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Birsa zoo on snake alert

Lalu has lost his love to a slithering serpent.

Jhilly — one of the two six-year-old female hippopotamuses brought from Nandankanan, Odisha, in September to give Birsa zoo’s lonely male amorous company — was bitten in the snout, possibly by a cobra or a Russell’s viper, two weeks ago. And, her only fault was she got all too nosy in this season of brumation, the phase of winter dormancy among reptiles.

According to zoo vet Ajay Kumar, this was the first fatal snakebite at the 104-hectare Bhagwan Birsa Biological Park in Ormanjhi, 15km from capital Ranchi, which houses more than 1,100 animals and birds from 60-odd species, many of them endangered.

At Tata zoo in Jamshedpur, a cobra had crept into the African lion cub enclosure in December 2 last year. The smarter quintet had managed to survive the attack.

“We are leaving no stone unturned to avoid a rerun. Thickets in and around enclosures are being trimmed, and carbolic acid is being sprayed in holes and tree hollows to keep snakes away,” Kumar said.

Incidentally, zoo officials had failed to nail the cause of Jhilly’s death on November 13 and had kept the matter under wraps till a visitor enquired about the missing female on Thursday.

“The procedural post-mortem had left us confused because all vital organs were fine and there were no visible bodily injuries either. However, a closer look during reassessment revealed that she was bitten in the snout,” admitted vet Kumar.

Ranchi veterinary college professor M.K. Gupta, who helped in the autopsy, confirmed death due to snakebite. “I didn’t see any changes in viscera, which was baffling. The body and heart were in good condition. Later on, during microscopic view, we found haemorrhage in the snout and gum lacerations, which can be caused by venom and snakebite,” he said.

Birsa zoo is home to some very poisonous snakes such as the Russell’s viper, cobra and branded krait. But, neither Gupta nor Kumar could say for sure which one of these snakes bit Jhilly. A source zeroed in on either of the first two.

Kumar said the hippopotamus might have been sniffing around foliage-covered secluded areas in the enclosure, where the snakes were brumating, which differs from hibernation in the metabolic processes involved. “The snakes may have felt threatened and attacked,” he said.

Independent animal expert S.K. Singh, who runs a vet clinic in Kadru, believes the killer snake was not in brumation. “There are two possibilities: either it was preparing to brumate or was active. In the wild, natural instincts help animals survive snake attacks,” he added.

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