Snakebite is considered a “neglected tropical disease” by the World Health Organisation, and it kills more people in India than anywhere else in the world; 45,000 fatalities per year is the official figure, though it is almost certainly an underestimate, due to many snakebites either being recorded too vaguely by hospitals (i.e. as ‘animal bites’) or not recorded at all. Meanwhile, people who survive envenomation can suffer debilitating after-effects which impact their ability to work and lead to crippling medical costs.
In terms of what species of snake are most responsible, the focus is usually on the ‘Big Four’: the Indian or spectacled cobra (Naja naja), the common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli) and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus). But the knowledge of which snakes bite people in different areas of India is far from complete – and that is a serious problem, since anti-venom, the only effective treatment for snakebite, is only likely to work for the species whose venom was used to produce it.
The organisation Captive and Field Herpetology, headed by Ben Owens of Bangor University and Vishal Santra of the Simultala Conservationists Foundation, is working to help with the situation. This year, they made an expedition to Himachal Pradesh in the northwest of India, where the number and distribution of snake species is particularly poorly known: the goals were to survey different areas and learn which snakes were present; collect morphological and genetic data for population studies; and educate the local people in avoiding snakebite, without needing to kill the snakes. In August 2018, I volunteered to assist on the last two weeks of the six-week expedition, making my first trip to India, and not sure what I was in for.
For all my nervousness about getting to India – mainly focussed around the fact that my domestic flight from Delhi to Chandigarh was on a separate ticket, so I would have to collect my baggage and check in again in Delhi – the most stressful part of the journey was getting to the airport by train while I was still in the UK. Due to congestion, the train that was supposed to be non-stop to Heald Green instead terminated at Manchester Piccadilly. And when I got on another train to Heald Green, it proceeded slowly; it was hard to decipher the explanation over the intercom, but I think there was a report of children on the line. Luckily, this wasn’t much more than an annoyance, since I was staying at a hotel overnight anyway, and getting my flight in the morning. I was pleased to find that, as usually happens, my nervousness subsided once I was actually on my way with everything in hand.
As with my journey to the Philippines in 2016, I flew via Dubai with Emirates; that meant getting back onboard the enormous A380, which still impressed me with its size even though I had already seen it several times before. I was lucky enough to get a seat by a bulkhead, so there was maximum leg room. I thought I was going to pay for this when I noticed a couple of babies positioned close by, but they were actually quiet during the flight. From Dubai, there was a shorter flight to Delhi; arriving at 3am, I found no queues at the e-visa booths, and plenty of time to spare once I had checked in. Before my domestic flight, I relaxed in one of the reclined seats that were dotted around, admired the statues of elephants and yoga positions inside the terminal, and was surprised when a janitor in the toilet handed me paper towels for drying my hands.
Soon after sunrise, I finally arrived in Chandigarh, where it was hot, humid, and the sky was so grey and hazy that I couldn’t tell if there was any natural cloud or not. Ben Owens, and Vipin the driver, picked me up at the airport and we headed to the nearby hotel, where I spent a few hours catching up on sleep before joining Ben for lunch. Here, the typical routine for both lunch and dinner was established, as two dishes of chicken and one dish of rice were placed on the table, for us to share out amongst ourselves. Ben also explained that you are expected to eat everything with your fingers; this was the only option anyway with the chicken, as it was so bony. I contemplated how, after two weeks of this, I might end up surprising my parents next time I went round for dinner, by eating their chicken curry without a knife and fork. During lunch, I also noticed the first reptile of my trip: a gecko, hiding behind the window blind.
In the early evening, we headed into the city centre of Chandigarh. From the area close to the airport, this meant driving through one of the poorer neighbourhoods. The bumpy road was crowded just not with people, but with stray dogs, cows and goats. Lining the road were ramshackle buildings and piles of rubbish. As Ben pointed out, this was a perfect example of why snakebite is a problem here: such environments not only provide plenty of places for snakes to hide, but attract the rodents that the snakes feed on. Poverty can also make it more difficult to follow any guidance that might help in avoiding snakebite: for example, if provided with a torch to look for snakes in the dark, a family would probably end up having to sell it.
The main road into Chandigarh gave me a proper introduction to local driving. On these roads, you had to be pushy to get anywhere; horns honked constantly, and the lanes appeared to just be there for show. One curious thing I noted was that on the many motorcycles that passed us, female passengers almost always rode side-saddle.
We came to a central square, full of people selling things, and absolutely no westerners aside from Ben and I; indeed, aside from one group of tourists in the Great Himalayan National Park, we would see no other westerners at all on the trip. Ben pointed out the division between the poor neighbourhood we had come through, just a few miles away, and the more well-off who now surrounded us. ‘Most of these people will know almost nothing about snakebite,’ he said. After some more chicken and rice for dinner, we went for a walk by a lake. The sun was going down, the air was still thick and hot, and the atmosphere was murky and eerie; a flying fox passed over our heads as we went.
I was quickly realising that India was like nowhere I had ever been before.
We hung around at the hotel for much of the day – I had an omelette with bread for breakfast, and chicken biriyani for lunch – until it was time to go back to the airport and pick up another volunteer: Jasmine, a zookeeper from Texas. From there, it was time to head away from Chandigarh, and north into the mountains.
The winding roads seemed precarious enough on their own, but it was also the monsoon season, and that meant landslides; we seemed to pass a pile of fallen rock every few minutes. Just as frequently, we would overtake another vehicle in what little space was available; indeed, there was so much precarious overtaking on the mountain roads that practically every vehicle had the words ‘HONK HORN’ painted on its rear. Every now and then, we would drive past a group of rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), sitting unconcernedly close to the sheer drop.
As evening drew in, we eventually came into a misty forest, at an altitude of about 1500m. There were occasional glimpses of animals running across the road in the low light: a hare, and then a jackal. Whenever we could see the slopes through the trees, the lights of buildings were everywhere, no matter how far we progressed.
After stopping and leaving our luggage at the accommodation where we would stay for the next two nights, not far from the town of Solan, we headed out to a restaurant for more chicken. On the way back, we had our first stint of road-cruising in the dark: driving the car relatively slowly, and scanning the sides of the road with our torches for snakes. The main hope in this region was to find white-lipped pit vipers (Trimeresurus septentrionalis), and while snakes are notoriously cryptic and difficult to find, Ben had found a relatively high percentage turning up on or around the roads (some of them run over, sadly). Unfortunately, it had begun to rain, and no snakes revealed themselves. According to Ben, it’s actually more difficult to find snakes in Asia than in the Americas.
After we all went through the risk assessment for the expedition, we headed along another winding road to Solan itself, where we would make our first proper surveying hike: up a hill to the Karol Tibba temple. For much of the way, Ben, Jasmine and I followed a logging road upwards; even when it began to drizzle, it was a very pleasant walk. Climbing up into the mist felt like something out of The Lost World. Eventually, we left the road and onto a more narrow and difficult path; at this point, it really started chucking it down, making the rocks underfoot more precarious. We got within sighting distance of the temple before we decided to turn back, while it was still light – we were still being rained on for most of the way back, but at least I only fell over once! As far as wildlife was concerned, we found an Amolops frog in a pool, poking its head above a covering of algae, and a baby toad – Duttaphrynus himalayanus, a species which can be found up to 3,500m above sea level. The drive back was a chilly one; it took a while for the car’s air conditioning to compensate for the wet clothes.
When night fell, the three of us took a walk down the road from the accommodation, scanning the roadside with our torches. The rain had eased by the time we headed out – but of course, it didn’t take long to get heavier again! At least this brought more amphibians out, including another species of toad, Duttaphrynus melanostinctus. Distinguishable from D. himalayanus for having a more prominent black ridge above the eye, and widely spread across South and Southeast Asia, D. melanostinctus has been in the news earlier this year for a study on the threat it poses as a rapidly spreading invasive species in Madagascar: almost all of the native Madagascan predators which might try to eat the toad do not possess genetic resistance to its toxins.