Today was a driving day, and we had a long journey ahead of us, all the way up north to the Forest Rest House Ropa in the Great Himalayan National Park. The previous night, Dr Omesh Bharti – a government doctor from Shimla, who specialises in rabies immunisation but has also been supporting Captive & Field Herpetology’s work into snakebite – had come down with his wife to get an update on how the work was progressing. We would drop off Dr Bharti and his wife in Shimla on our way north; but that meant driving for two-and-a-half hours with four people in the back of our single car, plus luggage! It was a tight squeeze, to say the least.
All in all, we were driving on and off for 12 hours to get to Ropa, which was always going to be an exhausting experience, exacerbated by the bumpy roads and constant tight bends. I also thought that the scarcity of signage tended to make the journeys feel longer. However, any discomfort was compensated for when we started getting into areas with proper mountain scenery. I particularly remember when we crossed over a bridge in a river valley, where either side reached so high that it made me feel very small indeed. Stopping on one town, I also experienced my first taste of jalebi, a sweet made by frying flour batter in syrup – highly addictive, especially when still warm.
Finally, long after sunset, we arrived at our destination: the Forest Rest House, where Vishal Santra and his assistant Hindol were waiting to greet us, along with their driver, Akshay. They already had a couple of snakes with them, obtained from a snake-catcher in Dehra: an Indian cobra and a common krait. Both species are highly venomous and responsible for many deaths, as previously mentioned.
Meanwhile, as I settled into my room, I drew the curtains and was greeted by the abrupt reveal of a huntsman spider, the size of my hand, perched above me. What I said at that moment – or rather, shouted – is not repeatable. But then, you can’t stay in the middle of a forest and not expect a few creepy crawlies.
I slept extremely well that night, and in the daylight, was able to appreciate the lovely landscapes surrounding the lodge while waiting for breakfast. Throughout the expedition, the typical timetable for meals was generally breakfast at around 10-11am, lunch in the late afternoon or early evening, and dinner between 9 and 11pm, usually after we had been out doing night surveying.
There would usually be a lot of chai tea going around, especially in the mornings. I’ve never been a fan of tea, though; I did try some chai, but couldn’t get a taste for it. Instead, I became fond of lassi, a drink made from milk curds, with the taste of yoghurt.
After breakfast, we had another logging road to climb, up one of the nearby hills. There were several lizards about: small skinks (Asymblepharus sp.) poking their heads out of holes; and the larger Laudakia tuberculata, which could also be seen basking and head-bobbing on top of piles of wood around the lodge. At the top, we came to a village, where Ben, Vishal and Hindol spoke to a family about what snakes they had seen in the area; in previous weeks, the expedition had found one of their target species, Himalayan pit vipers (Gloydius himalayanus), on the slope. We also handed out stickers and posters identifying dangerous snakes, and providing guidance to avoid being bitten. Following a trail on the way down, we passed a tree with a chunk clawed out of the trunk; the mark of a Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus).
That night, we conducted our survey up the same slope, coming across a praying mantis, a Duttaphrynus himalayanus, a pair of mating snails, and a flying squirrel up in a tree. As we headed back down, the heavens opened once more, and we got even wetter than we had in Solan!
The morning was spent focussing on the cobra and the krait: taking measurements and scale counts, collecting samples for genetic testing, and extracting venom. For the latter, the snakes would be coaxed into a plastic tube, which they would slither through until their heads poked out the other end, before they were encouraged to bite a film-covered beaker. When this was done for the krait, I had the job of holding it steady at the rear end of the tube; even though the snake was secure and the head was well away from my hand, I couldn’t help but feel a bit tense, which is all well and good for keeping yourself alert in such a situation.
Ben, Jasmine and I took a drive in the afternoon to a patch of pine forest where a rare species of lizard had previously been found. For some time, we wandered about the area, looking under rocks, before Jasmine briefly saw one on the other side of the river from us! On the drive back, we saw a particularly lovely rainbow, so clear that you could actually see the end touching the ground. ‘Maybe there’s a Gloydius down there instead of a pot of gold,’ I said.
Later that day, we were provided with a snake – unfortunately, it was dead, having been killed by the locals that encountered it. Even more sadly, it was an Indian rat snake (Ptyas mucosa), which is not dangerous to humans, and if left in peace, will in fact do them a service by eating rodents.