Vipers in the backyard

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Gerard Martin studies a species that won’t win even a rigged popularity contest. Russell’s vipers have a reputation for being irritable. Like other vipers, they tend to freeze rather than flee in encounters with people. Besides these traits, their enormous venom glands and half-inch-long fangs make for a lethal combination. The species bites more humans than cobras in parts of India.
Martin and his team talked to the rural community of Ratnapuri, near Mysuru, Karnataka, about conducting a study. For hundreds of years, the locals had killed serpents on sight. He told them, “But that hasn’t stopped people from getting bitten. We want to see if there’s a better way of coexisting with snakes.” Intrigued, the villagers agreed.
More than 20
Over the past 10 months, Martin and his team caught 24 Russell’s vipers and implanted radio transmitters. They released the snakes in the same location from where they were taken, the farmlands where farmers work daily. People are terrified of them since many had lost lives and limbs to snakebites. The vipers have no religious sanctity that cobras enjoy. Yet, the villagers cooperated. Curious kids stopped to chat with the researchers about the snakes that had a chain of circular markings on their backs.
Views and a visionThere were difficult moments too. When a group of tipsy men harassed the researchers, the researchers showed them how they were studying the snakes. Within an hour, the hecklers became enthusiastic supporters of the research. “If you can introduce people to a Russell’s viper and change their view of it, you can introduce them to anything,” says Martin. People’s acceptance of these creatures is as remarkable as the vipers adjusting to life with humans.
Martin’s tagged snakes sat tight as the unaware trudged past them, sometimes within a few centimetres. The research team even found fresh human faeces next to one of the vipers. In none of these cases did the vipers strike. Instead, they flattened their heads into their coils and stuck to the ground to avoid detection. Contrary to their notorious reputation, the vipers’ first reaction was to hide, relying on their ability to vanish in plain sight.
Sometimes, the trackers couldn’t spot a snake even though the radio signal told them it was right there. Martin found one less than a foot from him. If these masters of camouflage are reluctant to lash out, why do so many people get bitten?
Watch your footIn all the cases Martin analysed, Russell’s vipers bit when humans stepped on them. They aren’t interested in us, he says, nor do villagers want to have anything to do with them. Practices such as keeping yards clean, pruning the lower branches of hedges, and using a torch at night can prevent accidents. But people are reluctant to change their ways. They think, ‘I’ve been doing this every day for 20 years, and nothing happened to me’.
When Martin is called to remove a snake from a yard, he tells the residents to get rid of debris. If they call him again and they haven’t cleaned up, he scolds them. “They are beginning to understand the snakes really don’t want to bite them,” he says. “Staying safe is up to them, not the snakes.” He hopes that the villagers can eventually live without conflict with one of the most dangerous creatures in the country. By not reaching for a stick when they see a viper and by allowing research on their fields, they have made a start.