Sushil Chikane decided that he needed to find out why these animals are feared and killed.

The first time Sushil Chikane saw a cobra, it was wrapped around a rod on the thatched roof of an MTDC hotel in Mahabaleshwar. He was a child and could not understand why the adults were panicking. “All we could see was the belly and the underscales, which were shiny in the torchlight,” he says. The snake wasn’t even given a chance to escape. They smashed its head even before it could leave. Chikane says he thought, “We don’t kill a sparrow when it enters the house. Why are we killing the snake?” He decided that he needed to find out why these animals are feared and killed. “I wanted to learn more about them and educate others about them,” he says. Today, with a postgraduate degree in biodiversity, Chikane is a consultant to several wildlife organisations as well as a campaigner for awareness about animals, especially reptiles. His research project concerns the reptiles of Kaas plateau. As part of a four-month-long course, titled Wilderness Connect, Chikane is conducting a talk on reptiles on August 25. Wilderness Connect is for people who want to learn about wildlife and consider it as a career option. Excerpts from an interview:

Which are the snakes that are found in Pune?

The few common snakes that we can see in Pune, in the urban landscape, are the Green Keelback or the Grass Snake. It is completely harmless and really docile. It is not venomous and doesn’t even bite. On the periphery, we can see the Russell’s Viper, which is a little dangerous. You might get rat snakes a lot, which are also non-venomous. Often, you get some tiny, black snakes with white bands on them at night, called the Common Wolf Snake, which are also non-venomous.

Snakes are among the most feared creatures, though they are more sinned-against than sinning. How will you get participants at your lecture to start looking at snakes differently?

One of the problems is that people think of snakes as slimy, ugly and dirty creatures. Our presentation will have videos and photographs that will get them attracted to some very, very pretty snakes. We make participants try to spot which snakes are dangerous and which are not. They get confused and then we tell them that it is because of such confusion that people end up killing snakes. In India, there are four dangerous snakes which can potentially kill you — the Big Four — which are, the Indian Cobra, the Russell’s Viper, the Saw-Scaled Viper and the Indian Krait. Other snakes, besides these, are not dangerous. If you spot a snake in your neighbourhood, you need to only remove them. Luckily, most places in India are well-connected to snake rescuers, the forest and fire department, which rescue snakes. At the event, I will talk about scientific identification — in an easy way because not everybody is from a science background — such as how to identify snakes and lizards and how they are studied scientifically.

What do you do when you see a reptile or a snake in your premises?

This is another thing we cover. With floodwater, snakes have been moving to drier high grounds. This has increased their encounters with humans. One thing you should not do is panic. If the snake is in your garden, near a hill or outside your colony, let it be and it will go. There is no reason to act like it is in your bedroom. If it is in your house or a place where it is a hindrance, then you need to call the animal welfare, fire or forest departments. In most cities, there are snake rescuers, who are freelancers and rescue snakes for the love of it. Your responsibility is to keep a watch on the snake while the snake rescuer is coming. This way, you can help the snake rescuer locate it and they will do the rest. Remember that the first instinct of a snake is to run for its life when confronted by a human being.

Which is the snake that fascinates you the most?

The pit viper. These are snakes that have triangular heads and are extremely colourful. They may be green with red bands or orange with black blotches, among others, and are found on trees on the outskirts of Pune. We know very little about them and it would be fascinating to learn more about them.

What are some of the superstitions that India harbours about snakes?

A lot of people ask me if I have found the Nagmani, the precious gem that is believed to be embedded on the hood of the cobra. I tell them that I would have been the richest person around, considering that I encounter so many snakes and spend so much time in the field. A rescuer in Pune catches at least 30-100 snakes a month during the monsoon. They would all be millionaires if the Nagmani really existed. You go to different regions and there are different superstitions. In north India, there is a superstition that if a snake bites you, it will continue to do so on the same date every year. In south India, they say that if a snake bites you, the males become sterile. The worst thing I have come across is so-called educated people calling me up and asking me to send them a Red Sand Boa. They are ready to pay crazy amount of money, starting Rs 2 lakh. This snake is used in black magic rituals. Black magic, besides ignorance, is the reason most snakes are getting killed. The Red Sand Boa is among the most docile snakes. They eat rats and live in burrows. They rarely bite.

Fee for the entire course of Wilderness Connect: Rs 18,900. Fee for a single lecture: Rs 1,100.

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