He is not a snake-charmer, the snakes charm him. So much that this 31-year-old environmentalist Vishal Santra from West Bengal has turned a ‘snake conservationist’ with a difference. He rescues both, people as well as snakes, voluntarily.
“People kill snakes, because they fear that snakebite will kill them. We need to kill this fear. If we don’t educate people on treatment facility and actually save the snakebite victims, we won’t be able to save the reptile. That’s why I help people reach hospital for treatment without delay, apart from rescuing snakes from houses,” Santra told The Statesman.
Santra, who hails from Hooghly district of West Bengal and is working as Research Associate on different snakebite projects across India with molecular ecologist from Bangor University, UK, Anita Malhotra, was in Himachal recently.
An internationally acclaimed reptile consultant, he runs a registered society -Simultala Conservationists (Foundation for Wildlife)- at Simultala in Hooghly for past many years.
It has branches in some Panchayats around, with 27 active members, the volunteers.
The foundation has done mapping of hospitals in vicinity of operational area where anti-snake venom facility is available, and acts as a bridge between snakebite victims and people in emergency through help lines. “Similarly, we respond to calls to rescue the reptile and release it back in the habitat,” he said.
With self-training and mentoring by people like Gerry Martin and Romulus Whitaker, Santra is apt at catching snakes as deadly as King Cobra, Russell’s viper or just any other species. A bite by snake on his finger once has not deterred him from moving forward.
His sensitisation to conserve snakes goes back to his childhood in Manipur. “We lived with the Nepalese community. Whenever a snake entered a house, I saw them leaving the house open and stay with the neighbourers.”
However, in West Bengal, which is very high on unreported snakebite deaths (97 % of them outside hospital), people kill snakes indiscriminately. “What opened my eyes more was the death of a child due to snakebite in front of my eyes. I was called 16-17 hours after the bite. That time, I got to know that the anti-snake venom is available in government hospitals free of cost. But people were totally unaware as the government never advertised it,” he said.
He said majority sufferers of snakebites are villagers, farmers and poor labourers, who don’t have a voice. “That is why the government has never paid attention towards the issue. The people who die of snakebites don’t even get death certificates easily, for relief,” he said.
The gap hence made Santra take up the task of even community awareness on snakes and availability of free snakebite treatment in hospitals in campaign mode. He holds regular workshops for community and in schools to spread the message.