(NOTE: Snakes, as such are dangerous and volatile creatures, and without prior or complete knowledge of what one is attempting – do NOT try to handle them. Some are poisonous and not all individuals of the same species are as temperamental and tolerant of human approach as others. They will cause no harm to you if you do not cause any harm to them. I do not advise anyone to go around looking for snakes and catching them, but I write this article in hope that increased awareness shall eradicate the stigma that exists against their existence, and instead make watching and observing one to be an interesting, not fearful, experience. Honestly, I believe that I have more chances of being killed by a stray dog than a snake if I was within a one-meter radius of either.)
It is that time of the year The monsoons are on the way out, and the 24 hour rain season is out. Dry patches of land are visible every time the sun comes out, and the abundant wild creatures of Manipal which are now thriving in the lush surroundings, will soon be restricted to patches of wet areas and undergrowth. This means that many of the snakes found here are now on the move to look for these patches where prey (read: frogs, worms, insects, etc) is easily available and habitat is suited for their living. This is one of the best times for on to watch the snakes that reside in the area.
Two commonest snakes in Manipal, and the most easily and often seen are also amongst the most harmless in the country, and this article is mostly about them. They are the Rat Snake, and the almost cute Buff-striped Keelback.
The Rat Snake:
A long, often between 6-8 feet in length but sometimes growing upto 11 feet, snake that is common in the region and found everywhere – amongst shrubs along the roadside, in drains, and even in your garden! Unfortunately, it is this fondness of human surroundings that leads to it’s demise – combined with human fear and the frequency with which Rat Snakes are found, they are also the ones that face the human wrath more often. In reality, they are non-venomous and one of the snakes that behave very well when handled with hands. They are also great pesticides preying on disease carrying rodents which make life hell for us otherwise! It also eats lizards, other small snakes, frogs, etc.
Its coloration is variable – some individuals being olive green – brown, while some as light as yellow! They are often seen crossing roads and lying still in the undergrowth for long periods. I have found them to be very shy of humans and in my many attempts at trying to catch one, I’ve failed almost every time – as it runs away at the slightest indication of danger. However, some determined individuals do strike back – once, in my case – and the bite, though harmless, is quite painful.
They are also good swimmers, and the Swarna River and Manipal Lake are good spots to see them swimming with their heads held above the water. Known as “kere” in Kannada, they are also mistaken for Cobras quite often and this can be attributed to their habit of lifting up the upper half of the body above the ground and trying flare up – something that might be a defense mechanism against other cobras, such as the King Cobra, which feed on them.
Here’s an 8-9 feet long individual that was sunning itself:
And this is an interesting behaviour – known as the combat dance – that is performed by male rat snakes, during which they twine around each other when on the ground and also when lifting their bodies up in the air:
The Buff-striped Keelback:
My favorite snake. A small snake, never more than 2-2.5 feet in length, it is one of the most graceful snakes. It can be distinguished by its size, the 2 stripes running along its body, the large eyes, and the short body – long tailed structure. This guy feeds almost entirely on frogs and toads, and is found everywhere in all kinds of habitats, especially in marshy or wet looking patches of land. The conspicuous buff stripes run along its body, which itself changes colour to depict the mood of the snake.
It is a remarkably gentle snake that will do you no harm no matter what. When afraid, it just flattens itself to the ground – a dangerous tactic on the roads, where several are often killed by vehicles running over them. Over the past few weeks, I have picked up many from this position and kept them in the undergrowth nearby – a gesture that that they don’t find offensive, though they constantly try to escape from the grip of the hands They do not like hot weather, however, and often hide in drains and cavities during the hottest parts of the days. In wet fields and paddies, they are common – a given considering it is there that frogs and toads are most abundant.
They are very quick though, and quite shy of humans. I have proabably handled over fifty of these snakes in the past 2 years, and have never received a bite or any aggresive behaviour.
And another fellow that I photographed while handling it:
This pic, to indicate the size. The hands are mine, and the image was taken by fellow nature-watcher Kanika Nagia:
I have described two rather common, and harmless snakes that you are likely to stumble upon.
Another that one can see in Manipal – especially in the bigger water bodies – is the Chequered Keelback. It is non-venomous but highly temperamental. In fact, from my experience, I have found it to be the most aggressive of all snakes. A bite, even though harmless in nature and non-fatal (but still painful as hell, and leaves a mark – mine didn’t go for 2 weeks after I handled my only specimen of this species), is usually the result of any physical interaction with this guy. It strikes very fast, and is quite determined in doing so. It is not uncommon in Manipal lake, and swims really well. It is also likely to be found in any other water body and is very common across the country.
There are a few other harmless snakes found in Manipal, but none very common.
*Please do note that there are poisonous snakes that exist in Manipal too. None are common, but I would personally like to stay away from them myself. I have seen the Indian Cobra, the Saw-scaled Viper, and the Russell’s Viper in the vicinity of human population. The latter two (the vipers) are responsible for almost half the human fatalities due to snakes, but again, if you keep to the roads and are careful at night – you’ll probably never encounter them in your life. Another snake, the Common Krait, which I haven’t seen in Manipal yet, but I’m sure exists here, is a very dangerous species to step over.
The Russell’s Viper, the Saw-scaled Viper, and the Common Krait – are all part of the big four (the fourth one being the King Cobra) – a group of snakes that is responsible for the highest number of deaths due to snake bites in the subcontinent. However, none are to be feared if you are careful. I have always believed that odds of you dying in a road accident are much MUCH greater than being killed by a snake bite. A snake bite on man is always a purely defensive reaction.
Snakes are silent servants of man – and a healthy population of their kind results in a balanced population of the pests that bother our kind. In fact, had it not been for the poisonous species, I am quite sure that man as a whole might have ignored snakes as yet another uninteresting group of animals.
P.S. All photographs have been taken by the author and he doesn’t mind you sharing them or using them as long as credit is given where credit is due.