Shared Landscapes/Divided Lands

07 Oct 2022

Gnaneswar Chandrasekharun was the winner of the RSTMH and Venoms and Toxins 2022 Snakebite photo competition for his photo titled ‘shared landscapes’. Working as a Coordinator for the Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation Project Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank’s (CFH/MCBT) Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation Project, he explains some of their key initiatives working on snakebite in India. 

Snakes are an essential component of the ecology of the Indian landscape especially because of the high abundance of rodents resulting from the conversion of forest land to agriculture. Without rodent-eating snakes, damage to standing crops and stored grains would be disastrous. At the same time, snakes are indiscriminately killed because of myths and ignorance of snake identity and habits.  There’s also an abysmal lack of knowledge of first aid and treatment of snakebite at the village level.  

India experiences the tragedy of the highest snakebite incidence on earth, with up to 58,000 men, women and children dying each year and tens of thousands of snakebite survivors permanently disabled and traumatized. In this situation, both people and snakes are losers.

The prevalence of agriculture and certain lifestyle practices mean that rural Indians are constantly at risk of snakebite, an almost entirely preventable occurrence. Dealing with this complex problem requires a multilayered approach. To further compound the issue, the
composition and effects of snake venom vary regionally, which makes the currently available antivenom ineffective in some parts of the country.

The scale of the problem, coupled with a lack of clear epidemiological data in many parts of the world has led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to categorize snakebite envenoming as a Category A Neglected Tropical Disease(NTD).

Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank’s (CFH/MCBT) Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation Project has had tremendous success over the past three years. We have been engaging in several aspects of mitigating this multilayered issue, and some of our key initiatives are as follows:

Outreach and capacity building

We have been partnering with various NGOs and herpetologists to conduct extensive education, outreach and capacity building programs across 14 of the snakebite-prone states of India  including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Tamilnadu. These programs have been conducted for rural stakeholders like school students, farmers, health workers, Forest Department,  and others. We have reached more than 16,00,000 people far through our workshops, which are supplemented with simple and concise educational materials we have created, including posters, handouts and short films. These materials have been translated into multiple regional languages.

In addition to this, we have conducted a socio-economic study to ascertain acceptability levels of key protective equipment such as rechargeable torchlights, gumboots and mosquito nets among rural communities in Tamilnadu. Snakebite occurs frequently in the night when people are walking without a torchlight and step on a snake. Most snakebites occur on the lower extremities. In a rural context, people sleeping on the ground are vulnerable to snakebite. Through our experience we have observed that if these conditions are properly addressed a majority of snakebite incidents can be avoided and the goal of this study is to quantify the process.

Venom sampling and research

The composition and effects of snake venom vary regionally, which makes the currently available anti-venom ineffective in some parts of the country. To address this issue, we are collaborating with Dr Kartik Sunagar and his team at the Evolutionary Venomics lab, Indian Institute of Science to study geographical venom variation and neutralizing capacity of antivenom. A comprehensive set of publications outlining the very interesting outcomes of this research were published. 

We are also continuing dialogue and work with India's 5 antivenom producers toward increasing antivenom titre, reducing allergic reactions. While news reports continue to shout about the 'new generation of antivenom and snakebite remedies' the real need is to simply improve the existing antivenom. While important initiatives, these other remedies will be a long time coming and meanwhile thousands of people are dying.

Interfacing with the government

We are partnering with National Health Mission, Tamilnadu towards collection of epidemiological data and establishing  a snakebite registry for the state, a project that we hope will be replicated nationwide. In addition to this, we are working with the Indian Council for Medical Research, Ministry of Health, Department of Biotechnology toward standardizing snakebite treatment protocol, guaranteeing the adequate supply of antivenom, free to the rural poor, where and when it is needed most, training of rural clinicians, adding snakebite to the syllabus of MBBS physicians.

Background of the cover image

On a snake walk with Irulas, an endemic tribe that’s known for catching snakes, I happen to notice a snake crawling in the rice fields. I have noticed that it was not very far from few women who were working in the field. The Russell’s viper gently went past women without feeling threatened or noticed. I was often told that snakes do not bite unless provoked and this incident made me believe fully in it. I wanted to recreate this incidence to prove that people and snakes can coexist. This particular image was clicked on a later day when we released rescued vipers in the farmlands. Upon releasing, we cautioned the two women about the snake’s presence and they were carefully keeping an eye on the snake. The viper however, without hesitation, crawled parallel to these women without feeling threatened. The picture was taken using a drone and under an expert’s supervison.

Gnaneswar Ch, Coordinator, Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation Project of the Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank Trust.