Posts Tagged ‘gowri shankar’

Gowri Shankar and Snake Shyam

Date: 28 and 29th of Jan 2012. Place Mysore

Conducted by P. Gowri Shankar and Snake Shyam

Every professional is bound to tackle a set of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) and so do I. Questions such as ‘Aren’t you scared?’, ‘What should I do when I see a snake?’, ‘I want to handle snakes, will you teach me?’ and ‘Will you allow me to touch a king cobra?’ ! ; followed by a tale of “One day I saw a snake…….” Then there are ‘snake rescuers’ who exude great confidence, some out of right knowledge some due to ignorance, who of course can do better with a push in the right direction. Hence this one of a kind workshop took shape to answer all these questions and more.  The aim was to address basic ethics and right techniques of rescue, relocation and captive management of snakes.

The workshop attracted people from diverse backgrounds from full time snake rescuers, PhD students, software professionals, wildlife biologists, to photographers. Their reasons to enrol was just as diverse, some wanted to act instead of being mute spectators to snake killings, some who had handled non-venomous snakes  now wanted to start rescuing venomous ones and few others who had already rescued venomous snakes  wanted to get trained professionally.

Drill before the grill

We kick started the day with an introductory session on snakes. As all participants had filled out a questionnaire prior to the workshop it helped in understanding their levels. We then delved deep into topics on rescue, relocation and captive management.

‘Rescuing snakes’ is a very subjective term, and the way I interpret is in the interest and welfare of the snake more than anything else. Hence a point that I stressed very heavily was to ‘NOT CATCH SNAKES BY THE NECK’ unless absolutely necessary (in cases when other methods are actually stressing the snake or when there is absolutely no time to try other methods). I have seen snakes caught by neck refusing to eat for several days and one king cobra did not accept food for 95 days. Though catching by neck may give an adrenaline rush and display heroism it does more harm to the snake and risks the rescuer’s life!

Demonstrating how to use a snake hook

Hence we discussed other effective methods like ‘Butterfly net’ capture techniques, baggers, pipe and bag technique introduced by snake rescuer Anees Mohammed(from Bangalore).

The Bagger Technique

We then introduced snake hooks, baggers, snake bags (various sizes for different species) and showed how to use, clean, and keep them handy.

Not many realize that the first phone call to rescue a snake is the best opportunity for the rescuer to gather as much information, brief about steps they need to take and calm the caller. If practiced well it can save lot of time, effort and energy.

Attending live rescue calls was a pioneering idea that I conceptualized and it turned out to be a showstopper of the workshop.  Each rescue call is unique, understanding the perspective of the caller, public, rescuers and figuring out how to retrieve a snake from unique situations is what I hoped every participant would learn ;And doing this with the master himself is like icing on the cake.  Snake Shyam is an expert who has rescued and documented rescue data of over 22,000 snakes. One can imbibe a great deal from just watching him. Omer Kaiser from XTrails Expeditions http://www.xtrailsexpeditions.in/mtb.html  was kind enough to sponsor a vehicle and everyone got a chance to witness Snake Shyam handle the rescue operation.

At the rescue site, discussing methods to retrieve a snake

We rescued a sand boa and a cobra on the two calls that we attended. He made sure all understood the basic ethic of ‘NOT CATCHING AND/OR TRANSLOCATING A SNAKE IF IT COULD BE SAFELY LEFT WHERE IT IS FOUND’. He also showed how one could use this opportunity to educate public about snakes and encourage them to understand and tolerate snakes around. As Rom says “A big part of the problem could be resolved by teaching people to identify snakes and to tolerate, or even encourage the non-venomous varieties to stick around.”

Identifying snakes is very crucial for any snake handler. Participants were taught safe methods of identification through scale counts using restraining tubes and encouraged to use field books.

Participants engrossed in learning the scale count method of identifying snakes

 It is quite ironic that many rescuers still have fancy explanations when asked about the sex of the snake. I was once asked by the director of a zoo, ‘Why are these snakes not breeding even after keeping them together for two years?’, and when I sexed them I found both to be males! He got his answer. Though there is sexual dimorphism in few snakes it requires one to be trained to identify. Hence sexing the snake is very important but at the same time should be done very carefully.

Soon after the rescue many rescuers bring rescued snakes home and keep them for reasons which are more absurd than reasonable; like, calling friends and relatives to take a look, pose for pictures and some really weird excuses stating the snake’s (a common cobra’s or a rat snake’s)tail is too thin …so may be a new species! All snakes are protected under the Wildlife Act, two pythons and egg-eating snake are listed under Schedule I; the king cobra, common cobra, Russell’s viper, rat snake, dog-faced water snake, checkered keelback, and olive keelback under Schedule II and the rest fall under Schedule IV. In other words no snake can be caught, kept or translocated without the permission from the Forest Department.

Session on captive management

If a snake rescuer has been identified and granted permission to rescue and keep snakes, he should be trained in captive management of snakes. This demands good understanding of the species and an uncompromising attitude towards proper care.

Participants cleaning up terrariums

One needs to keep in mind that rescued snakes should be brought to captivity only if its condition is serious enough to warrant medical intervention and if the condition is too serious then it is best left to the veterinarian to attend to the snake. Participants were shown how to shift snakes, feeding protocols to follow, cleaning and maintaining terrariums.

This workshop has been a breakthrough and people across the country have come forward to collaborate to conduct such camps in their respective states. Gerry Martin http://www.gerrymartin.in/workshops.html) from Bangalore and Nirmal Kulkarni (http://goawildwatch.blogspot.com) from Goa already conduct herpetology camps and workshops which are good avenues for interested individuals. More such professional workshops will prove as a boon for rescuers and snakes.

Sitting: Snake Shyam; Standing: Shankar, Laurel ,Chaitanya,Gowri Shankar, Madhusudhan Shukla, Shivu,Arun Singh, Prashanth,Vinay, Omar,Anwar ; On the jeep: Mahesh, Snake Shyam's son, Jagadeesh, Ashwini, Pooja,Suhas, Vijay; Not in picture: Barkha, Suresh DN, Shashank, Nagendra, Anand, Sonu,Yagnesh

I believe, promoting right knowledge to right people at the right time will foster right attitudes towards snake rescue and relocation!

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Shivu and Prashanth for their support during the workshop.

Next workshop:

@ Mysore  on the   31st  March & 1st April 2012

If you are interested please write to me at :



  • Das, A., Nair, M.V., Gosh, S. and Mahanta, N. 2005. Protocol followed for rehabilitation of Burmese rock pythons (Python murlurus bivitatus) in Assam state zoo. In: Back to the Wild: Studies in wildlife rehabilitation. Ed: Vivek, M., Ashraf, NVK, Panda, PP. and Mainkar, K. Wildlife Trust of India, New Delhi.
  • IUCN, 2002. IUCN Guidelines for the Placement of Confiscated Animals. Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge,
  • Miller, E.A. (Ed.), 2000. Minimum standards for wildlife rehabilitation. International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, St. Cloud, MN. 77 pages.
  • Shine, R. and Koenig, J. 2001. Snakes in the garden: An analysis of ‘reptiles’ rescued by community-based wildlife carers. Biological Conservation. 102: 271-283
  • White, J. 1993. Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation (Editor: Louse Shimmel). International Wildlife Rehabilitation. C.A. pp 1-10.
  • http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2002-004.pdf
  • Warrel, David A. Guidelines for the management of snake-bites
  • Notes on rescue capture and translocation of snakes for WTI workshop Kaziranga, Assam, February, 2008, Rom Whitaker.
  • Follow the IUCN protocol on the placement of confiscated animals for an appropriate decision on the resolution of snakes confiscated from charmers and traders (IUCN, 2002).

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

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It is that time of the year again, when one of the most interesting events in nature unfurls in the Western Ghats. I am talking about female king cobras building their nests. As I write this, these snakes have either zeroed in on the location or are eagerly looking out for one right now!

King cobra breeding season starts from early February when males seek females who leave their scent (pheromones) behind. Most often more than one male vies for a female resulting in male combat and the triumphant male gets to mate.

Male combat-a sort of wrestling match where each one tries to subdue the other by pushing the head to the ground

Courtship lasts anywhere between 5 minutes to 2 hours and continues for days during which they mate multiple times. In 2007 I observed pairing for up to 30 days.

Courtship followed by mating:The male nudges the female by gently moving over her and the female displays submissive behavior by spreading her hood after which they mate

 After this the male leaves and the gravid female moves in search for a place to build her nest. Males do not play any role in building or guarding the nest. Typically females are ready to lay eggs by the last week of April. For the five years that I have been studying king cobras at Agumbe I have seen sixteen nests and most of them were found between 22nd and 26th of April (which means this week!). I was lucky enough to observe four females in action.

Females typically select a slope close to a tree with adequate shade. Considering Agumbe receives more than 8000mm of rainfall annually, this selection makes sense as, a slope guarantees the flow down of rain water preventing any stagnation, the buttress ensures a strong base and the shade ensures regulation of sunlight and decelerates rain drops before falling on the nest.

Nest under dappled sunlight

It is not until one appreciates how a limbless creature can build a well engineered nest that one realizes how our hands destroy natures wonders so unmindfully. The female gathers leaf litter (from a radius of 3-5m) in tight coils and slowly but steadily deposits them together. She repeatedly moves into it to tighten and pack the leaves firmly. Once the nest is around 30cm tall and 3feet wide she moves in to lay her eggs.

Female carrying leaf litter after looping them within with her coils

In nests observed around Agumbe, the clutch size varies from 23 to 43 eggs. The female then comes out and continues to build till the nest is about 4 feet tall. She generally stays on the nest and guards it for 12- 15 days. In one case in 2008 the female was present on the nest till the 27th of May, which is the longest record we have observed around Agumbe. During this entire nesting period the females rarely feed. Incubation period varies between 90 to 113 days; incubation temperature varies between 24-28 C and humidity between 55-90%.

The first time I witnessed a king cobra on a nest was at Coorg (informed by Snake Shyam from Mysore). As always the inherent curiosity of humans had gotten the better of them and the nest lay disturbed. It was heart wrenching to see the female painstakingly working to cover the nest with the scattered leaf litter to protect the eggs from the downpour.

Eggs lay exposed after the nest was disturbed by locals

Installing a board at a nest site requesting people not to disturb

Though people revere king cobras in the Malnad region of the Western Ghats they certainly do not favor a king cobra nest with 40 eggs anywhere close to their homes. Hence they prefer shooing the female away, or disturb the nests and some go to the extremes of burning the nests down.

Unprecedented developmental activities leading to dwindling habitats is already impacting the survival of this species and if entire nests are burned down it is hard to imagine what we stand to lose. At the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station we embarked on the study of wild king cobras and their habitats. Over these years we have monitored several nests and involved local students who are the custodians of these forests.

Local student monitoring a king cobra nest

 This community based research approach has been a success and we have released over 400 hatchlings back to wild, with a success rate of 98%. Now one needs to keep in mind that typically in reptiles out of every clutch only one or two reach adult hood.

Apart from Agumbe we are now networking with other states where king cobras are found to study and conserve them. In 2009 I visited Uttarakhand and monitored a nest along with Manish Rai who is doing remarkable work with king cobras there.

Female king cobra guarding her nest at Uttarakhand

These king cobras build their nests in June and females stay on the nest for longer periods as compared to their counterparts in the Western Ghats.

This year I visited Thrissur, Kerala and met Dr.Nameer, Professor at the College of Forestry with whom we hope to tie up to monitor nests this year. In the coming months I will be visiting Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram and a few North Eastern states to unravel the secrets hidden in their folds.

True to Benjamin Franklin’s words I believe “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

PS: Watch out for the post on hatching …..When it is time!

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

Edited by: Shweta Harish & Manoj

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