of the road to the other. My requests to them to handle the snake properly fell on deaf ears. Luckily, a student helped the guards bag it and take it away to be released some 7 km away. This python was young and measured approximately 3.5 to 4 feet.

A year later, I encountered a python again and this time I had an experienced ally, PD, to guide me. Late one night, PD popped into my room and said, “Arun! Python, Ist block!” and ran back to his room to pick up his snake hook.

It took me a second to decipher what he had just said. We ran to the spot followed by Zak and Subbu wondering whether it could be a Russell’s Viper (Daboia russelii) since that short, thick venomous snake might appear to be a python to those who cannot tell them apart. There was no doubt about the snake's identity when we reached the spot. There, among the weeds, lay an enormous snake. Even in the darkness lit by a dim street-light, there was no mistaking its size and markings. This was an Indian Rock Python.

We wanted to move the snake from there as it was close to the hostel. If workers saw it, they might kill it. PD asked me to help for its sheer size and weight. I was so out of my wits that I looked around for help, only to see that Zak and Subbu had moved away. PD had already jumped on the snake and held its head. He was shouting at me to hold its lower body and tail as otherwise it would start wrapping around him. After a millisecond’s hesitation I too dived into the weeds and caught the snake.

The snake was extremely strong and there was ample confusion in the dim light. Finally, we subdued it and got a grip. That first touch of the python I shall never forget. The dorsal part was hard but with smooth scales. The ventral scales were rough. The body was hard and muscular. I could feel the muscles moving inside its body. It felt as if a leather sheath was filled with moving cricket balls. This was one snake that you didn’t have to worry about squeezing too much when handling. It was strong and hard to resist all of that! (Just kidding, you do need to handle it with extreme care.)
Once the snake was in our hands, everybody wanted to touch it while we both were already worrying about where to release it.
The fear that had enveloped me until now evaporated now that we caught the snake. After ensuring that the python was safe in our arms, everybody came forward to touch it and take snaps. We later measured, bagged and released it inside a forested corner of the campus, away from the hostel blocks. The python was 7 feet in length (adults grow to around 13 feet).

With this incident I actually overcame my fear of snakes. But this doesn’t mean I’ll go pick up a snake at the first instance I find one!

The third close encounter, now that I think of it, was one of the most hair-raising ones. Except that neither the snake nor I panicked. This species -- the Russell's Viper -- is responsible for the majority of human snakebite deaths in India

Russell's Viper (Photo of a captive snake taken at Guindy Snake Park, Chennai)
One morning, after camping in a forest in the Hosur Forest Division the previous night, I picked up my binocs and began birding alone. I was so engrossed and happy without the extra weight of my camera that I did not pay attention to the forest floor. As I observed a Crested Serpent Eagle calling and circling directly above me, I heard a faint rustle of leaves right next to where I was standing. I turned around to see a thick snake with brown or chestnut coloration, with prominent dark brown oval shaped markings. “Russell’s Viper?” I thought to myself calmly as I observed it uncoiling and beginning to move away, just a foot or so away from my feet. It took me a couple of seconds to realize how lucky I was not to have stepped on the snake or frightened it into biting. I still wonder how I stayed calm that day without jumping at the sight of a snake so close to me.

As the snake moved away into the dry bushes and settled down, I circumvented the bushes and came up in front of it. From there I watched the snake for a good 15 minutes before moving away. Unfortunately, I did not carry my camera that day. But the sight of the viper uncoiling will always be etched in my memory.

Had the “dangerous/deadly” snake, as most people claim vipers to be, chosen to strike instead of moving away, I would mostly not have been here to narrate this encounter as medical help was very far away from the spot. The viper moved away and let me live even when I intruded its personal space. Had it intruded our personal spaces, what would we have done?
Scale pattern of a Russell's Viper 

Text: Arun
Photographs of the Vine snake and Rock python: Pankil Desai
Photographs of Russell's Viper: Arun

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