Sun, Aug 12, 2007 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Monsoons bring revered but deadly snakes


South Asia's annual monsoon often seems like a calamity of Old Testament proportions -- people are drowned in raging flood waters, crushed by collapsing buildings, wasted by plagues and struck down by snakes.

Yes, snakes.

The monsoon rains that flood wide stretches of the subcontinent each year force creatures large and small, harmless and deadly, onto whatever dry land can be found, and the result is scores, if not hundreds, of fatal snake bites, say officials and experts.

"Everything, everyone, is restricted to tiny, tiny islands with very little space," said Romulus Whitaker, a snake expert. "Everyone is crammed in together and the chances of running into snakes, stepping on them, grabbing them and sleeping on them is much, much more."

So tight is the association of snakes with the annual rains -- which are needed to water farms that provide a livelihood for two-thirds of India's 1.1 billion residents -- that the serpents have for millennia been revered as well as feared across much of the subcontinent.

With this year's monsoon particularly calamitous -- at least 2,090 people have been killed across South Asia and 19 million forced from their homes -- tales of snake bites abound, from the farming villages along the banks of Ganges River to the valleys of India's remote northeast.

"These serpents even climb up the trees. They are as nervous and scared as human beings and they bite only if they are disturbed," said Vinod Chaudhry, a government wildlife expert.

That's how Paltu Ram, a farmer in his 20s, died.

Stranded with a few hundred villagers on a sliver of land encircled by flood waters in the Bara Banki district of northern India, about 600km east of New Delhi, he decided to climb a tree to see if he could spot a rescue boat.

On his way up, he reached for what looked like a brown rope. It wasn't -- and when he grabbed it, the snake recoiled and then struck, sinking its fangs into his arm.

"Paltu jumped into water saying he was bitten by snake. Before he could be taken to a doctor he died," said his father, Rameshwar, who couldn't say what kind of snake got his son.

Officials in India don't keep exact figures for the number of snake bites during the monsoon, and experts say even annual totals are considered unreliable.

But in one indication of how many monsoon deaths are caused by snakes, Bangladesh's government said on Thursday at least 35 of the 226 people killed in this year's monsoon died from being bitten by the creatures, the second-highest cause of death after drowning.

There are hundreds of different snakes on the subcontinent, many of which are venomous. But only four are responsible for the vast majority of deaths -- kraits, russell's vipers, saw-scaled vipers and cobras.

All are extremely dangerous and all are venerated.

The appearance of those snakes, especially cobras, has long been viewed as a harbinger of coming floods and the renewed fertility that follows. Their disappearance as an omen of a coming drought.

In some parts of India, it is also believed snakes can cause plagues by blowing their breath across the land, and malaria is known as snake-wind disease.

Hindu gods are often depicted with cobras.

Shiva is seen wearing a girdle of serpents and cobras for earrings; Vishu is pictured resting on the coils of a multi-headed cobra.

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