Saturday, September 14, 2013


Snakebites are common in India. Unofficial estimates show that there are about 275,000 incidents of snakebites in India alone these days and between 40,000 and 50,000 people die every year. Yet officially, the figure of deaths is about 2,000.  The entire south India, Maharashtra, Bengal and Orissa account for most cases of snakebite in India.

King Cobra

Although there are about 270 species of snakes in India, only a dozen are venomous. Venom-filled fangs are used for catching preys, yet when threatened, snake’s only defence is to attack in the same way. Non-venomous snakes can only injure with its teeth. Cobras, vipers and banded kraits are the villains in India. The most feared of them all is the huge king cobra, the largest venomous snake in the world that grows up to 16-
The Mighty Hood of King Cobra
18 ft. Its toxicity is not as high as that of many other venomous snakes, but that is made up for in sheer volume - 7 ml is injected in to the victim’s body in a single bite with its half-inch long fangs. One bite and in just 15 minutes, a human body is ready for burial. Elephants too do not survive king cobra’s bite for more than 2 hours. The king cobra seldom bites though. Koh Sang, a village 800 km north of Bangkok, Thailand, boasts of one king cobra each in 70 of the 120 houses in the village. The villagers have been performing a kind of snake dance for tourists for decades. They collect reasonably good money from
their shows. A co-dancer throughout its life, king cobra is handled even by children. In a documentary, a villager says, “so far only one man died of king cobra’s bite”. This super snake is found in India and the Far East Asia.
Fearsome Yet Gentle - King Cobra
The most lethal venom is found in Inland Taipan, an Australian snake. Being very elusive and a resident of arid deserts, it is yet to kill a man. The ferocious Black mamba is notorious for biting its victim repeatedly, injecting  a lot of poison. Python and anaconda, the largest among all the snakes, are fortunately non-venomous but is known to asphyxiate people. 

Sea snakes are highly venomous and are a threat  to fishermen.


The World Health Organization (WHO) believes there are about 5,000,000 snakebites every year around the world! About 100,000 people die each year! The bites maim over 250,000. About three-fourth of the reported snakebites are from non-venomous snakes.

Russel's Viper
The number of snakebites increases because of extension of human-inhabited area. Normally snakes live in quiet places where encounters with humans are rare. Unfortunately, even in villages more and more houses are built, forcing snakes to share their domain with people. They come to  live in holes very close to houses.
Encounters in agricultural areas like paddy fields and tea gardens are common. In the case of common cobra, vipers, mamba (of Africa) etc. if medical attention is not received within 30 minutes of the bite, death
Common Vine Snake
is inevitable. Krait-bites, except those of blue kraits, are easy to treat because its less lethal venom is injected in very small quantities. Still, there are reported cases of deaths.
Snake Worship
Snake worship is still prevalent among Hindus and Christians. Nordic communities, ancient Israelis, ancient Egyptians, Cambodians, Africans, Mesopotamians, etc also had worshipped in one way or other. Tales of Serpent gods are found in Hindu mythology. Nagpanchami in north India and Ayilayam Pooja in Kerala are significant festivals. There are three serpent temples in Kerala - Pampum Mekkavu (near Kochi airport), Mannarsala and Vettikkottu (near Kayamkulam). 

Installation of Serpent Deities at Peroor Kavu Temple, Kalarcode, Alappuzha
In Christianity, St. Mark is associated with snakes. “Some Christian churches use venomous snakes as part of their worship drawing from the gospel of Mark 16:18, which states “They shall take up serpents…”. (

Types of Snake Venom and Anti-venoms

There are two types of toxins in snake venom – haemotoxic, affecting blood and organs, and neurotoxic, affecting nervous system. These two appear in the venoms of all snakes in varying quantities. The former causes difficulty in breathing and death of tissues while the latter, the more dangerous of the two, causes death faster. The venom of king cobra contains more neurotoxins than haemotoxins.

Common Krait
Giving the wrong anti-venom too is dangerous; a survivor may have to live with damage to nervous system, paralysis and incurable ulcers. Normally doctors monitor a victim for 15-20 minutes to study the symptoms and then inject appropriate anti-venom. Anti-venom is in short-supply which is also a reason for the ‘wait-and-treat’ policy. It was reported in the press that scientists had developed a new 20-minute strip test in 2011 with which doctors could identify the snake species. Nothing is heard of it, as of now.

Alive, But Declared Dead

A documentary that Animal Planet had aired years ago tells of a South African herpetologist who was bitten by a dangerous Black Mamba, a highly venomous snake. Immediately he injected an anti-venom, but that was to cause a lot of problems later because he had become allergic to the antidote after using it quite a few times. He was taken to the hospital within half an hour but doctors declared him dead on the second day. Due to the insistence of his family, he was still kept on life-supporting systems and on the seventh day a nurse noticed that his fingers were moving. Doctors continued to treat him optimistically and in a fortnight he was out of the hospital.

In the documentary he narrates his experience. He says could hear the doctors telling his family to take his body home on the second day – obviously for burial. "I was clinically dead for eight days".

The documentary explains that while the doctors ‘concluded’ that he was dead, his immunity system and the medicines were fighting the venom (and the allergic anti-venom) which had made the communication system of the body collapse. What is to be appreciated is that the doctors, though overruled by his family, were willing to continue medication. It was their positive attitude combined with the victim’s determination that brought about a happy ending.

In every country, some patients are always declared dead while being alive. One report appeared in the press suggested that throughout the world, 1% of people declared dead by doctors are in fact ‘not dead’. But they are buried alive! This report I had read about a decade ago talked of an incident in which employees of a church in France found the lid of one coffin partly displaced while removing coffins from a burial vault to make way for new ones. Investigations showed that the skeleton’s toe nails had fallen off. The markings on the inner side of the lid indicated that the buried man had made desperate efforts to kick open the lid, resulting in loss of toe-nails! This 1% obviously includes snakebite victims too.

One just shudders to think what would have been the fate of a victim like the South African herpetologist had he been in India or an underdeveloped nation! Incidents like this do not set doctors of poor and underdeveloped countries thinking because they do not take note of what are happening around the world. Ignorance is bliss. Reports about strange recoveries do not interest them – probably a reason why mortality rate is high.


Some snakes have venom with negligible quantity of toxins. Their bite will give only hallucinogenic experience. When drug addicts run out of money, they go for cheaper options; one of them being snakes with mildly toxic venom. Against a small payment, the snake keeper lets the snake bite on the tongue of his ‘client’. He charges clients ’per bite’. The venom immediately reaches brain and acts like hallucinogenic drug. Shamans of South America make a cock-tail of snake venom and snake blood during their rituals to get psychedelic feelings.

Immunity from Snake venom

There is an interesting fact too. There are some who are by birth blessed with immunity to snake venom. A report in a vernacular newspaper told of man in Palakkad in Kerala, south India who is said to be immune to cobra venom.

Bill Haast, the ‘Florida snake man’, began immunizing himself in 1948 by injecting dilute cobra venom. He had a collection of over 10,000 snakes. ‘He developed immunity to most snakebites’, reported Washington Post when Bill died, aged 100, in 2011. “Transfusions from his blood helped save the lives of more than 20 snakebite victims around the globe”, the obit said. He lost his index finger at 92, when a Malaysian pit viper bit him. When hospitalized at the age of 78 for treating snakebite, he looked only 30. May be snake venom can delay the process of ageing. Fitness freaks should not try to emulate him. He had almost fifty years’ experience with snakes before the jabs had begun.

The hedgehog, secretary bird, honey badger and mongoose, all perennial enemies of snakes, appear to be immune to snake venom but there are no convincing research result. While some researchers believe their tolerance levels are high, some do not. All of them are very agile to evade the fangs. King cobra has on its menu only venomous and non-venomous snakes. Nevertheless, it survives even if bitten by its venomous prey - common cobras, kraits and vipers. Biochemists have discovered that normally acetylcholine receptors of victims of venomous snakes get blocked by neurotoxins. In king cobra’s case it does not happen! Neurotoxin of other venomous snakes fails to get attached to its receptors and that does the trick! Nature always designs eliminators carefully. Some scientists believe that the mongoose also has a similar defence mechanism.

In a documentary made by Animal Planet, a male king cobra is shown killing a female king cobra (queen cobra?) with repeated bites. It is not clear what killed the female - the powerful bites that caused suffocation or the venom. The male also tries in vain to swallow the dead female. Perhaps, the receptors are not helpful if one king cobra bites another. But snakes of all other species are vulnerable to venom; even when one gets bitten by another of its own species. This theory may be wrong. Dr. Zoltan Tackas of UCLA
Romulus Whitaker of Chennai Snake Park
who has been conducting advanced research on 
toxicity of venomous snakes says one cobra’s venom cannot kill another. Romulus Whitaker of Chennai Snake Park, Chennai, India an authority on snakes of India appears in the documentary. (Courtesy: for the images of Russel's Viper, Saw-scaled Viper, Common Vine Snake and Common Krait. Snake-lovers should visit the site.)

 Since snake venom causes clotting of blood, scientists are experimenting with vampire bats and leeches which drink blood from its sources (man, animals and birds) by creating an uninterrupted flow. Their saliva, according to scientists, has an anti-coagulant to ensure smooth flow of their victim’s blood in to their mouths. Since snake venom causes clotting of blood, one hopes the research will be beneficial to future victims of snakebite for countering blood clots Incidentally, scientists say that snake venom is a protein compound which, if taken orally, is digested in human stomach – provided, on its way down to the stomach, the venom does not enter the blood stream through small lesions in mouth and alimentary canal.

Remember, if you go by the theory of evolution, any change in the chemistry of man or snake’s prey to resist lethal effects of snake venom will also cause nature to develop, over a period of time, different kinds of venoms in snakes to overcome the new line of defence!

You may be alive after a snake-bite; yet doctors may declare you dead! Insist on keeping the victim on life-supporting system for a few days. Wait for the antidote and body's defence mechanism to fight the venom. Life is precious!


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