Category Archives: Wildlife Rescue

Cobra incubation

Having been involved in urban wildlife management for close to a decade now, I have been on the receiving end of many cobra eggs. Varying circumstances cause these ‘orphaned clutches’ to land up in my care, either the eggs are forcefully abandoned by rescue of the mother or are clutches from captive cobras in Bannerghatta Zoo handed over to an expert by the Forest Department. Most often, however, they are found by accident while excavating on construction sites.

Naja Naja, or the spectacled cobra, is oviparous (producing young by means of eggs) and lay their clutches in rat holes or termite mounds in the hot pre-monsoon months (April to July). One clutch comprises of anywhere between 10 to 30 eggs of which hatchlings emerge roughly 48 to 68 days later. What has always amazed me is how each hatchling is independent upon birth, with fully functional venom glands that they learn to use by powerful natural instinct.

I have been exposed, on multiple occasions, to the delicate process of captive breeding and egg incubation (of cobras and other reptiles). From these experiences, I observed and learnt about the varying factors that need to be regulated so as to be able to achieve full success in hatching.

Typically, incubation is performed under the accuracy (and assurance) of sophisticated incubators that one uses to design a highly controlled environment for the purpose. Apart from being hard to access, this kind of scientific equipment is not cheap either so I hadn’t the luxury of using an incubator.

New born cobra hatchlings incubated at home

 

Instead, I was handed each clutch in a plain cardboard box, leaving me to conceptualise my own apparatus for incubating these clutches of cobra eggs. What I constructed was a simple set up that consisted of a thermometer, plastic container, hydrometer, vermiculite and charcoal. All my equipment was well researched, peer-reviewed and.. made at home!

Cobra eggs take 70 to 100 days to hatch in an incubator. In this expertly controlled environment, temperature and humidity need to be raised in accordance to one another so as to offer suitable conditions for hatching. As one can imagine, achieving this on a homemade, DIY system threw up new challenges every day, demanding constant improvisation based on my assessment of new developments.

In the process, I shifted the box frequently between rooms to offer variations in ambient conditions, using my discretion and judgement of what works best. Quite often the box of eggs would up in my bathroom where levels of moisture happened to be at its best. On that front, regulating humidity turned out to be the biggest obstacle; trial, error and constant dialogue with experts pushed me to choose a little known but time-tested method to tackle the issue of humidity.

I made a couple of holes in the box, stuffing them lightly with cotton to keep moisture from escaping. I had to repeat the exercise multiple times a day and on a timely basis. I would keep select holes closed during specific time slots in the day, regularly switching the swabs of cotton around strategically, eventually achieving ideal humidity for incubation.

Yet another amusing aspect that added it’s own element of uncertainty to the process was that I never actually knew the age of a clutch given to me. Everyday held the possibility of watching baby cobras wiggle out of the safety of their shells. It surely was an exciting time to be me!

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Cobra baby making an entrance, emerging from its soft shell casing

I am happy to report 100% success rate for all the clutches I tended to, a total of 400 baby cobras that I have incubated and released into the wild.

Stranger in the city

Caught up in the day’s usual hurry, the rescue calls pass by without much flare. I have even developed a standard script that helps me assess the real danger faced by both animal and human. More often than not, a snake would have wound up in the extreme corner of a garden, probably hunting down a rat; a more common location being in the gutter or drainage outside.

In such cases, we deem it unnecessary to progress with the ‘rescue’ as neither party is in need of expert intervention. The snake will move along just as it landed up there, unwittingly. In order to be able to filter out the real emergencies from false alarms, my first and immediate question is – where is the snake, inside or outside?

One afternoon I received a frantic call from a home in Vijayanagar. On asking my primary question, she reported that a multi-coloured snake was stuck upside down on her roof! Ignoring the obvious exaggeration regarding colour, I inferred that the only way this was possible was on a tiled roof or hut. However, when I asked her about this, she insisted that it was a concrete establishment, a garage where the family parked their vehicles.

What she was describing defied all logic, going against literally everything I knew about rescue and snakes from the past six years! This left me amazed, puzzled and no doubt, very curious. Assuming she had made a blaring error in judgement, I patiently questioned her once more on what type of animal she was seeing and whether it was a snake at all. This line of interrogation was met with a curt ultimatum – to stop wasting her time with questions and do my job, or she would call for help elsewhere.

That over-confident response was exactly the jolt I needed to spring into action. Rushing to the house, I found that it neighboured a mixture (chow-chow) factory that had been a habituated site for cobra rescue over the years. Still a bit unsure of what to expect, however, I entered the house with slight hesitation only to take in the incredible sight of a magnificent, 2 feet long ornate flying snake, upside down on the garage roof; her apparently ‘unbelievable’ report was true to each word.

Astonished to see this specimen – at least 400 kilometers away from home – in the middle of chaotic Bangalore city, thoughts raced through my mind at an unprecedented speed.

Specimen post rescue, safely contained

Some background about the ornate flying snake will give you an insight to my confusion. Non-venomous in nature, this exquisitely coloured snake’s habitat ranges from rainforest, dry and mixed deciduous or coastal forest (none of which can be found in the city). It thrives in thick vegetation and prefers high branches, tree holes or crevices for roosting.

Being arboreal, the ornate flying snake is named after its own amazing ability to glide short distances as a method of escape. The snake is light in body weight, its anatomy designed to incorporate a parachute like belly that offers good resistance to mechanical shocks received on falling from a height. All this is well and good but here is where it gets truly interesting..

The ornate flying snake is widely distributed across the Western Ghats, also found in Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and the Seven Sisters. Being more common to east, than south India, you can now comprehend my surprise on encountering this flying snake in some random garage in the city. The extraordinary nature of the situation only reminded me that I had to collect myself and not rush through rescue protocol.

Knowing fully well that the ornate flying snake is lucrative in exotic pet trade, I had to tread ahead with caution. I began to carefully interrogate the lady who had called in the rescue, asking direct and indirect questions to somehow assess what kind of people lived here, were there other specimens on the premises, did I need to call for backup etc.

The media covered this story extensively
This story of the ‘Stranger in the City’ caught the media’s attention, they covered it extensively.

As she began to retrace her steps, she happened to mention that she had come into the garage to collect prasadam that her husband brought back from Kukke Subramanya. Having thoroughly navigated and herped the length and breadth of the Western Ghats, I was more than familiar with Kukke, Kumaraparvatha, associated trekking trails and the wildlife found there. It was at this point that the story unraveled.

Her husband had recently driven up to the pilgrim town of Kukke Subramanya. He parked the car by the riverside while there and the arboreal snake must have slithered; travelling 400 kilometers to Bangalore without even knowing it!

My extended love affair with the majestic Western Ghats had me visiting frequently on work. These trips, rescue and other interactions secured me a place in the good books of the Forest Department at Kukke. I called and set up a date; with all the arrangements made, I enjoyed my few days with this legendary serpent before having to release it back into its rainforest home.

Manja: The Invisible Killer

Kites, crows, barn, spotted and mottle wood owls are among Bangalore city’s most important bird species.

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Every day they are taken by a silent and invisible killer – manja.

Manja is an abrasive thread that found its use in competitive kite flying in the beginning and later extending to kite flying in general. Essentially, a mixture of gum and crushed glass smeared on kite string is manipulated by kite flyers to cut a rival kite’s string; and vice versa. The winners kits fly high as the losers kites flutters down. Spools of cut manja settle on tree branches and become deadly traps for birds on a daily basis.

As the manja is barely visible amidst thick green canopy, birds perch where they please and before they know it, are tangled up by the death string. In an attempt to escape, they wiggle so much that their wings, legs and neck break in multiple places. If they don’t die from these injuries, dehydration puts the final nail in the coffin.

Further, accidents in which birds die due to manja puts at risk rescuers too.. why?

  1. There is no safety equipment for tree climbing. Volunteers work on trust and good faith to rescue birds from varying and sometimes dangerous heights.
  2. Manja cuts through human skin and flesh too, injuring rescuers in their attempts

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The problem by itself is a fairly common one that occurs nation-wide; Bangalore loses at least two birds a week.

Cobras in medical waste

Urban development takes many shapes and forms. This true story locates itself in the construction site of an apartment complex that destroyed a five acre urban forest on Magadi Main Road. On these premises, existed an old dried up well that had become a dumpyard for medical waste from a nearby leprosy hospital.

The abrupt evacuation and consequent destruction of habitat puts any animal in a state of panic, a female cobra must have fallen into the well on account of this confusion. The fact that this took place during the peak cobra breeding season (pre-monsoon months), her pheromones attracted males from around the area, either way three more cobras ended up in the well.

The rescue efforts captured in the video below:

No action was taken during the initial few weeks that the snakes spent in this highly toxic environment surrounded by bloody cotton, used syringes, tablets. Instead they were ridiculed and used as a source of endless entertainment for those who lived in this area. Miscreants would gather around the well and throw stones and eggs at these helpless snakes just for the fun of it.

After a month, and by some miraculous grace of nature, this issue was brought to the notice of the Fire Department, who responded immediately. When at the scene, they lowered their ladder for a person to climb down. He barely reached halfway down the well before the toxic medical fumes had him struggling for air, leaving him nauseous. More rescue attempts were made.. but all in vain.

Time passed by and it was a month and a half later Sanjeev (Into the Wild’s chief herpetologist) I received the rescue call. These cobras had not only been living in a highly toxic environment for two months, but had also been tormented and were probably in a state of extreme distress, hunger, thirst and understandable agitation.

On entering the well, I was overwhelmed by a violent gag reflex to the medical fumes and needed fresh air immediately; I resurfaced puking and sick. I’m not someone who would easily give up on animals in serious danger, so I returned the next day backed by a team of (inter)national climbers – Shivu, Gangadhar and Gaurav – who created a safety net and rope system to belay me down roughly 60 feet to where the snakes were.

I successfully rescued three cobras, but despite multiple attempts, the last one proved to be a challenge. It was days later that the monsoon hit, filling the well with rainwater. Time to seize the moment! Securing the fourth and final cobra in a basket, I placed these snakes in the hands of one of Bangalore’s expert wildlife rehabilitators, Saleem Hameed who succeeded in bringing three cobras back from the brink of danger; surely a daunting task considering the hazardous conditions in that toxic well.

A week later, we were able to release the cobras nearby the rescue location.

Interested in our wildlife rescue content? You might enjoy reading about my experiences with cobra egg incubation.

Leopard in Kengeri

Bangalore: It was like any other night in the busy city as I zipped through peak hour traffic in response to a rescue call from the satellite township of Kengeri. I arrived at the scene just in time to join other members of the BBMP Forest Cell as they sized up the situation. A two month old leopard cub looked back with naive confidence, totally unaware of his location – the loud and clanky machine room of a factory in a heavily industrialised part of town. What are the odds?!

Leopard cub captured from a factory in Kengeri Satellite Town

It seemed as though the mother, on the heels of a street dog (easy prey for old or ailing leopards), had stumbled into the massive factory through a canal and the little one merely followed suit. Using her better judgement, the leopard escaped leaving behind the cub.

Nonetheless, this put the entirely factory in a state of panic, we went on to search the enormous industrial area until the cub was located, settled cozily under the kitchen sink in an abandoned portion of the factory. The young one had not yet developed the speed, presence of mind and knowledge that comes with experience (of many encounters in human dominated terrain) and was called in by factory workers at 8:30.pm. The Forest Department informed the BBMP Forest Cell team and we reached the spot within 20 minutes.

If not for our team’s immediate response, the young leopard would have had to remain in captivity for the rest of its life. We got into action by using the only available resource, a big blue milk crate, capturing the cub in approximately 45 minutes. A release towards the far edge of the factory ensued.

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As is the case in all time sensitive situations, efficiency is the key and it happened so that the rescue was complete before the officials arrived on the scene. This infuriated them.

In response to their reaction and prompted by concern, we put ourselves on stand-by for the night to secure the future of the young leopard. Four hours into quiet observation from a nearby tree, there was a guttural call from the mother that was met with a shrill response from the cub. The team breathed relief, secure in the knowledge that the two were reunited.

Three days later, a telephone call came in from a surrounding village reporting another kill, a goat, in the same locality. We arrived to find the pugmarks of a large adult and its cub.

Exhausting the ‘double engine’

The red sand boa is traded all over south India. Manipulative con artists ready with baskets of this plump red-brown snake buried in soil manage to convince even public figures and politicians to buy into the ruse.

As always superstitious myth play a hand in it’s rampant illegal trade. Shaped like any burrowing snake, the red sand boa or ‘two-headed snake’ as it is widely believed to be, is thick and short with a blunt head and tail. It is this distinct physical feature that has given rise to a ritual wherein the snake is cut in half to make two heads appear and bring you good luck. Some believe that performing this ritual of sacrificing a red sand boa can even cure AIDS.

A single specimen is sold anywhere between 15 lakhs and 1 crore.

Referred to as ‘double engine’ on the street, some of its local names are mannu mukkha havu (mud eating snake), yeradu thale haavu (two headed snake) and even koti haavu meaning a snake that earns you a crore; perfectly symbolising its position in the market.

To keep up with rising demand, lead or iron balls are often inserted in the cloaca and mercury injected increase it’s weight and earn a higher price. The snake is still alive through of this and when rescued needs to be euthanised on account of heavy metal poisoning.

More on red sand boa trade in India:

http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/bengaluru/article231131.ece

Monitors in hot soup!

Large monitor lizards once occupied the dry scrub forestation on the Hosur and Kanakapura roads towards the outskirts of Bangalore. The centuries of demand for its meat has put it on  Schedule II, part I of the Indian Wildlife Act, making it a criminal offence to hunt or kill them.

Regardless, persistent poaching of these active lizards continues; their meat believed to be Indian Viagra, a medicine for aches and pains and other ridiculous superstitions.

The demand for monitor lizard from local hunters, villagers or tribal communities is an ancient saga that never seemed to change; however, in a more disturbing turn of events, urban consumers have found a taste for the illegal bush meat. Obviously hunters seized the opportunity and began to sell the meat more boldly.

Monitor lizards find their way to market, The Hindu:

http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Vijayawada/monitor-lizards-find-their-way-to-market/article3745863.ece

Effectively, the easy access to monitor lizard meat has brought it to the tables of wealthy folks as conveniently as table meat (chicken, mutton, beef etc). Dhabas have tie ups with various poachers and offer monitor lizard a la carte cooked in popular recipes of kabab, 65, manchurian and other ‘delicacies’. As the meat is also considered a good supplement for body building, certain gyms have begun to supply them on the side. The uses for monitor lizard don’t stop with the consumption of its meat. Black magic practitioners make oil using their fat.

Dead, alive or in any other condition – monitor lizards are killed and traded as a commodity for human consumption under blind faith and false promises.

In the year 2010, a raid was carried out on a community of poachers from the village Sikkarimedu, situated off the Krishnagiri main highway. 43 monitor lizards were seized. The village was dominated by a local tribe, traditionally hunters who depended on the forest or engaged in farming. From a self-sustained life to poaching wildlife, it was not long before they found commercial use for their traditional skill and knowledge; trapping monitors, jackals, porcupines, quails, muniyas and other scrub jungle animals for consumption and sale.

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Record shot of specimens from Sikkarimedu raid

As demand for monitor lizard meant grows unrestrained, Sikkarimedu and other communities continue to hunt out these defenseless reptiles. Awareness about this illegal meat, monitor lizard conservation status (both globally and locally), coupled with lockdowns of poaching basecamps and strict enforcement of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act are ways in which we can give them a shot at survival.

Read more about common Indian monitor’s habitat, range, distribution here: Urban Ecology: Common Indian monitor lizard

Translocation: A Death Sentence

Bangalore urban receives an average of 30 emergency calls on a daily basis, concerning wildlife rescues in the city. The animals in need is most commonly a bird or a reptile with the occasional call about a wild cat or other mammals. Sanjeev, our chief herpetologist, is on the BBMP Forest Cell team that handles the bulk of these emergencies and explains how sympathetic management and the trending ‘cool factor’ to rescue is jeopardizing the very survival of wildlife.

Let us take the example of snakes – shrouded in stereotype, they are the nerve center of exaggeration and controversy.

Humans have an embedded mindset that believes a rescued snake must be put back in the forest where it came. This way of thinking does not ring true as snakes have been living alongside humans for as long as we have both existed. The conflict, however, has escalated only in recent years due to reasons of growing intolerance and rapid urbanisation.

Translocation (releasing a rescued animal in a new location and/or habitat different from where it was picked up) has adverse consequences on both ecosystems (location of rescue in cities; and location of release into forests).

translocation 1
Releasing king cobra rescued from Ooty public bus stand

Effects on humans:

The rescue site will see an exponential spike in rodent population as a natural consequence of eliminating the predator. This intensifies the spread of disease by the increasing rodent population who quickly destroy our stored grain and crop cycles and put a direct strain on our food source. The absence of the rescued snake means an increase in the number of rats, this also invites other local snakes who come in to take advantage of this new food source.

Effects on snake:

Away from home range and finding itself in unfamiliar habitat, the snake must start from scratch to establish its sources of food, water, shelter and local knowledge of its predators. This leaves the snake wandering around for months using the trial and error method, thus increasing the potential for human-animal conflicts, now emerging as a vicious cycle. There is also enhanced conflict between the newly released snake and resident snakes of the local habitat, the survival of both are at great risk. A snake from the city could also be a carrier of various diseases.

Effects on ecosystem:

In one move, translocation disrupts the local food chain and natural order of resident species at rescue and release location, thus unbalancing both ecosystems. It is clear that releasing a rescued snake as far away as possible is merely a false safety measure that serves neither the snake nor humans. Whether it stems from a lack of education and awareness or is an indulgence of deep seated fears, rescuers cannot employ sympathetic management in place of common sense. They depend on the understanding and tolerance of everyday citizens to be able to manage urban wildlife in the correct manner.

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Sanjeev addressing questions from the public at rescue site

Snakes are an integral component of the urban ecosystem and will continue to appear and disappear from our sight. We believe that the question is not the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of urban wildlife rescue, rather the why of it. The next time you encounter a snake in your garden and immediately call for help, take a minute to think of who is in actual need of rescue – the snake, or you?

Widespread basic awareness and relevant safety protocol is a more realistic approach to their management, a little tolerance will go a long way in saving both species from the futile and damaging exercise of translocation.

Go here to read about how the balance between venomous and non-venomous snakes affects the urban ecosystem.