THE FASCINATING LIFE OF A SNAKE RESCUER

Meet Ajay Giri – the person who has set the Gold Standard for snake rescues in the world. 

snake-rescuer

Allwin Jesudasan 

National Geographic Explorer.  

A conservationist with a grounded understanding of the socio-economic drivers of change. His educational background in economics gives him a perspective that has traditionally been overlooked by conservationists.He is currently the Joint Director of the Madras Crocodile Bank/Centre for Herpetology(MCBT/CFH).

Meet Ajay Giri – the person who has set the Gold Standard for snake rescues in the world.

snake-rescuer

He is also instrumental in setting a global example of how people can co-exist with dangerous animals. He has achieved this through almost a decade of hard work, perseverance and ethics. He is the Director of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, a permanent field station of the Madras Crocodile Bank/Centre for Herpetology. Originally from Ankola in Maharashtra he has made Agumbe in Karnataka his home. When an animal enters human habitation in this area the Forest Department call Ajay. Ajay goes immediately to the location and the first thing he does is take charge of the situation. His command over Kannada is so good that people don’t think of him as an outsider. He calms people down explaining why the animal has come to the location. He then sets a perimeter and rescues the animal. Following the rescue he doesn’t do any theatrics, but takes care of the animal by quickly bagging it. So far, he has rescued over 400 King Cobras, other species of animals including a few leopards. Ajay treats each of the hundreds of rescue calls he receives, as an opportunity to educate people. It is because of his presence that people now know that a conflict situation with animals will be resolved. This has resulted in people calling the forest department or him directly rather than killing the animal. This is especially true with regard to King Cobras. A family that was proud to say that they have killed 8 King Cobras so far are now proud to say that they live amongst it. Not only is the coexistence an example to the world, but also the way Ajay handles an animal is a worthy example to follow. Seeing theatrics on TVs young snake rescuers tend to show off in front of a crowd or camera. This is dangerous for the rescuer, the onlookers as well as the snake. Till recently, rescuers didn’t have a role model to follow. Ajay was featured in a tutorial video for rescuers and since then several rescuers have mended their ways and rescue animals that is safe for everyone. 
 

Tell us a little more about your Field Station

Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) is a permanent field station of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. ARRS was founded by renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker in 2005 with the mission to study and conserve rainforests and wildlife through applied ecological research and educational outreach programs. ARRS is located in the midst of the emerald forests of the Western Ghats, drenched with an average of 7500mm of rain each monsoon and is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. One doesn’t need to go far to observe wildlife when at ARRS. A variety of birds, flying lizards, and giant squirrels are a common sight.

With the King Cobra Ecology and Conservation project in progress, our staff and volunteers start their day at the break of dawn in order to track the tagged king cobra using radio telemetry. Through this project, we hope to understand more about the elusive king cobra and the role it plays in the ecosystem. The knowledge gained through this project fuels our education and outreach programs. We conduct educational programs for rescuers, the Forest Department staff and residents of the region as well. At ARRS we constantly get rescue calls at all times of the day and all of them are attended. If a rescue is not necessary, instructions are given on the phone. The main goal of this is to promote a ‘live and let live’ attitude and encourage coexistence and reduce man-animal conflict in the region.
 

What exactly is the role of a rescuer?

snake-rescuer

 

A rescuer is a person who rescues something from harm or danger. In our case, we look at this from both, the human’s and the animal’s perspective. Snakes do strike fear in people’s minds and with good reason. A large number of people die of snakebite every year and as a result, snakes are killed on sight. In this case both man and animal are losers. Our idea of a rescuer is a person who resolves this issue. We do this by educating people and helping them understand the animal and ways to avoid a conflict situation. This is done by involving local people in our project and helping them understand the significance of snakes in the ecosystem and the benefits that farmers get by having snakes around. Like reduction of crop damage by rodents. A rescue is done only if it is necessary. Each rescue is followed by an awareness program where education material is distributed as well. Through our efforts communities in the region are now more comfortable living with snakes around. 

How does he do it?

 

We have realized that the best method to safely bag a snake is with the ‘Pipe and Bag’ method. A pipe is secured to the mouth of a snake-bag and kept against a wall. The snake is then gently picked up with a snake hook, and directed towards the setup. The pipe and bag look like a burrow to the snake and it enters in an attempt to escape.  Once the snake is safely bagged a knot is tied and the bag is picked up with a snake hook in order to avoid a bite through the bag.

Ideally, two people attend a rescue call. Either staff or a volunteer assists Ajay. Officials from the Forest Department are present for each rescue as per protocol. There is no theatrics involved. The entire process takes about 5 minutes. The snake is released as close as possible to its capture site to avoid being taken away from its home range. There is no need to handle a snake during the time of release.
 

Education - this is the most crucial part of every rescue.

snake-rescuer

On-site awareness programs are conducted to help people understand the ecology of the snake. This is usually done after each rescue. Education material is also provided to all present. The main aim of this is to facilitate people to coexist with snakes. ARRS, through the untiring effort of its staff, has successfully helped reduce human- snake conflict in the region. 

Why did he choose to get into this role? 

 

During his childhood, Ajay used to like observing wild animal without disturbing them. One day he saw that a bunch of people had gathered next to a house and were trying to kill a rat snake. Ajay knew that the snake was non-venomous. He was only a child trying to convey this information to the people so that they would not kill the snake but unfortunately he wasn't able to do so and the snake was killed. This incident had a great impact on him. He decided to learn more about snakes and wildlife through various books and started creating more awareness among local communities to spread awareness to conserve snakes.

We're intrigued to know a little more about the King Cobras 

snake-rescuer

King cobras are fascinating snakes. They are found in rich forests like Agumbe and are very elusive in nature. They are the longest venomous snakes in the world and can produce up to 7ml of venom per bite. However, there aren’t many human fatalities due to a king cobra bite. The few deaths that have occurred are because the snake was badly handled.
 An interesting fact about these snakes is that they feed primarily on snakes, thus the scientific name Ophiophagus hannah. By doing this they play an essential role in the ecosystem by maintaining the population of other snake species, some of them that are known to cause snakebite deaths in agrarian communities like cobras and kraits. 

Snakes do not show parental care. However, The female king cobra is the only snake known to build a nest.  Once the nest is built and the eggs laid, she leaves the nest. The hatchlings are equipped with lethal venom and are ready to fend for themselves. 
King cobras are listed as a vulnerable species under the IUCN red list. The main threat to this iconic species is habitat destruction and rampant development activities.
 

 Tell us about the different types of animals that he has rescued? How was this rescue done?

 

Mr. Ajay Giri (Field Director) and Mr. Kumar (Base Manager) from ARRS have been called by the Forest Department officials and the people of the Malnad region to mitigate human-wildlife conflict issues several times. This is not restricted to just snakes, but also includes a leopard, sambar deer, flying squirrel, peacock, jungle cat, and slender loris. Each incident was different from the other. There were a few cases were more challenging than others because of the critical circumstances. However, each time proper safety protocol was followed by the ARRS team. 

Have there been any funny incidents that you have experienced so far?

snake-rescuer

 

Mr. Ajay and Mr. Kumar were on their way to Koppa to meet the Deputy Conservator of Forests when they received information from Mr. Dinesh, a professional snake rescuer from Hariharpura. He told them about a spectacled cobra that had entered a house near Hariharpura village. Ajay, Kumar, and Dinesh reached the place and inspected the house. They found a 5-foot long spectacled cobra in the kitchen. The decision was made to remove the snake from the house. Ajay fixed the pipe and bag next to the wall inside the kitchen. According to the protocol, only one person has to handle the snake. While the three of them decided on who would rescue the snake, the cobra decided to come out of its refuge and go directly into the bag. Later the snake was released away from the house. 

 

What has been your most challenging rescue till date?

 

Once Ajay and Kumar were called by the Forest Department officials to assist them to rescue a leopard which had gotten caught in a snare by its mid-body. The leopard had then taken refuge in a pump shed next to a house. The door of the shed could not be closed properly. Ajay and Kumar gave the residents a few important instructions and made their way to the place. The ARRS team along with Mr. Jose (Team leader of Indiansnakes.org and coordinator of Wildlife Trust of India) and Ms. Shaleen (Co-founder of Indiansnakes.org and member of Wildlife Trust of India) who had visited ARRS on the day. The ARRS team inspected the situation and found that it wouldn’t be possible for a veterinarian to come and tranquillize the animal. The team along with Forest Department officials in charge came up with a plan which was safer than trying to capture the animal by jumping on it with a net. First, the ARRS team asked the Forest Department officials to bring a cage to trap the leopard. Meanwhile, they held the door shut with the help of hard wooden log. A cage was brought and kept next to the door. The gate of the cage was opened and covered with a net. The shed door was then slowly opened.  Mr. Kumar used a long stick to gently poke the leopard from a hole on the other side of the wall. The leopard got agitated and roared. Eventually, it went into the cage and the ARRS team closed the gate of the cage and locked it. Later the cage was picked up and placed in a vehicle. After close inspection of the leopard, they found that the snare had tightened on its stomach near the hind legs. The ARRS team including Mr. Jose and Ms. Shaleen used the snake hook to lift up the wire and then with the help of cutting a player the snare was cut. The leopard was then released into the wild.

1.Team ARRS and Forest department officials set up the cage to capture the leopard. 

2. The leopard is safely captured. 

3. The leopard is carried to a vehicle by the ARRS team and Forest officials.
 

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