On a stroll with a friend in Bengaluru 20 years ago, Shuayb Ahmed saw a group of people run out of a house chasing something with sticks. They beat it up and killed it. When 22-year-old Shuayb saw what it was, he was dismayed. It was a large, non-venomous rat snake. He explained to the people that they had killed a harmless creature. His friend suggested that he should share his number for snake rescue work. Shuayb agreed and the calls started pouring in.
That’s when he formally started his rescue work but he had a fascination for snakes since childhood. “As a kid, we had snake charmers coming home. My mother would pay them to show us the snakes. That’s how snakes came into my life. I would visualise their colours when they were not in front of me,” he says.
“One day on television, I saw a person put a handkerchief on a hooded cobra and grab it from behind. Thinking this looked quite easy, I tried it myself. I didn’t even know that it was a cobra. I was just 10 years old at that time. I got lucky!”
Call of the wild
Shuayb, now 41, quit a steady job at a BPO as ‘the call of wild’ was strong. “I liked my work and partying with friends for a while. But I did not feel at peace from within. I wanted to spend more time in the wild with animals,” he says.
“There is a saturation limit when it comes to time spent with human beings. Not so with animals. I also wanted to do something I was skilled at, which was rescuing snakes and other urban wildlife.”
Shuayb has rescued over 7,000 snakes in the last 19 years. Most of these are cobras, he says.
Informatively, India has around 60 species of venomous snakes of which the king cobra is the deadliest. Three other venomous snakes found commonly in India are common kraits, Russell’s vipers and saw-scaled vipers. According to National Geographic, there are more than 3,000 species of snakes in the world but only 600 species or about 20 percent, are venomous.
While Shuayb’s expertise lies in handling snakes, he also rescues birds, monkeys, tortoises and other animals which stray into human habitats.
Each animal or bird plays an important role in the food chain, making biodiversity conservation essential for the environment.
"Birds get injured during the kite-flying season. Some get dehydrated during peak summer and fall to the ground. Monkeys get hit by people with air guns or get injured by traffic on roads," he says.
Did he ever feel fearful about handling snakes? “I was not frightened about that. But I was scared to tell my parents about my rescue work. Since I was getting frequent calls, my parents came to know. My mother was worried about my safety. But she believed I was doing good work. She asked me to take the utmost care and get the proper tools.”
However, his father was not happy with his line of work. Till one morning, when he read a letter of appreciation Shuayb had received for conducting an awareness programme in a college. That’s when his father said: “Son, I am proud of you. But promise me that you will outlive me.”
His sisters are very proud that Shuayb is a wildlife rescuer and is helping in biodiversity conservation. “My niece and two nephews get very excited when I get a call. They fight about who will accompany me on a rescue. My family gives me that extra boost when I slacken,” says Shuayb with a humorous glint in his eyes.
While he used to get 15-20 calls a day five to six years ago, the number has fallen because more amateurs are attempting rescues, which is not a good thing.
“Some amateurs use plastic bottles to stuff the snakes into. Their scales get ruptured or they could get dehydrated due to heat and die. These are not rescues,” says Shuayb emphatically.
“As a rescuer, you have to make sure that the snake does not undergo stress. If a snake gets agitated it may get into defensive mode. Snakes go into corners when this happens. The cobra hoods up and Russell’s vipers hiss to keep people away. If you are gentle, the procedure is less dangerous for both the snake and the rescuer,” he explains.
“When you go out for any rescue, be it a snake rescue or an attempt to help a human being in a difficult situation, if you are safe, you can save another ten people. Don’t put your life in danger,” he advises.
Shuayb has learnt about snakes by reading, and watching wildlife programmes on television and from knowledgeable friends and experts. He has attended the STORM (Scientific Training on Reptile Management) workshop conducted by well-known herpetologist Gowri Shankar who is an authority on king cobras. The workshop is conducted for animal lovers and snake rescuers with theory (including how to identify snakes) and practicals (taking participants on live rescues).
Showing appreciation for Shuayb’s work, Shankar says: “He is doing excellent work. I have seen some of his videos. The objective of our workshop is to build a network or team of professionals who follow ethical methods that ensure snake safety and human safety as well. These days many amateurs attempt rescue work. We are completely against that. Apart from his ethical handling of snakes, Shuayb has sound scientific knowledge which he is willing to share. We call him for our awareness programmes.”
A question of habitat
More snakes are venturing into homes in Bengaluru, says Shuayb. Explaining the reasons, he says: “This is happening because of rampant development. The city is shrinking and there are very few open spaces for urban wildlife.”
“People are moving further into forest areas to buy farmhouses. This way they are intruding into the habitat of animals.”
Another reason, according to him, is irresponsible disposal of waste, especially leftover food which increases the rat population. Cluttering of homes with unnecessary stuff provides a place for rats and frogs to hide. Once rats and frogs grow in large numbers in homes, snakes who prey on them will follow suit, he says.
Moreover, during heavy rains, when there is flooding, snakes have to come out of hiding holes to breathe. While hunting for drier ground, they get into homes.
Shuayb is a volunteer with the wildlife rescue team of the municipal corporation, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). Some rescuers, who are registered with BBMP, get an honorarium. However, volunteers do not get this. Nor do they get insurance coverage, he says. That’s why he charges a minimal fee to cover his costs.
The amount depends on how difficult the rescue is. Sometimes, the snake gets injured and has to be taken to an NGO for treatment. In such cases, he donates some money to the NGO. He releases the rescued snakes in a suitable habitat, in forested areas.
Being an animal lover, he has found an alternative source of income. Shuayb runs a homestay for dogs and cats.
As he has a dedicated staff to care for the animals, he is free to attend to rescue calls. He also travels a lot looking for snakes in the wild. He has CCTV cameras at the facility so that he can manage the care of the animals even when he is away. He has four dogs and three cats of his own.
Shuayb conducts awareness programmes on snakes in schools, colleges, construction sites and farmhouses at least once a month. He conducts ‘herping’ (searching for wild amphibians and reptiles out in nature) trips. But these are only to people’s farms and not in forest areas (where it is prohibited).
“On these trips, we stand at a distance and watch the snakes. We may come across a bamboo pit viper hanging from a tree waiting for prey. Or, a common krait, which is a nocturnal creature, out at night looking for another snake for its dinner. We don’t document everything as we don’t want to get too close or put on lights which will disturb the animals,” he explains.
Though he works independently, Shuayb has been volunteering at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRCC) near Bannerghatta National Park for many years. He is recognised by all animal-related NGOs in Bengaluru.
Shuayb has been bitten multiple times but never by a venomous snake. “I have honed my skills and have better equipment. Earlier, I would use sticks and pillowcases. Now, I am armed with two snake hooks (a small one for baby snakes), a large cotton bag (so that the snake can breathe), a head torch and good trekking shoes. I have to ensure the batteries of my head torch are charged. If the light goes out when I am handling Russell’s viper in a dark corner, I would be in deep trouble.”
As a beginner, Shuayb relates encountering a huge, aggressive Russell’s viper. Friends, who had accompanied him on the rescue, were frightened as the snake was hissing and moving around. “I did not have the necessary tools and I was also not as skilled and experienced as I am today. I prefer the current me. It’s much safer,” he says with a laugh.
In another incident, he rescued a woman whose leg was stuck in a cot with a hooded cobra four feet away. A third rescue, he says, was the most dangerous of all though it involved a non-venomous rat snake. The snake had fallen into a 30-feet deep well. Shuayb had to tie two pieces of rope together to get down. Once he sent the snake up in a bag, came the tricky part of climbing up. An attempt to pull me up almost got the knot open. If that had happened, I would have fallen and broken my back. But, if you ask me if I would do it again, I would say ‘yes’, he says. “Anything to save a snake.”
(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru/Ahmedabad. She writes on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes.)