Great Snakes!

A herpetologist explores the wilds, meeting rare species and awe-inspiring people
A Malabar pit viper on a mossy perch at Amboli, Maharashtra
A Malabar pit viper on a mossy perch at Amboli, MaharashtraPhoto: Shutterstock

The phone rings at a base station in Agumbe, the heart of king cobra country.

Caller: We have a huge black snake with white lines under a boulder.

Receiver: Black snake? Don't go close. We are on our way.

Three vehicles, with 16 people, seven snake hooks, four snake bags, nine cameras and a lot of adrenaline, rush out. Two hours and several hairpin bends later, we are at the location in a Karnataka village. Some of us have sent prayers in advance to our respective family deities. We are led to a small rock. Under it is a tiny and harmless wolf snake. Black and white, as described, but not a king cobra. We head back, laughing all the way.

I am a snake man. My life centres on demystifying these jewels of the animal world. If and when we meet, chances are that I will speak more about snakes with you than the local fish for lunch, as a Goan should!

A hoolock gibbon clicked in Assam
A hoolock gibbon clicked in Assam

The Beginning

Son: Baba, I was part of a team that has discovered a new Caecilian species…

Father: Umm, what's that? It looks like a worm.

Son: It eats worms, baba. It's an amphibian.

Father: Really? Couldn't you find something bigger and better looking? How can I tell my friends that my son discovered a new worm that's not even a worm?

I have set upon myself the mission to showcase India's amazing snakes and other lesser-known animals and habitats to people from varied walks of life. I kick-started Herpactive, a conservation enterprise focused on reptiles and amphibians, 18 years ago. Our annual Pit Viper Expedition, in its 15th year, is one of the longest-running expeditions in Asia.

The more closely I observe the unique web of life that our Indian wilderness supports, the more convinced I am that the communities residing in and around these habitats, too, have a right to be heard, to be able to communicate challenges and benefit from incomes generated from the areas that they are a part of.

Researcher: Will you show us the hoolock gibbon?

Local conservationist: No. I will sing for you. Seeing the HG before we sing brings bad luck to the youngest in our family.

Researcher: Ok. In that case, we will sing and dance first.

My sojourns in India's forests have taught me that every observation—light-hearted or otherwise—by a village elder, taxi driver, naturalist or even a bystander is a nugget of knowledge. I find that I always gain from those thoughts.

Northeast Calls

Researcher 1: Mate, leave it; it's a cobra!

Researcher 2: See the scales; it's a keelback.

Researcher 1: It has a raised hood. See the eyes…

Researcher 2: Yes! This is a false cobra and a new record for India.

That was in 2006, at the Bugun Community Reserve. I first walked the magnificent forests of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India alongside Ramana Athreya and Shashank Dalvi, two birders extraordinaire.

As a snake man, I was perturbed by my sheer lack of knowledge about the region's birds, but the herps I encountered left an imprint on me for life. The Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve and its adjacent Sessa Orchid Sanctuary are a must-visit place in India.

The Northeast has a magical charm that pulls some of us into its realm and teaches us lessons on life, lifestyles and conservation. But while Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya are where I delve into the mystic world of new amphibians and mithuns, my roots are in the Western Ghats of India.

Trace the west coast of peninsular India all the way to its tip at Kanyakumari, and you'll find yourself staring at one of Asia's richest natural treasure troves. This is the living spine of India, the Western Ghats or the Sahyadris. Rainmaker. Birthplace of 100 rivers. My home.

In the North-western Ghats, close friends such as Parag Rangnekar from the Mrugaya Xpedition are pioneering odonate and moth-watching tours, and this is as fascinating as the specialised species tours that we conduct in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. There is just so much to see and so little time, says Rom Whitaker, India's iconic "Croc Man" and my mentor.

Visiting Snake Man (VS): Do you find bamboo pit vipers here?

Resident Snake Man (RS): Very rarely. For every 15 Malabar pit vipers, one might see one bamboo pit viper.

VS: Oh, ok, there is one bamboo pit viper; there's another, and there are two juveniles. And hey, there is a big female. Wow, that is a lot of bamboo pit vipers. Where are the Malabars?

RS: Umm, it is a strange night. No Malabar pit vipers.

Always expect the unexpected.

Beacons to Follow

Amboli in Maharashtra is considered the epicentre of all creatures, small and beautiful for the North-western Ghats. It offers trails and regular sightings of endemic snakes and frogs. Whistling Woods is a beacon to follow, a homestay run by Hemant Ogale and his family for over three decades. A conservationist and wildlife photographer, he and co-conservationist Kaka Bhise have contributed immensely to our understanding of lesser-known species and introduced generations to the amazing world of the Western Ghats' biodiversity.

While working as a herpetologist for over two decades has given me an opportunity to gasp and wonder at some of our planet's most exceptional species, it has also helped me cross paths with some awe-inspiring personalities.

I have benefited from several centres where I land up even today when in doubt or for inspiration. Besides the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (for king cobras), we have the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Mhadei Research Center for vipers.

Fringe Ford in Wayanad is among my most favoured private conservation sanctuaries, while the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary has one of the largest living plant collections.

As I gather my thoughts for this article, sunlight filters through a canopy of trees and lights up a drying rivulet, which will take rebirth soon in the South-west monsoons.

I am at the Wildernest Nature Resort, a private sanctuary on the Goa-Karnataka-Maharashtra border. Here, many urban folks had their first sighting of a snake in its habitat.

Guest: Isn't it poisonous?

Naturalist: No, sir, it's a gecko. Geckoes in India are not poisonous.

Guest: Really? It will jump on me at night.

Naturalist: Be assured, they are very busy creatures at night. It will not.

Guest: Sure?

Naturalist: Yes, sir. Being an endemic lizard, it's a rare sighting, and it's complimentary; every cottage has one.

Closer to the coast at the Arabian Sea, where the horizon meets the white sands of Mandrem beach, is Elsewhere, a beach house, where olive ridley turtles nest.

Hatchlings emerge after a magical 56 days under the watchful eyes of an amazing team at Elsewhere and the local forest department, year after year.

Taking small individual steps and understanding the key role that complex ecosystems play in our lives, wherever we reside or work, is now essential as we face weather alterations daily.

"The least we can do," as the old jungle saying goes, "is learn from nature's ever-changing textbooks and spread the word of their worth."

Nirmal Kulkarni has been exploring India as a snake man and visual bard for over two decades

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