Human-wildlife conflict is one of the most hotly debated topics among conservationists, policymakers, wildlife managers and animal welfare activists. It draws strong opinions ranging from policy change to on-ground practices that seek to mitigate conflict. Unfortunately, the voice that needs to be the loudest—that of the community living alongside these wild animals, is often side-lined, silenced, or misrepresented.

This is most evident in India’s biggest human-wildlife conflict issue—snakebites.

India has the unfortunate reputation of being the snakebite capital of the world. It is a tag that has been synonymous with the country ever since the first nationally representative Million Death Study, published in 2011. The study confirmed what many conservationists feared, snakebite was a burgeoning problem in the country, with nearly 50,000 deaths from one million bites every year. A more recently published (2020) study, which sought to build upon the Million Death Study, portrayed how little we knew about the issue. The reality is that India suffers from anywhere between 1.1 to 1.7 million snakebites annually, resulting in the death of 58,000 individuals. That is as many as seven individuals, who succumb to snakebite, a curable disease, every hour. Heart wrenchingly, the number worse than this is the 150,000 to 200,000 cases of morbidity every year. Add to this the fact that 94 per cent of bites occur in rural India, in the most economically productive age group of 30-69, and it starts to paint a grim picture.

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A Spectacled Cobra against the backdrop of farmers working in the field. The image is representative of one of the most common snakebite scenarios in India. Photograph: Wolfgang Wuster

This picture gets grey still when one tries to decipher why this curable disease is plaguing India to this extent, when several other developed and developing countries, including some tropical nations, have managed to successfully safeguard their citizens.

A Multisectoral Problem

At the outset, the solution seems rather simplistic—a better antivenom and robust healthcare system that ensures minimal deaths and instances of morbidity. However, the reality is far from it. The umpteen number of variables involved warrants this issue to be dealt with on a war footing.

Regional Variation in Venom

At the bottom of the pyramid, that is the snakebite crisis, is the fact that snake venom, even within the same species, varies from region to region. For instance, a Russell’s Viper in Karnataka would have drastically different venom from a Russell’s Viper in West Bengal. While several studies are afoot to understand the geographic variation in venom, the fact that there is a molecular difference in the toxin, severely affects antivenom and its efficacy. Further, even within the same region, there is preliminary evidence of ontogenetic variation in venom, which means young ones of a species could have different venom composition compared to adults of the same species. Since the efficacy of the antivenom has a direct correlation with efficient production of venom itself, it is critical to establish regional venom production units across the country with high welfare standards.

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Russell's Viper, one of the Big 4 venomous snakes of India, is responsible for the most complex cases of snakebite in the country. Photograph: Omkar Pai

Venom Quality and Cost

Venom of high quality, adhering to World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, is the most vital component in the production of high quality antivenom. Currently, in India, all the venom to produce antivenom is generated at the Irula Tribal Cooperative Society on the outskirts of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. While this facility is absolutely critical, it has fallen by the wayside over the years in terms of the quality of venom it produces. For instance, science has demonstrated that to preserve the integrity of venom in its purest form, it should be collected in high-density plastic, with relevant grouping protocols and flash-frozen almost immediately. Instead, the cooperative collects the venom in glass containers, despite the knowledge that venom does react with glass to change its molecular structure. Further, the latest science and international protocols recommend that venom be only collected from a finite number of captive snakes to ensure they are infection-free, owing to a controlled environment, including their feed. Unfortunately, the cooperative regularly collects snakes from the wild for venom production. This not only compromises the quality of the venom generated, but also the welfare of the snakes involved, as most of them are relocated after their extraction period and have a low chance of survival. Furthermore, the selling price of venom through the cooperative is significantly higher than the international standards, leading to a high cost of antivenom.

Antivenom Efficacy and Availability

Despite being a life-saving drug, antivenom is subject to minimal quality control checks from regulatory agencies leading to a reduced titre over time. Further, the methods currently used for antivenom production are outdated at best, and need to be modernised, thereby reducing the cost and improving efficacy. The lack of advancement from the antivenom manufacturers and the deploring efficacy of the product is concerning and furthers the trust deficiency in the medical system. Moreover, the inequitable distribution of antivenom often renders it unavailable in high-burden states and a surplus in urban pockets where bites are few and far between. Victims who heed the advice and present themselves to a hospital are often transferred from one facility to another in search of antivenom, furthering the divide between communities in conflict and authentic medical systems.

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A snake from the Krait family, part of the Big 4 venomous snakes of India. Photograph: Omkar Pai

Medico-legal Case

In India, owing to instances in the past where snakes have been ‘planted’ to commit homicides, snakebites are classified as medico-legal cases. Unfortunately, this precedence has amounted to a massive hurdle in the safe and effective treatment of snakebites. Any hospital treating a snakebite case is duty-bound to inform the jurisdictional police. In the past, this has led to instances of corruption and undue harassment of the victims’ families. A clean-chit from the police is mandatory for the family or victim to secure an ex-gratia amount through the district revenue department.

Quacks and Healers

As a combination of the numerous hurdles described here, most victims consult with traditional or faith-based healers for treatment instead of a hospital. Since most bites are ‘dry bites’, where little to no venom has been injected, the ‘cure’ offered by quacks works as there is no venom in the victim’s body, to begin with! This reinforces the faith of unaware communities in quacks and healers, with dangerous consequences in those instances when there is venom in an individual’s system. Delays caused due to this result in loss of life function or even mortality in several cases.

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A poster designed in the local language Kannada to inform the community on do-s and don't-s in case of a snakebite incident. Photograph: Humane Society International/India & The Liana Trust

Notifiable Disease

One of the drivers for this issue going unaddressed for as long as it has is that it is not a notifiable disease, which has resulted in poorly-kept official records and a massive under-reporting of bite cases in government records. For instance, government records indicate 2,500 deaths annually on average versus the 58,000 it is on-ground. The declaration of snakebite as a notifiable disease could be the first step towards policy and lawmakers understanding the scale of the problem before they even begin acting on it.

Standardised Treatment Protocols

The lack of standardised protocols for snakebite treatment was a big lacuna in the medical system. While this was addressed, to a great degree, with WHO and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) releasing recommended protocols, the effective communication of these protocols and subsequent capacity-building of the medical fraternity across the country is still lacking. Even today, most doctors in rural India are unaware of the existence of such guidelines.

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Capacity-building programmes for government doctors on the protocols of snakebite management. Photograph: Humane Society International/India & The Liana Trust

Human-snake Conflict Management

Human-snake conflict is far more voluminous and frequent than conflict between humans and any other wild animal. Instances of conflict with mega-fauna such as tigers, elephants, bears, crocodiles, and leopards are not even a fraction of everyday conflict with snakes across the country. Conflict with snakes is not restricted to rural areas or those living around forest areas alone. In fact, human-snake conflict is quite pronounced in urban areas across India. The current system not only contributes to an increase in the conflict but also compromises the welfare of the snakes. For instance, ‘snake rescuers’ or ‘snake catchers’ are presented across the country as resources to mitigate conflict. However, while well-intentioned, most of these individuals are relocating snakes without any scientific protocol and often provide wrong information to communities, driving the narrative away from coexistence.

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Forest officers being trained on the protocols of human-snake conflict management. Photograph: Humane Society International/India & The Liana Trust

Understanding Snakes

Most importantly, it is high time that all of us conservationists and animal welfare practitioners recognise that we do not understand snake ecology or behaviour well enough to decipher situations that lead to snakebites or to design interventions that might be able to prevent it.

The Way Forward

While problems on the treatment side are aplenty, the path forward from NGOs, government agencies and conservationists alike should be aligned towards the prevention of bites. A concerted effort from all stakeholders is required to recognise that, as the populace of a tropical nation, we need to learn to live alongside snakes, as we have for centuries. We need to learn to recognise and diffuse dangerous situations instead of teaching our children that snakes are dangerous. We must teach the next generation about snakes just as we teach them not to plug their fingers into electrical sockets or look both ways before crossing a road. Finally, we need to educate communities in mass that snakebite is avoidable, to begin with, failing which, it is a completely curable disease in the right setup.

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Prevention of human-snake conflict incidents is the first step towards tacking this problem. Children being trained to use solar flashlights. Photograph: Humane Society International/India & The Liana Trust

Human-snake conflict solutions should be localised and driven by communities within their region. For instance, The Liana Trust (TLT) and Humane Society International/India (HSI/India) have been working for the last three years to create a model district in Mysore, Karnataka for human-snake coexistence through multiple interventions such as radio telemetry of Russell’s Vipers to better understand their ecology and behaviour, distributing snakebite prevention kits comprising of knee-length boots and a flashlight to avoid snakebite, mass outreach and awareness within grama panchayats through various channels, education programmes in schools to teach children to identify commonly seen venomous snakes and preventing them from entering homes, capacity building of the government medical fraternity to be able to successfully treat snakebites, working with the forest department to build an effective mechanism to regulate management of human-snake conflict, documenting people’s perception of snakes around them to better design interventions, and the creation of content in regional languages that drive home key messages on snakebite management and prevention.

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Inserting a radio transmitter in a Russell’s Viper. Studies are being conducted to better understand their ecology and behaviour. Photograph: Humane Society International/India & The Liana Trust

Short of any catastrophic event that changes the very landscape of human existence, snakes and humans need to share space and resources as long as we both exist. We need to conserve the culture we have always had of living alongside wild animals. We must start seeing value in snakes as ecosystem engineers and recognise that snakes are not on this earth with the sole purpose of biting humans. Snakebites are incidental and a manner of self-defence for the snake, which is far more scared of us than we are of it.

Conservation of snakes must begin with mitigating human-snake conflict and reducing human deaths from snakebites.