Rescuing India's needy snakes
Meet the famous Snake Shyam of Mysore. Today he's taking me on a snake-hunt in Mysore, India. He's A tattooed legend who rides through the city on a motorbike with the wind in his hair, a golf club strapped across his back, and a bag full of snakes attached to the handlebars. Like most action heroes, everyone in town knows and respects him – but only a lucky few are granted the honor of riding with him.
When I arrive at his house the minivan parked outside says it all. Wildlife isn’t usually my thing unless it’s a show about elephants having sex or hermaphrodite slugs, but something tells me that a morning catching cobras with Shyam is going to be a lot more exciting than an afternoon in front of the BBC and David Bellamy.
The 42-year-old conservationist (original name Balasubramanya) strides down the front path wearing his trademark bedroom slippers, fanny-pack, and tight white vest. He holds a golf club aloft in a fistful of knuckle-dusters. We are leaving immediately for our first rescue operation: a snake stuck in an underground water tank on the outskirts of the city. This is just the first of up to 20 emergency calls Shyam receives in a day from people with vipers up their drain pipes, cobras coiled underneath air conditioning units, fridge-freezers, and plasma screen TVs. Some of them pay him by ‘donation’, most of them don’t – but Shyam doesn’t do it for the money or the fame, ("In nature, hero means zero" he is fond of saying,) after all, if he doesn’t rescue the snakes then they'll be killed. He makes up the extra cash by doing daily school runs for local kids in The Snake Van, who all call him "uncle". All fired up, we start loading the van with snake catching gear.
• Snake Bag: A badminton racket (strings removed) attached to an old red pillowcase with bulldog clips.
• Snake Hook: An old golf club with a large steel hook welded to the end. This piece of equipment was developed after he was bitten by a cobra for the first time. Before that he just used to grab it around its neck with his bare hands.
• Reused plastic muesli container: This is more likely to be used in the capture of vipers. Their 2cm fangs are too long for them to be safely stored in the cotton pillowcase along with the others.
And we’re off. Judging by the fang marks all over his hands, life hasn’t always been kind to Snake Shyam. Not only does he not get paid, but he has been bitten and injected with anti-venom so many times that he has now developed an allergy to it. But he assures me "courage is the best anti-venom" and explains that God gave him this job "without application form," and if he didn't rescue the snakes then who would?
Just to prove I’m really pretty relaxed about things, I throw out a few casual questions about the exact deadliness of a cobra’s venom and what happens just before you die from a cobra bite (swelling, nerve damage, black deadened flesh), the approximate distance to the nearest hospital, if snakes can smell fear, and where exactly are you going to put it once it’s caught (on the backseat right next to me). To reassure me, Shyam refers to Newton’s "Third Law of Physics" (also pasted on the back of the van). "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction," he explains, "Sarah if I punch you in the face, you will punch me in the face, isn’t it? If I kick you in the stomach, you will kick me in the stomach, isn’t it?" Maybe. "But understand one thing, snake has no fist and no leg, only bite. So if you step on a snake he will bite you. That is his reaction." A bit of an overreaction, if you ask me, brutally murdering someone for accidentally stepping on your toe, but then: "Adventurous life is always dangerous," Shyam chuckles. Perhaps he is reminiscing about the time he got bitten by a cobra and had to take a six-hour bus ride to the nearest hospital while vomiting and losing his eyesight as his nervous system slowly shut down. "I showed courage, so nothing could happen to me. I was out catching snakes again after three days in hospital," he adds.
Forty minutes later the van pulls up in a dusty street on the outskirts of town. It’s the kind of place where people having nothing better to do than rearrange their balls and appear at the site of minor road accidents, fights, and any other public incident – such as a snake being caught in the water tank of the local bank. I don’t think most of them even knew why they were there, they just lost themselves in all the excitement and climbed up on the wall to stare at the water tank because everyone else was. It’s one of the miracles of India, how quickly a crowd can materialize over the most seemingly trivial thing. People appeared from nowhere to come and witness the famous Snake Shyam at work, expertly probing into the depths of the water tank with a golf club, I mean snake hook.
We all hold our breath as first he pulls out a plastic bag. Then some old crisp packets. The suspense is almost too much to bear, so someone from the local corner shop brings out a tray of chai to soothe our nerves. After some more poking in the murky depths, Shyam wipes the sweat from his brow and gives me a look that says: "Let’s cut our losses and run." Apparently snakes don’t like crowds. "This is why humans more difficult than snake," Shyam mutters crossly under the brim of his bushman’s hat, as we pile back into the van and head to our next appointment.
Secretly relieved that I wasn’t sharing the backseat with a fat slimy water snake, we quickly made our way to the site of our second rescue operation at the Mysore City Steel Works. When we arrive a big crowd of panicking men with sooty faces are shouting and pointing in the direction of the reception, making the snake sign with their hands (raised arm, fingers cupped into a cobra’s hood). I run in the opposite direction, trying to maintain the appearance of cool professionalism. It turns out, after some tactical "tapping" on various walls, drawers, and cupboards that the snake has slithered into a door-frame. The door is unscrewed with alarming speed and laid out on the tarmac while Shyam starts gently probing inside the frame with the snake hook. (Don’t make it angry, please don’t make it angry.)
One of the steel workers solemnly holds the red Snake Bag at the ready.
Lucky for us, the actual snake was more like an earthworm than a python. In a matter of seconds it whips out of the door-frame and into the red sack. Back in the office, the manager gives us two warm cans of Diet Coke as a reward. Shyam takes out an old notebook and jots "Snake No. 19,564" in blue biro. No money then? He sighs and throws out another one of his favourite sayings: "We come into this world empty-handed and we will leave this world empty-handed. In the middle we are just drama artists." What a guy.
Back at Shyam’s house he introduces me to the latest addition to his cobra collection – one of 40 he keeps in a fluorescent-lit glass case above his house ready to release back into the wild. He pulls the 2m long Cobra out of its box with a hook in one magnificent flourish, while I run backwards for the doorway, tripping over mice cages. He stands in the centre of the room waving the cobra on the end of the hook where it sways gently from side to side, moving its head in time with mine. I really, really can't go home without touching one, so I go for the slightly smaller option.
This little guy seems so much nicer than the cobra, all soft and cool like the inside of a thigh after a cold swim. I feel so green, so close to nature. On the way back to my apartment, squashed into the back of The Snake Van again – this time with 20 teenage schoolgirls – Shyam pulls the van up outside my house and informs me that I am lucky I like snakes so much because there are also loads of cobras living at the back of my building. "But please don't think these snakes are trespassing on your land, you are trespassing on their land OK? If you see one, no need to be scared, just give me a call and I will come." My hero.