Sep 12, 2015

Rest in peace Joe...

November 15, 1962 – September 12, 2001
14 years ago on this day the international herp community lost a jewel. Years later as I browse through those letters I wrote to him as a child, my heart gets heavy and eyes fills with tears. Paying tribute to that wonderful person, snake-man par excellence and my mentor, Dr. Joseph Bruno Slowinski. Rest in peace big guy!

Captive Care of the Russell's Viper (Daboia russelii)


Disclaimer: All photographs in this article are copyrighted. No reproduction or use is permitted without prior permission of the photographer or author. All snakes are protected in India under Wildlife protection Act 1972. Keeping or trading snakes in India is regarded illegal. All photographs are collected from various Snake Parks and private wildlife centers across india.

There are mainly three species of true vipers found on the Indian sub continent. Namely

Russell's viper (Daboia russelii)

Saw scaled viper (Echis carinatus)

Levantine viper (Macrovipera labetini)

Description (Russell's Viper): Body stout, strongly keeled, head distinct broader than neck, scales on upper surface of head small. Usually nocturnal, found on open grassy areas, scrub jungles, forest edges and in and around mangrove forests. Diet comprises of rodents but has also been seen feeding on chicks in a nest. Females bear 5-63 live young in May- August.

Behavior: When disturbed hisses loudly and the sound resembles that of a pressure cooker; only bites as a last resort. Although slow crawling, the snake is capable of fast strikes.

The venom is haemotoxic in nature and causes a lot of tissue and kidney damage if bitten. In India many people are bitten every year by this species. It is considered as one of the "big four" venomous snakes in India. Usually not fatal if polyvalent antivenin (AVS) serum is administered on time.

Distribution: Throughout India, also Pakistan, probably southern Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (subspecies), Myanmar and Thailand.

Captive Care of Indian Russell's Viper (Daboia russelii russelii)

Enclosure/Housing requirements: As it is terrestrial snake, the theme of the enclosure should be a bit soily with a lot of hiding spaces. An artificial termite mound made up of plaster does a good job. Overall it is a very difficult snake to maintain in captivity as most snake parks and collectors cannot fulfill the needs. As it is quite active in nature there should be enough space in the cage. Length of at least 4ft with width of 2ft, and a height of 1.6ft/2ft is needed. Enclosures can be landscaped that allow the snake to bask when it desires to do so. After keeping them for fairly a long period of time it has been understood that basking is particularly important for this species. The temperature of the enclosure can vary between 28-31 degree Centigrade with a humidity of 70-80%.

Lighting: a 25-watt bulb or a heat pot is needed if the enclosure cannot be exposed to sunlight. In that case no artificial lighting system can substitute the vitamins acquired by exposed sunlight.

Feeding: Feeds almost exclusively on rodents (rats) in captivity. Of course I always keep them on lab rats, which are humanely killed, and the gastrointestinal system neatly removed to prevent any kind of outbreak of disease. There is one more reason to provide dead prey items, during the capture, injuries, and even deaths has been inflicted on snakes from live rodents. Frequency and quantity should be based on how active and healthy the snake is.

Breeding: I have never actually bred them in captivity, but a local snake park reported that they have successfully bred them before. In the month of June, 11 individuals were born out of which 5 were females. But this report needs further confirmation.

Handling: Like all venomous snakes, this snake also should be handled very carefully for it has one of the most toxic venoms in the world and accounts for a large percentage of snakebites and deaths in south Asia. Usually not aggressive but if bothered lunges forward with great determination. The best way to handle these snakes is by pinning it down with the help of the handle on the snake stick or maybe with a pinning rod and/or persuading it to enter a restraining tube for closer inspection.

Tools of trade: while handling Russell's viper I always use a L shaped stick with a three feet long shaft. Midwest Gentle Giant tongs are actually made to tackle the vipers and I recommend all keepers to use one of these while handling the Russell's viper.

Anti-venom: antivenin should always be in hand for any kind of emergency. Haffkins Institute, Mumbai, India, produces a polyvalent form and is affective against its bite.Bengal chemicals is also known to produce antivenins for Russell's. Viper venom.

Other problems: continuous open mouth gaping can be a sign that the snake is overheating. On observing such behaviour the snake should be immediately taken to some cooler environment. The species is prone to diseases , especially parasitic. In that case proper medication is needed.

Jun 12, 2012

Coming Up!

Friends, at present I in the extreme north-eastern state of Manipur, conducting a herpetofauna survey across the state. Keep an eye on this space coz tons of exiting stuff happening out here!

Python Mystery: The Beginning

India is home to both the subspecies under the genus Python, but the distribution of these two subspecies within the state of West Bengal has been debated for ages. Once it was believed that Python molurus molurus inhabits only in the drier parts of the state, while the other subspecies Python molurus bivittatus occupies the wetter areas. But recent discoveries of large specimens of both the species from places where they are not supposed to occur has questioned the present theory on their distribution. Now the question is, is it a simple case of incorrect identification? Or there is more to the story. Could this mean that both the species has always been there side by side, and its just because of lack of fieldwork that we don’t know about their actual distribution. In northern West Bengal it is a know fact that above the 25’N latitude Burmese pythons or Burms ( as we call it in the field) occurs. But strangely many rescuers in north Bengal believes they have seen both the species. Although when it comes to hardcore evidence like photographs, its always been lacking. Personally even during my field works in the region I have never come across any Indian pythons so far. Now there is a possibility of an animal escaping captivity or a confiscated animal being released without proper identification, in such cases when the animal is recaptured it is advisable to conduct proper examinations with photo documentation before release. The chances of such cases gets even bigger as most of the pythons that are collected by poachers are from the three bordering states, namely Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, and all three are known to have Python molurus molurus only.

If that is the case then how are we going to explain the occurrence of Burms in southern west Bengal and Sunderbans. Yes, there are Burmese pythons even around Kolkata itself. In the year 2008, a specimen, not more than 8ft long, got caught up in a fish net in the east Kolkata wetlands. I have personally checked the photographs, and it was indeed a Burm. But what exactly happened to that specimen? According to the newspaper reports, the snake was later caught by the department staff and was released at Bethuadohori wildlife sanctuary in Nadia district, which is known to have a good population of Python molurus molurus! This is where I say the problem lies. Now if that particular animal is captured or photographed in near future, what will be the consequences? With our poor record keeping system , it will certainly lead to confusion, that will further complicate our understanding about choice of habitat among pythons in Bengal.

If u ask me, I would say it is really not that difficult identifying the two subspecies. Here is how one should be doing it. In Burmese pythons there is presence of a enlarged scale (sometimes two) right above the upper lip and below the eye, which we call the “subocular” that touches the supralabial, usually the 6th and 7th , while in subspecies molurus the subocular is simply absent and the 7th supralabial touches the eye (shown in the hand sketch). Although identification by color and patterns is never a sure way of determining a species among reptiles because of huge variations that occurs in individuals of the same species depending on the geography, even so molurus is known to have a much lighter and pale brown coloration with a pinkish tinge at the back of the head, while Burms are famous for their dark coloration with yellow and dark brown black patches all over and a very distinct lance shaped marking on top of its head.

To be Contd: Python Mystery: The Retic Story
Please note that this article is not written to question anyone’s credibility, it is simply to encourage the forest department of our country and the people who are working in the field as rescuers to be a bit more responsible and scientific in their approach.

Jun 11, 2012

Filming "Snakes of Sunderbans"

“Cut” ….. “Retake” were some of the words that became like a nightmare for me two years back. And who else can be responsible for such a situation other than my great friend and soon to be a master cinematographer Mr.Prodipto Mukherjee.

Prodipto was in his final year and was working on a small project of filming flora and fauna of Sunderbans. When I meet him in February at a pub in central Kolkata, he looked distressed. On asking him, he told his film is almost complete but apart from crocodiles there are no footage of reptiles in it and that’s why he needs my help in finding some. Agreeing to his proposal, we made two trips to Sunderbans that year. One in April, when the first rains hit and most snakes are active, the next was in July when monsoon is in full force and there are more chances of finding snakes out in the open and on roads. Now at this point I must say finding snakes in the field is not easy as it sounds, and when there is a film crew standing by, things just get even more difficult.

As time passed by I had to face my directors ever increasing demands. He made me walk the mud roads barefoot wearing nothing but a lungi, release a snake over and over again for the perfect shot. And the worst of all, I was told to lure a fish in front of a checkred keelback water snake until the snake grabs on to it. Now just imagine, with hundreds of mosquitoes tearing my flesh apart I cannot afford to move an inch because I am standing at the edge of the bank, looking down at a snake which is half out of the water, at the same time trying to place a dead fish right infront of it. And after all that when the shot was near complete, Prodipto humbly asked me,“I am really not happy with the lighting, can we do this whole sequence once again tomorrow in total sunlight?” I looked at him, awestruck, and with complete disgust we exchanged some really bitter words. Later that night he apologized to me for being cocky and best of all there was no more plans for a retake.

The sunderban is the largest deltaic region of the world. It extends from India through Bangladesh covering total area of 26,000 square kilometers, the largest single stretch of mangrove vegetation. About two thirds of the Sunderbans falls in Bangladesh. The Indian suderbans measures 9630 square kilometer out of which the reserve forest occupies about 4263 square kilometers. The people and there culture, the unique reverine system and its serine scenic beauty is home to thousands of flora and fauna. When it comes to snakes, Sunderban is no exception. It is home to about 190 species of birds, 35 species of reptiles and 27 species of mammals, out of which some are critically endangered.


In first phase (4th -10th April 2010) we decided to go to the remote interiors, but due to heavy rains we changed our plans and did most of the shooting in the outskirts of major towns along the way.
1. Canning
2. Basanti Town
3. Gosaba Town
4. Sajnekhali

Phase two (18th -20nd July 2010) was more a road trip as we tavelled about 140 kilometers in a car through NH 117, looking for snakes. We stoped at various points for refreshments, and also inquired the locals about the herpetofaunal diversity of that area.
The areas where we filmed are
1. Aamtola Haat
2. Diamond Harbour
3. Kakdwip
4. Namkhana
5. Bokkhali

To increase our chances of finding more number of species in those few days we employed a lot of people, basically kids who would call us on sight of any reptile in exchange for some balloons, toffees or pencils. This technique worked very well in the outskirts of Gosaba town, and soon enough we had a checkrd keelback, a baby monocle cobra, couple of wolf snakes and a good number of frogs. In Canning and Basanti we asked help from a ex-deer poacher who in turn took us to another person, few kilometers away in the outskirts. He was reluctant at first, but on offering some cash he showed us his catch. Three monocle cobras, a rib stricken banded krait, a common krait, some rat snakes, some ornamental snakes and last but not the least a horseshoe crab. We were curious and asked him what does he do with the snakes, as a reply he took out a card from his pocket issued by a well known NGO, fighting for the rights of Snake charmers internationally, famous for their statements like “snakes are domestic animals” and so on, has affiliated this person to catch snakes. He also adds that he is doing some sort of research on snake venom and many pharma companies are eager to buy venom from him. Nevertheless we paid him handsomely and left him to continue his so called research in peace!

We spent two days in Canning and Basanti town and rest in Gosaba coz our stay was free, food was cheap and snakes were plentiful, keeping only the last morning for Sojnekhali, as my director had no plans of paying the department for filming within protected areas. Overall the trip was good, and the findings were great. Now, two years later on the basis of findings from those two trips and the trips I made in the past, I have compiled a checklist of reptiles that will help understand the local hepetofauna of Sunderbans. I have also included authentic records of species made by professionals and amateurs with proper photographic evidence.

Bataguridae & Trionychidae
Batagur baska
Lissemys punctata

Crocodulus porosus

Varanus Salvator

Hemidactylus brookii
Hemidactylus flaviviridis
Hemidactylus frenatus

Calotes versicolor

Eutrophis carinata


Amphiesma stolatum
Xenocrophis piscator
Enhydris enhydris
Ptys mucosa
Aheatulla nasuta
Dendrelaphis tristis
Argyrogena faciolatus
Chrysopelea ornate
Cerberus rynchops

Naja kaouthia
Bungarus caeruleus
Bungarus fasciatus
Enhydrina schistosus
Ophiophagus sp.

Cryptelytrops sp.
Daboia russelii

Please Note: On many occasions I have seen photographic evidence of a species belonging to genus Cryptelytrops occouring on Sajnekhali Island . Unfortunately collecting a specimen for taxonomical studies has so far been impossible because of the protected status of the land it is found in. Also occourence of Python molurus bivittatus remains a subject of investigation as till now I have not come across any photographic evidence indicating the presence of the species in that region. Though I must add, Shahriar Caesar Rahman, an herpetologist working on Bangladesh’s herpetofauna, has documented Burmese pythons in his country’s share of the Sundarbans.

May 25, 2012

The Tarantula Highway!

Lets face the truth, I m arachnophobic. Probably fighting the last stage of it and looking for a cure. In search of a permanent solution I was in the a small hill station in southern India, to look for, what they call the most aggressive tarantula species on Earth. Although I have seen pet tarantulas and had some real crazy encounters with them, this was going to be my first wild experience. My guide on this trip is Reptile expert Melvin Selvan, with him is his brother Ashok Kummar and fellow researcher Vishal Santra.

We reached the spot around 4.30 in the evening, and with one hour of sunlight left, we thought of checking out the site infested with some of India’s largest tarantulas! There was nothing special about the place, a huge stretch of road with large banyan and tamarind tree on both sides of it. Once in a while you do see vendors selling coconut water, and that’s it! Nothing else. Hectares of agricultural fields as far one can see. Strangely during this walk we dint find a single clue that would suggest any of those claims of large spiders, but I was told repeatedly that they r there, somewhere, and we have to wait till dark to see them.

Investigating the area during daylight

The place we were staying was basic and clean and the food was undoubtedly great. But day wraps early there in that small town, shops close down by seven and roads become empty by eight. The only moving things on road are large trucks and snakes, which gets crushed under them. On reaching the spot an eerie feeling filled our hearts, as if something is creeping up on us. Its dark all around and only visibility is within the flashlight beam. I stood middle of the road where there are less chances of a spider dropping on me, while the guys looked for spiders in every hole of the tree. Crazy! Suddenly somebody called “There is one”. Curious, but cautious, I took little steps towards the tree they were flashing.

My first reaction, Oh Shit! That’s a f*cking big spider!

It took me some time to get settled into that scenario. But when I regained my senses this is what I saw; at a height of about 6-7ft is a spider, a very big spider, looking down on us. Eyes glowing bright like diamonds on a ladies’ finger. Body approx five inches (excluding legs), apparently it looked banded, but a closer look revealed it has long hairs all over. Two long legs stretched in front, rest tucked at back! We tried to coax it down with a snake stick but this tarantula turns out to be Usain Bolt of the spider world. It turns around, sprints and gets into its burrow, Out of reach, out of sight!

With adrenalin pumping, we rushed to the next tree…. And there was a one at a height higher than the previous one. The problem was, in excitement, we forgot to check the base of the tree. And only when somebody flashed there, we saw eyes glowing not very far from our legs. Thankfully most were babies, about five to seven, totally camouflaged, not more than 2inches long. We looked for the mother, but she was seen sleeping deep in a hole and only parts of her abdomen was visible.

We hopped from tree to tree, and saw even bigger, aggressive spiders, which on slightest provocation instead of hiding in the burrows came out with open fangs! And trust me those fangs r bigger than any snakes I have ever seen. They were so intimidating that that we dint even dare to catch one to photograph. That night along with spiders we saw some live and dead snakes too, a turtle, and to top it up a lovely baby chameleon! A successful night indeed.

Although these spiders put up such an impressive defensive act, when it comes to reality, they are helpless in front of the cruelness of a human. Every year colonies like these get wiped out, thanks to collectors, who come from all over the world. Things get even easier for them as the Indian Wildlife Protection Act provides no legal protection to most of her in invertebrates, and who knows till now how many has already gone extinct.

If we track the shipments that get smuggled out it may lead us to Germany, where a exhibition is held annually and the most exotic is on sale, may that be tarantulas, frogs or snakes. The exhibition is so illegal that apart from a few hidden camera footage there is no information on it to the authorities.
A German tabloid reports that profits are so high the smugglers are using the kind of ingenuity associated with drug trafficking -- except its living creatures.
Common techniques include carrying parrot eggs in one’s underpants, shoving iguanas and small birds in plastic tubes, or squashing poison dart frogs in plastic drinks bottles. In one case 375 little tortoises were found packed in a suitcase at Frankfurt airport. The most recent available statistics for the European Union countries, from 2010 to 2012, show Germany topping the list of seizures, with almost 110,900 illegally traded animals, plants and products, followed by Italy with 51,500, the Czech Republic with 37,400 and Poland with 22,500, according to data from TRAFFIC.

May 24, 2012

Expedition to the Elephant Mountain.

First of all I would like to apologize to each one of you for taking such a long time to come up with the report. “The Tale of True Herpers”, if thats what we like to call the article as , then let me confirm you that it will take some more time, considering my busy schedule these days. The following checklist contains the names of species that we have encountered during the 18 field days in different districts across Tamil Nadu state. Fortunately we found a very rich diversity of wildlife throughout, giving us a proof of the great conservation effort that has been undertaken by the state government and conservationists alike. Although it’s a good news for all creatures that come under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, but lesser creatures like tarantulas and scorpions are still threatened by habitat loss and rampant collection for pet trade. During our field work we found several colonies, which are still strongholds for those species, but for security reasons the locations will be kept confidential. I wish in future days all these creatures will be protected under WPA, as they play a very critical ecological role.

The Expedition

Names of expedition participants

From West Bengal:
Chirag J. Roy (Naturalist, Photographer)
Vishal Santra (Herpetologist)
Prosanta (Herpetologist)

From Tamil Nadu:
Melvin Selvan (Herpetologist)
Gnana Selvan (Naturalist)
Ashok Kumar (Herpetologist)

Locations around the state visited during the expedition.

Palani Hills
Anaimalai Tiger Reserve
Kalakad Mudanthurai Tiger Reserve

Expidition Result: Findings during the field days

Duttaphrynus melanostictus
Duttaphrynus beddomii
Philautus sp. 1
Philautus sp. 2
Mycrohyla sp.
Icthyophis sp.

Crocodylus palustris

Cnemaspis sp.
Hemidactylus annamallensis
Hemidactylus brookii
Hemidactylus frenatus
Hemidactylus leschenaultii
Hemidactylus maculates
Hemidactylus triedrus

Ophisops leschenaultii

Eutropis macularia
Eutropis carinata
Scincella palnica

Varanus bengalensis

Chamaeleo zeylanicus

Python molurus molurus

Eryx conicus
Eryx johnii

Uropeltis ellioti
Platyplectrurus madurensis

Ahaetulla nasuta
Amphiesma stolatum
Argyrogena fasciolatus
Atretium schistosum
Boiga trigonata
Chrysopelea ornate
Dendrelaphis tristis
Oligodon arnensis
Oligodon taeniolatus
Ptyas mucosa
Xenochrophis picicator
Lycodon aulicus
Lycodon osmanhilli

Ophiophagus sp.
Naja naja
Bungarus caeruleus

Daboia Russelii
Echis carinatus
Trimerusurus macrolepis
Trimerusurus malabaricus

Melanochelys trijuga

Lissemys punctata

Tarantulas: Family Theraphosidae
Poicelotheria regalis
Poicelotheria rufilata
Poicelotheria sp. 1
Unidentified sp. 2

Scorpionia (the scientific names are not taxonomically updated)
Mesobuthus sp1
Lychas sp
Mesobuthos tamulus tamilus
Lychas sp 2

First of all we would like to thank Melvin Selvan and his family , for being such a kind host, without their help and field knowledge the expedition could never materialize. Special thanks to Uncle (Gnana Selvan) for being with us to all the location in-spite of his busy schedule. Also I must thank the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu for permitting us explore some of the remotest locations in the state, providing us with accommodation where ever possible and letting us photograph animals that were being rescued across the state. Also many thanks to Ashok, Vishal and Prosanto for helping me compile this checklist.

Death in the Dark!

Just finished watering some plants I had in my room, and there comes a cry! Loud and shrill ! SNAKE….

“Well, being in one of India’s best herpetological hotspots for last four months , such situations were all too common for me. On holidays people flocks at my small four feet by 7 feet apartment in a banana plantation to see snakes and also to find me, not only surviving, but also flourishing amongst them!”

My actual purpose of visiting Arunachal wan never fulfilled, but instead my so called academic trip turned into a full fledged unofficial herpetofaunal survey in the region, and not to mention my room, which I described above , turned into a terrarium! Keelbacks, rat snakes ,trinkets, kraits were all part of my small, ever growing family!That morning as I finished watering the plants , I heard my landlord screaming. There was a snake he saw somewhere in his kitchen, but then it vanished! Thinking it to be just another rat snake, who made frequent visits inside rooms, I left my tongs back this time. The kitchen, to every snake handler’s horror was dark, moist and continuous rains had made its floor muddy. I looked around and there was this big black spider with a egg sac on its back sitting behind the glass jars, enough to put my confidence level down to zero! Nevertheless I walked in looking for the snake!

Minuets passed … Nothing!

Hopelessly I started kicking around to uncover some more disgusting spiders! Thinking the snake might have escaped this time, I picked up my snake bag and thought of moving out of the kitchen. That’s when things Changed! As I bent down , I saw there was a bundle of gunny bags kept under one of the cemented shelves. Though I dint have much hope of finding anything there, even so I pulled it out. As the bundle opened on itself, a snake no less than 3ft sprang out of it and side winded towards the door where my landlord was standing so long hopelessly! Krait! I remember me saying. Screaming back at him I asked him to get my tongs which was always kept under my bed. The snake now on the loose coiled itself up behind the door, as I sat there admiring its beauty. Shiny jet black body, head not broader than the neck, its distinguished as a member of the genus Bungarus by the presence of enlarged vertebral scales. Eyes small, round and black, a well known venomous snake of the region, and definitely my first Bungarus niger.Ahh! My trusty grab stick was there atlast. As he passed it to me, I caught the snake, mid body, and quickly bagged it. Once in the bag and secure, I picked it up and walked towards my room with great pride! Now in my room I opened the bag to check the animal, thr was this snake coiled up and beside it lies a half digested little rat! So is this popularly known ophiophagus snake also has a taste for mammals? Well, only one way to be positive, I got to keep it!

Later that afternoon, I brought the snake out to show it to some of my friends from the neighborhood and that’s when I saw the real aggression of it. As I dropped the snake from the bag, in defensive response it hid its head under its coils. To give my friends a better view of its shy head, I tried to coax it out with a stick…. And Bang!... Bang Bang Bang! Multiple bites in a second perhaps! Thankfully none on my limbs. Seeing this, so far enthusiastic friends made a quick escape, leaving me to tackle the insane animal all by myself. Taking no chances, I caught the snake in the same fashion and dropped it in its pen, which was nothing but a bookshelf with partly rotten wood!

In course of time I feed the snake successfully on both rats and snakes , making it one of my favorites in the collection. A two and half feet Rhabdophis subminiatus took a little over a minuet to die, while rats passed away within 10 to 15 seconds. This could be a reason for this species to prefer mammalian diet, as they are much easier to kill and definitely to find. Few weeks later I found another male in my neighborhood chasing mice, ultimately hunting it down with great efficiency, Something which I say should be witnessed by all herp enthusiasts.

Whats' that Snake?

" The beauty of the snake is unmatched, something i haven't seen in a long time. The specimen is something about 6 inches long, but despite its size, its extremely agile. Deep olive above with bright yellow belly, it is distinguished by the presence of a single internasal.As i am not familier with this particular species from West Bengal, a chance of misidentification was inevitable. nevertheless with assistance from my friend Melvin Selvan, we did come to the conclusion that it was indeed a species of the genus Atretium.

" Atretium schistosum is a common snake in southern India, living in the water and among vegetation. in 2010 on a trip to south India we spotted a snake in a irrigation canal, totally submerged with its head only sticking on the surface of the water. it stayed thr for a while and then went below.feed on frogs and fish, known to breed during the rains. In Bengal this snake is rare and their choice of habitat makes them even more hard to find. It has been recorded in the State before, but proper documentation was lacking so far. Being known from only a handful of specimens, this is indeed a eureka moment for any enthusiast. "it was also noted that the snake is sharing the same habitat with Enhydris and Xenochrophis, as both the species were previously collected from that same area. here i noted something peculiar in the behavior of the specimen. When kept in a tank with land water ratio 1:3, it prefered to stay on land. when shifted to a larger tank with water, land and some branches, it either went on the land or climbed up the branch but never water. probably young snakes of this species do live a certain time on land and take the advantage of plentiful food there, rather than being eaten by fishes and other predators in water."