India's "Snake Savior" Protects People, Reptiles

Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
Updated March 12, 2003

India is home to many dangerous snake species and more than one billion people. Increasingly, these two groups are coming into contact as India's growing population pushes into once-wild forests that serve as prime snake habitat.

While human encounters with cobras, vipers, and pythons can prove fatal, more often than not it is the snakes that are killed. The often-feared animals have no voice of their own, but they do have at least one energetic and determined protector. For over a decade, animal welfare activist Snehal Bhatt has championed the cause of India's reptile residents—and taught her fellow Indians how to save both themselves and the country's snakes. She's done it by meeting snakes face to face.

Saving People from Snakes, and Vice-Versa

Bhatt once worked as a social worker, but she decided that animals need her help more than humans. "We are talking for someone who cannot talk for themselves," she explained to the National Geographic Channel.

In 1989, Bhatt began her animal rescue work, intervening in human-animal encounters to help avert the killing of animals where possible. Four years later, she founded the Gujarat Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in her home base of Baroda. Together with her longtime assistant Raj Bhavsar and a group of dedicated volunteers, Bhatt serves on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day—ready to help people who report unwanted encounters with dangerous animals.

While Bhatt's group stands ready to rescue any animal in peril, more than half of their calls involve snakes. Bhatt can often be found at work in towns, forests, and farms—the spaces where snakes and humans often meet.

Bhatt acknowledges people's common aversion to snakes. But she said she does not regard the reptiles differently than other needy animals. "What's the difference in a snake?" she said. "You know, [it] also has life. [It] also feels pain. In fact, I feel better when I risk my life for a snake, because they don't understand, and we do understand. So I'm much more justified when I'm rescuing snakes."

Snakes in India stand to gain from Bhatt's help. Many are killed by rural residents and poachers or maimed by snake charmers.

Awareness Key to Human-Snake Harmony

Most residents of Indian villages don't actively seek to harm snakes. But they will kill what they regard as a dangerous threat when they encounter a dangerous snake in a well or backyard.

However, Bhatt and her colleagues stand by ready to remove and relocate snakes for village residents in the Gujarat region of western India. Before her work is done, Bhatt will also try to teach residents a little bit about snake behavior and the actual threats posed by the often misunderstood animals.

Continued on Next Page >>




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