A snake charmer displays two cobras at Cattle Market in Chakwal | photos by the writer
A snake charmer displays two cobras at Cattle Market in Chakwal | photos by the writer

Asif Hamid was busy tilling his land some eight kilometres away from Chakwal city when he was called by another villager. He sensed the urgency in the caller’s voice and jumped off his tractor, picked an axe and rushed to the caller.

As he suspected, he would need his axe. A young brown cobra had fallen into an open gutter and Asif took out the cobra with the help of the axe and released the serpent on the ground. Instead of making an effort to escape, the reptile spread its hood and began to hiss. A few passersby had gathered on the spot as Asif poked and prodded the agitated snake. After a while, he killed the cobra with his axe.    

The sight of a snake either makes the person run away or try to kill it, as the common perception is that snakes are enemies of humans and must be killed wherever they are found. Hardly anyone knows that out of the 77 species found in Paksitan, only a few are venomous; the rest are harmless. Very few people are aware of the vital role snakes play in our ecological system, keeping us safe from various dangerous mammals and insects.  

Our fear of snakes keeps us from recognising the role they play in our ecosystem and their potential economic benefits

“Unfortunately wildlife in our country revolves around our perceptions. These perceptions are often misguided and flawed, yet are ingrained in our socio-cultural life,” says Javed Ahmed Mahar, director biodiversity at the ministry of climate change who has also served as chief wildlife conservator of Sindh. “Snakes face two kinds of extremes in our region: Muslims consider them their enemy, while Hindus worship them.”

Severe humidity and gnawing heat in the monsoon season forces snakes to come out of their nests. Rainwater also destroys their nests and burrows, making them come to the surface to avoid the deluge.

“Snakes found in Pakistan represent eight families that are further divided into 34 genera and 77 species and sub-species. Among these, 14 species are of sea snakes — all of which are poisonous — while only 11 of the land species are venomous,” says Dr Abdul Aleem Chaudhry, former director general of Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department. According to him, the four species of snakes including brown cobra, saw-scaled viper (both venomous), common cat snake and rope snake, also called dhaman, (both non-venomous) are found in the Potohar region. However, people in Chakwal also occasionally encounter the deadliest krait, called sung-choor in Urdu, while common rat snakes also exist in the region.

Globally only 200 species of snake are venomous, while 3,000 species are considered harmless by the World Health Organisation.

During monsoon season, snakebites are common occurrences but unfortunately no proper documenting mechanism is in place in the country to ascertain the exact figure. Whereas last year the Punjab Information Technology Board reported 427 cases of snakebites in Punjab, most of the cases in the country go unreported. The National Institute of Health (NIH) is the main institution in the country which produces anti-snake venom with a total annual production of 30,000 vials, while a considerable amount is spent on the import of anti-snake venom from India.

A brown cobra stands with its hood spread
A brown cobra stands with its hood spread

“We cannot determine in what quantity anti-snake venom is required in the country as there is no proper system of data collection of snakebite incidents. However, the NIH will soon increase its production of anti-snake venom to 100,000 vials as a project in this regard is under process,” states an official at the NIH.  

According to Mahar snakes only attack when they are trodden upon unknowingly by humans or other animals. “A snake does not bite unprovoked and only stings when a person or any other animal steps on it. It does so for its own survival,” says Mahar.

This is the very reason that most snakebite injuries are inflicted on people’s feet and tongues of the attacking animals.

“If snakes are found in our houses it is because we have encroached upon their habitat in the process of urbanisation. Also, the presence of rats and other rodents in our houses is an invitation to snakes to prey upon them,” explains Mahar.

Dr Chaudhry is of the opinion that snakes are a crucial part of the food chain. “They play a major role in the agriculture sector by keeping the rodents in control, as these pests are snakes’ diet. Thus snakes not only keep our environment clean of these rodents but also help in improving our agricultural economy,” he adds.   

Renowned toxinologist and tropical adventurer Dr Zoltan Takacs during his visit to Pakistan in 2010 in his article “Pakistan — a dreamland for snake researchers” published in Dawn wrote that the county is blessed with cobras, kraits, vipers and sea snakes. He added that Pakistan is an unexplored toxin-biodiversity goldmine. “More than 20 medicines and clinical tests come from snake, lizard and marine snail venom, ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes, from lupus to cancer pain, with sales of over a billion dollars. There is even a skin-smoothening cosmetic developed from viper venom which, unlike Botox, does not require an injection,” he wrote.

Asif Hamid looks triumphant as he lifts a brown cobra out of a gutter
Asif Hamid looks triumphant as he lifts a brown cobra out of a gutter

Despite Pakistan being ‘a dreamland for snake researchers’ and having great potential to earn billions of dollars by producing medicines from snake venom, no pragmatic effort has ever been made in this regard at the governmental level.

“In other countries informative documentaries on snakes and other creatures are aired on TV channels in native languages to create awareness among the people but unfortunately in our country besides politics there is no other issue discussed in the media,” laments Mahar.

Pakistan has had some good researchers who worked on snakes and other reptiles, but because of a lack of government backing and unavailability of proper research opportunities, they have moved abroad. For instance, Dr Sharif Khan who wrote a book on snakes and other reptiles and Dr Abdul Hafiz Khan, have both settled in the United States where the death rate caused by snakebite is almost zero. Unfortunately, in Pakistan snakes are only used by snake charmers who earn their bread and butter by selling snake venom at cheaper prices and displaying snakes at public gatherings.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 15th, 2017

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