Snakes in the City

Vipin and Sonali

At the turn of five years of untiring efforts towards restoring a wetland at Dheerpur village,  now recognized as the Dheerpur Wetland Park (Project Site) has finally started to show the fruits of labour. Besides numerous flora (48 tree species), several species of grasses and sedge and a significant variety of fauna (birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects) have started to appear at the restoration site.  Located adjacent to agricultural fields amongst the densely built-up urban landscape, the Dheerpur area (restoration site) has faced massive anthropocentric interference, including being used as land for periodic mass gatherings, as a playground, and also as a garbage dumping yard. Such ecological perturbation resulted in soil compaction that adversely affected the soil health, microflora and fauna. As a consequence, the land turned unfit for plant growth and became barren. Before the restoration efforts were made, only a few native trees and invasive species such as Prosopis juliflora and Leucaena leucocephala were present. The ground was virtually devoid of any vegetation cover (see After-Effects Of a Thousand Feet). Following years of restoration efforts, the land now has become a diverse habitat for different species of birds, insects, and reptiles. Today we are going to introduce you to a special group of wetland residents that are the least favoured by visitors – the snakes. Though generally perceived as harmful to humans and livestock, most snake species in urban areas are actually non-venomous and play a significant role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Sand boa crossing the road (Credit: Shiv Murat)

Snakes play dual roles of prey as well as predator. They are commonly found in urban areas and are as common in cities as other urban adaptors such as crows and pigeons. It is just that we are not aware of their movement as these are cryptic beings using an intricate web of drains, rodent holes, sewers, etc. They can be found in most habitats where there is a good population of rodents, areas such as agricultural fields, open green spaces, garbage dump yards, etc. They help in controlling the rodent population and are thus also known as farmers’ friends. For the last three years, there have been frequent sightings of Sand Boa (Eryx johnii) in the Dheerpur Wetland Project Site.  Although we have not analyzed them, we suspect they might have played a role in controlling the rodent population at the site as we are no longer observing any damage to our newly planted trees as we used to in the initial phase of the project.  Their frequent sightings indicate a healthy ecosystem in our wetland. The sand boa is a unique species; its tail size is similar to that of its head, thus also commonly known as a two-headed snake (locally known as Do Muha Saap). It is protected under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 thus sale and possession of the species is a punishable offence. While we have seen other species of snakes, this one is most frequently observed.

Sand boa in the nursery area of DWP (Credit: Shiv Murat)

The Sand boa is amongst the most traded snake species. Owing to superstitions like keeping it in the house would bring good fortune, there is an alarming increase in black-market trading of this animal (WWF, 2021). On the other side of the spectrum, the general fear of snakes also leads to their killing by people. Thus, the Sand boa faces dual danger. Snakes usually don’t attack humans as attacking them is anyway not beneficial because humans are not their natural prey. Proximity or encounters with snakes does not necessarily have to end in a snake bite incident. Most snake bites happen when they feel defensive/ threatened or when people try to capture or kill snakes. India reports the highest number of snake bites and deaths in the world (Mascarenhas, 2021); in order to improve this situation, it’s important to first understand snake ecology. We need urgent studies to understand their movement and behaviour in urban areas. Without understanding the beast we cannot expect to find the solution to the human-snake conflict (Glaudas, 2021).

Reference

Glaudas, X. (2021). Proximity between humans and a highly medically significant snake, Russell’s viper, in a tropical rural community. Ecological Applications, 31(4), e02330

Mascarenhas, A. (2021, August 8). At 1.2 million India has highest number of snakebites in the world; here’s why its dangerous. The Indian Express

WWF. (2021).Owning is Stealing: TRAFFIC urges not to keep legally protected wild animals as pets.https://www.wwfindia.org/?19742/TRAFFIC-urges-not-to-keep-legally-protected-wild-animals-as-pets.

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