the-south-asian.com August 2003
THE COBRA GIRL OF GUJARAT
For over a decade animal activist Snehal Bhatt has championed the cause of snakes. But in doing so she’s been threatened and physically attacked several times by poachers. In a rare tribute, the National Geographic Channel has produced a stunning film on her amazing mission…
Snehal Bhatt has led a one-woman crusade to rescue India's most dangerous snakes---cobras, vipers, and giant pythons---from frightened townspeople, crooked snake charmers and devious poachers.
She is now aiming at the rural town of Valsad, where poachers continue to trade illegally in such snakes as Indian pythons, and a number of snake charmers still defang reptiles, ultimately killing them. But with the help of a posse of dedicated volunteers, Snehal Bhatt helps save people and snakes from each other.
In a rare tribute, the National Geographic Channel has made a stunning film on this amazing animal activist who stays far away from the arclights preferring to do real work that has little time for publicity.
The Snake Wranglers: Snake Savior captures on camera the life of Bhatt and her work with the wildlife of the area especially the snakes. In 1993, she founded the Gujarat Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [GSPCA]. Aided by a group of volunteers, she runs this society from her home in Vadodara and is on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Bhatt and her volunteers have rescued thousands of snakes and released them in areas far from human habitation. " We try to take these animals as far as possible from human habitation so that they’re not hunted down again," she says.
While human encounters with cobras, vipers, and pythons can prove fatal, more often than not it is the snakes that are killed. The often-feared reptiles have no voice of their own, but they now have at least one energetic and determined protector.
In addition to rescuing animals, she has been a forceful opponent of practices like snake charming. And in doing battle with the charmers, she has been threatened and physically attacked several times in the course of her work. She now carries a pistol to defend herself. Today, however, largely due to her efforts, Vadodara is free of snake charmers.
Whenever farmers in the area spot a snake in their fields the first person they call is Bhatt. " It’s a welcome sign that the farmers here are responding to me," says the snake lady and explains, " The country has lost almost 25 percent of its heavily forested land in the past decade. As humans encroach on forested areas, people and animals are being brought into close contact – with deadly results for both."
Interestingly Snehal will rescue any animal that’s in need. But more than half her calls involve snakes. She had originally been a social worker, but she came to feel that animals needed her more than people.
The GSPCA conducts an animal rescue programme and collects and releases dozens of snakes, lizards and crocodiles as well as other wild and domestic animals each year. The animals are released back to the wild to prevent people from killing them.
Sometime back when Snehal saw pigs being carried away in a tempo, she asked the driver to stop the vehicle. When she began making inquiries, the driver, dashed off. When she tried to intercept, she was assaulted and beaten up. Passers by had to rush her to a hospital.
But then violence is an occupational hazard for this brave lady. That’s why she realizes that if her mission here is to succeed, she’ll need to enlist the help of local villagers. So Snehal and her volunteers put on snake shows to get her message across.
" Through these shows, we want to achieve a closer relationship between man and snake. Only if we educate them, if we create awareness amongst them, then they’ll stop killing snakes. We have been able to tell people that we understand that you are afraid this animal will kill you. That’s the reason why you’re killing it first. Call us. Don’t kill it. And we will help you out."
Snehal also needs the villagers’ help in stopping her archenemies, the snake charmers, whose custom of destroying the venom glands ultimately kills the snake.
"I am talking to them about what snake charmers do, and I am showing them the venom glands and the venom. What the snake charmers do is they burn the venom glands. The venom will never regenerate again," says Snehal explaining that venom is the snake’s saliva, without it the snake will have trouble digesting food and will die within a couple of months.
Snehal’s compassion for animals is matched by her anger at those who abuse them. " I get very angry whenever I see a snake charmer. It’s like there’s a bomb inside me which is going to blow anytime. I don’t see him as a person at all. I just see how many snakes he’s killed. It’s a kind of thing I’ve developed from seeing these poor animals die daily."
Snehal says she is just doing her duty to nature. "I know snakes cannot speak. But the gratitude in their eyes when they’re saved, when they’re released, is something that I live for. We have to save our wildlife and for that we need more dedicated people. I am sure the day is not far when there’ll be lots of Snehals in this country."
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