Snake encounters

November 21, 2009

9 Pythons intertwinedI have never been much of a wildlife person. Preferred “being wild” to “in the wild”. Over the years, there have been the odd trips here and there with friends who have a deeper appreciation for the wild and her denizens. Without exception all these trips have been memorable and yet I remain unconverted. I have never bothered figuring out why this was the case and I am not going to do so now. So please continue reading the post without fear of being subjected to psycho babbling.

The last few months, since my move to Goa, I have had practical, real world, on the ground reasons for taking more than a cursory look at the world around me. To begin with, the place around Arco Iris is beautiful and the visual beauty will not escape even a blind man. More relevantly, Curtorim is a fairly heavily wooded area. It is natural that it has a far degree of wildlife presence in the form of birds, reptiles and a handful of mammals (not the big cat variety though, more like jackals and mongoose). The mammals, by and large, keep to themselves. You can spot the neighbourhood mongoose, friendly guy that he is, on a lucky day and the jackals make it a point to come as a pack almost every other night to Arco, do the ceremonial symphony and slink away. The birds, in and around the property are beautiful. Again, not much of a birder myself, but fortunately, been in the company of friends who are interested in avifauna. Thanks to them, I know that you can sight babblers, robin magpies, common kingfishers, whistling ducks, egrets, cormorants, the white heron, Indian owls and so on within a 500 metre radius of Arco. Since the property abuts the Corjim lake, I am told by local birders that one can spot upto 40 bird species within a 1 km radius. I guess, I have digressed. The point is the birds are beautiful and with the exception of the odd bat that manages to find its way inside the house, they largely go unnoticed by me.

The reptiles are a different kettle of fish altogether (nice turn of phrase, even though I am saying it myself) . I am pretty much petrified of them, snakes in particular. Unfortunately for me, over the last few months, we have had a couple of visits from them. Fortunately for us, we had picked up a list of snake rescuers with their mobile numbers (a lot of them volunteers) available in Goa and it was post a frantic call triggered by a snake deciding to drop by that we had a very friendly Forest Department official coming to rescue the bugger. He had a cup of tea with us and in true Goan fashion managed to find a link in his family tree to Beni’s. Brief though the interaction was, I realised that he sincerely enjoyed what he was doing for a living. He called us this morning to find out if we would be interested in accompanying him to Karmel ghat and witnessing the release of a few pythons, vipers and a cobra that he had rescued the last week. Yes, he had rescued about 8 pythons in the last week alone in just South Goa!!. I found the numbers unbelievable, but he reassured me that these numbers were par for an average week. This was too good an opportunity even for an agnost like me and I promptly rushed to join him.

In the Forest Department Office’s parking lot in Margao, I was mightily impressed with the grace, strength, sensitivity and dexterity of the officer as he transferred these giant snakes from their cages to the sacks which would be their transit homes till their release a few minutes later. He ensured that the cobra and the vipers would have sufficient moisture around their sacks to survive the trip back home. Being aware of the contents in the sack, I drove a respectful distance behind his Forest Department truck to Karmel ghat where he was releasing the snakes. Karmel ghat is about 25 kms from Arco (not far enough for me considering that they are used regularly by the FD for releasing rescued snakes) and it took us about 40 minutes to reach the place. FreedomOnce there we parked our respective vehicles by the side of NH 17 and he unloaded the 5 sacks and proceeded to take them one by one to the insides of the forest. Again, I followed in awe struck silence. He started by releasing the pythons one by one. In the wild, they looked even more magnificent. Silent so far, they started hissing ( I took it as their excitement to be back in their rightful places) and proceeded to find their way here and there. Their on ground speed took me by surprise. This coupled with their massive size made for an amazing sight. A couple of them snaked their way up trees and decided to have an afternoon siesta. It also, to an extent, explaines why wildlife enthusiasts go to extreme lengths to spot animals in the wild as opposed to seeing them inside zoos. At the same time, it was sad to see a couple of empty plastic bottle containers even this deep into the forest. I am no angel myself when it comes to such issues, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

The officer left the vipers and the cobra for last. For my benefit, the officer added that the viper was a Russell Viper. I am not sure if I have the spelling right. He (ie Mr. Viper) made very impressive noises and slithered away and quickly made himself invisible (at least to my untrained eyes). I guess the officer saved the best for last when he released the cobra. Looks ordinary enough except when he spreads (is that the word for it) his hood. Manages to look elegant, graceful and fierce at the same time. Much like a Lara cover drive. In the middle of all this, I did manage to take a couple of photographs. Again, given my indifference to photography (at least in this case I have some philosophical underpinnings for the indifference), I am not sure they will do justice to the spectacle that unfolded this morning in front of me.

Before deciding to join the Forest Department official on the trip I had checked with him if it was within the rules of the department to let citizens witness these weekly episodes and he replied saying that it was one of the better ways of creating awareness amongst people about the need to be sympathetic to the requirements of these creatures. I cannot agree more. During the course of this trip, I realised that there are by and large only four venomous snakes in and around Goa and most of the chappies that we see slithering here and there are by and large harmless. Not that it converted me to a snake lover, but at least it helped me start the process of understanding them to a certain extent. A final word on the commitment of these officers and volunteers. Based on the couple of experiences that I have had with them, they are a wonderfully committed and passionate bunch of guys. They are rendering yeoman service to society without so much as even an acknowledgement. The least I could do was offer them the use of Arco Iris for conducting an awareness programme on snakes for the interested residents of Curtorim.


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