Debunking Common Myths Surrounding Snakes
Snakes have fascinated and intrigued us from centuries, here the author helps us understand myths and facts about these reptiles.
India is home to over 300 species of snakes found in diverse landscapes – from the high Himalayas and dense canopies to open grasslands and wetlands, depending on their unique characteristics which are suitable to their habitat.
Snakes are ectotherms which means they regulate their body temperature through external factors, and have a vast range in size. The smallest in India being the Brahminy Blind Snake which is about 15 cm to the colossal Reticulated Python that can grow up to 30 feet in length!
On one hand, snakes are considered villainous and evil through their misleading portrayal in the media and folklore which often leads to conflict with humans. On the other hand, they are worshipped for their association with Lord Shiva which pushes believers to coexist with them in harmony.
To sustain nature’s equilibrium, it is imperative to clear the air surrounding these misunderstood beings by busting some common snake myths:
Myth #1 – Snakes drink milk
In Hindu culture, devotees pray to Lord Shiva by offering milk to the Shivling, an abstract representation of the God with a Cobra canopy adorned on top of it. During Shravan, a month dedicated to Lord Shiva, thousands of people flock to the temples to offer milk mixed with honey and saffron to Cobras as a means of worship, especially to celebrate a traditional festival dedicated entirely to snakes called Nag Panchami.
Though milk is a natural food for mammals in the wild, it is not a part of a reptile’s diet. Cobras and other species like Rat snakes, Pythons and Sand Boas are poached from forests by a community of saperas from the Kalbeliya tribe who resort to this practice due to extreme poverty.
These snakes are then deprived of necessities like food and water for weeks before Shravan begins, usually in July/August, which forces the starved and dehydrated snake to give in and drink whatever is ultimately placed in front of it, including milk! In reality, snakes are lactose intolerant and cannot naturally break down the milk enzyme, which eventually results in infection, poisoning, or death.
Myth #2 – Snakes dance to the tunes of snake charmers
Although the practice of snake charming was banned under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, it is still prevalent in recent years. India has been unfortunately portrayed as ‘the land of snake charmers’ for decades, even after independence from the British Raj, which results in ‘witnessing snake charming’ a popular item in tourists’ bucket lists!
Snakes don’t have external ears, so these misconstrued creatures actually can’t hear the sound or dance to the tunes of the snake charmer’s flute, which is what they claim the snake is doing.
A Cobra only raises its hood as a self-defence technique and what might be perceived as ‘dancing or swaying’ is the snake replicating the movement of its threat – a flute in this case. As these scaly reptiles sense vibrations through their bodies, saperas rapidly tap their feet on the ground to grab their attention and dupe tourists.
Myth #3 – Snakes avenge the death of loved ones
The ‘Ichchaadari Nagin’ or ‘shapeshifting snake’ has been etched in our brains through countless films and TV series wrongly glorifying the mystical phenomenon of snakes seeking revenge. Legendary actors like Sridevi and Rishi Kapoor’s movie ‘Nagina’ set the tone in 1986, and the film industry has latched onto this sensationalised misinformation ever since.
Snakes do not have a well-developed nervous system, which means that they cannot ‘remember’ a person or an event. They also lack the emotional quotient and empathy to acknowledge the death of a fellow reptile, let alone plot an act of revenge against a human.
Another false notion that the film industry has planted is the existence of ‘Nagmani’ a diamond with special powers that is found inside a Cobra’s head. Sadly, many snakes are harmed or killed in search of this imaginary stone.
Myth #4 – A snake can be identified by the colour of its body or the shape of its head.
A dangerous misconception people believe is that a venomous snake can be identified by a triangular head or a colourful body. Snakes possess a comprehensive variety of characteristics that have evolved according to their survival needs or habitat, so a presumption based on such features can be fatal.
There are multiple examples to prove this statement wrong – A triangular-shaped head usually associated with the venomous Viperidae family is also a feature of the Indian Rock Python, which is a non-venomous snake. On the other hand, the Common Krait, which is part of the Big Four venomous snakes in India, possesses a rounded head. Often confused with Kraits due to the similar colouration and stripes, harmless Wolf snakes copy their patterns to fool the predators. This is called Bastian Mimicry.
Colour Polymorphism, or colour variation within a species, is another reason why it is crucial not to rely on a colouration for identification. Malabar pit vipers are born brown but have the ability to change colour over the course of their life, ranging from green and blue, to yellow and even vivid red, making it very difficult to identify the snake, especially for a layperson.
Myth #5 – Snake bites can be cured with traditional medicine
From eating Kajara seeds to rubbing the extract of a betel leaf vine or even a hen’s anus on a snake bite and many more reckless methods are attempted to neutralize the venom in the remote parts of India.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of awareness, inaccessible medical facilities and deep-rooted traditional beliefs, the locals trust more in a village shaman to use witchcraft for “healing” a snake bite rather than going to the hospital to seek professional help.
The only effective treatment for a venomous snake bite is the timely administration of the anti-venom serum with the correct dosage. Other unconventional methods such as placing a hot iron rod on the bite or trying to ‘suck out the venom by creating a gash only cause more harm to the victim. The Polyvalent Antivenom Serum in India neutralizes the envenomation by any one of the Big Four Snakes – the Spectacled Cobra, Common Krait, Russell’s Viper, and Saw Scaled Viper.
Educating the rural public about basic avoidance behaviour like carrying a torch at night and wearing covered shoes, as well as spreading awareness on the importance of snake conservation is crucial for the survival of the species.
Snakes are nature’s pest control that helps maintain the ecological balance by keeping the rodent population at bay. Wildlife SOS operates a 24×7 Rapid Response Unit that rescues thousands of reptiles every year that land up in urban settlements in search of food or shelter. What was once their home has now been encroached, fragmented and depleted by humans, leaving these reptiles with no choice.
Wildlife SOS also focuses on sensitizing the public and clearing misconceptions about snakes through awareness workshops, which is the first step in protecting and conserving our slithery friends.
Author : Shirina Sawhney