As with the Great Himalayan National Park, arriving in the dark had given me little sense of where we were, and it was only in the morning that I was able to fully appreciate our surroundings: tall mountain peaks on either side, swathed in early morning cloud, with a town just visible in the distance. In front of the guest house, a mongoose with two babies hurried past. Sitting in the middle of these majestic mountains, unable for the moment to place my position on a mental map, I was hit particularly strongly by the feeling of how far I was from home. Continue reading
Our breakfast stop.
After three nights in the Great Himalayan National Park, it was time to get on the road again, this time heading west to the lower altitudes of Palampur. Stopping along the way for a breakfast of simosas, and later a lunch of egg noodles, we were diverted in the afternoon due to a landslide, and spent an hour or two going along an even bumpier road than we were used to at this point. Eventually, as we approached Palampur, we came out of the hills to find a wide, flat plain stretching before us. By dusk, we had arrived at the guest house where we would be staying. Continue reading
Today was a driving day, and we had a long journey ahead of us, all the way up north to the Forest Rest House Ropa in the Great Himalayan National Park. The previous night, Dr Omesh Bharti – a government doctor from Shimla, who specialises in rabies immunisation but has also been supporting Captive & Field Herpetology’s work into snakebite – had come down with his wife to get an update on how the work was progressing. We would drop off Dr Bharti and his wife in Shimla on our way north; but that meant driving for two-and-a-half hours with four people in the back of our single car, plus luggage! It was a tight squeeze, to say the least. Continue reading
Snakebite is considered a “neglected tropical disease” by the World Health Organisation, and it kills more people in India than anywhere else in the world; 45,000 fatalities per year is the official figure, though it is almost certainly an underestimate, due to many snakebites either being recorded too vaguely by hospitals (i.e. as ‘animal bites’) or not recorded at all. Meanwhile, people who survive envenomation can suffer debilitating after-effects which impact their ability to work and lead to crippling medical costs.
In terms of what species of snake are most responsible, the focus is usually on the ‘Big Four’: the Indian or spectacled cobra (Naja naja), the common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli) and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus). But the knowledge of which snakes bite people in different areas of India is far from complete – and that is a serious problem, since anti-venom, the only effective treatment for snakebite, is only likely to work for the species whose venom was used to produce it.
The organisation Captive and Field Herpetology, headed by Ben Owens of Bangor University and Vishal Santra of the Simultala Conservationists Foundation, is working to help with the situation. This year, they made an expedition to Himachal Pradesh in the northwest of India, where the number and distribution of snake species is particularly poorly known: the goals were to survey different areas and learn which snakes were present; collect morphological and genetic data for population studies; and educate the local people in avoiding snakebite, without needing to kill the snakes. In August 2018, I volunteered to assist on the last two weeks of the six-week expedition, making my first trip to India, and not sure what I was in for. Continue reading