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Stranded snake-charmers pray as breadwinner reptiles starve

Satgachhi, Feb. 5: The fangs are not out. They aren’t hissing either.

Unlike their masters surviving on virtually empty stomachs for the last six days, the starving snakes lying coiled in the baskets of the charmers on the India-Bangladesh border are dropping dead, one by one.

Ten snakes have perished since the 213 snake-charmers and their families, who identified themselves as Bangladeshis, were caught in a standoff between the Border Security Force and the Bangladesh Rifles near this Cooch Behar village last Friday. Unlike the snakes in the wild that spend winter hibernating, the domesticated snakes need to be kept on a diet of small fish and frogs daily to keep them alive in the cold, the families said.

“Where do we get fish or frogs now that we have been stranded here' We hardly have anything to feed our own children spending cold nights out in the open,” said Sikandar Ali, who lost four snakes in as many days. He said he had caught the four snakes, of “rare” species, in the Chittagong hills six months ago.

“The four dropped dead one by one. I could do nothing to save them though we kept our chulla burning. They were our only source of income,” the man, in his thirties, said. He mourned the deaths as if they were family. Ali said he could not “throw away” the lifeless reptiles. “I dug up a grave and laid them to rest.”

Then, he knelt down and prayed for them. “I thought I must offer namaz because of my failure to save them. Allah will definitely understand my inability to keep them alive.”

The death of snakes could spell economic doom for the stranded families. “We have no land, no jobs. We rely on snakes for our livelihood,” Din Islam, who lost his cobra to starvation, said. He said they were worried what would happen to them if the standoff continued and more snakes perished.

Nur Begum likened the snakes to her children. “I have six sons, two daughters and three snakes. They are all my children.” The 40-year-old woman was lucky that her snakes were alive. “But I don’t know how long they will survive if we are not allowed to return to our home in Bangladesh.”

Amina Bibi was heartbroken. The 60-year-old widow’s only snake perished yesterday. And with that dried up her “only source of income”.

“We will have to start all over again. That’s if we ever get to return home to Bangladesh,” the woman said.

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