Adventures in Himachal Pradesh – Part 1

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