The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In cobra country, a slithering sleepmate

Pharsabahar (Jashpur), Dec. 1: Naglok is not a myth. Not in this snake country where at least 10 people die of krait and black cobra bites every year.

Tribals of the region, who have been living with snakes for ages, revere the venom-carriers so much that killing them is just not acceptable.

“This entire region of north Chhattisgarh, comprising four blocks and extending up to villages of neighbouring Jharkhand and Orissa, is known as Naglok,” said Alok Minj, a tribal of Pharsabahar.

“The area has a good deposit of gold — in mines and in riverbeds. Most of the wealth is still unexplored. Snakes have been known to inhabit gold-rich areas because they guard the treasure,” he said.

“We cannot go against nature by killing them. We live with them.”

The “scientific” explanation is that the climate of the area, which has laterite soil and dense forests, is suited to the survival of snakes.

“Kraits and cobras come out in good number from June to September when we receive most of the snakebite cases. The hospital here always has a stock of 30-40 anti-venom vials ready, each costing Rs 365. This year, we have received eight cases of which only one died,” says M.R. Vishwakarma, the sector supervisor of the local community health centre.

But residents say only one out of four cases are reported to the hospital.

“Villagers first approach the baiga or the ojha (quacks). They manage to save a victim only rarely because jhad-foonk and jadi-booti are not anti-snake venom. But people hold that a snake bites them because they have committed a sin and only the baiga can save them from divine wrath,” says Mahadev Sai, another villager.

Health worker I.D. Lakra explains the “success” of the quacks. “After biting a person, a snake must turn for successfully injecting the venom. After a bite, the victim often throws away the snake with a jerk before it can inject the venom. When such cases come to the ojha, the victim survives and the quack claims he has saved a life. This has ensured that the quacks continue in business. They charge money, liquor and chicken for treating each case,” he says.

Registering a police case and a post-mortem have become necessary for providing social security to family members of victims.

Kraits mostly strike at night.

“These snakes sleep snuggled with humans because their temperatures match. If you do not move throughout the night you are safe. But people mostly change sides in sleep and this is when the kraits strike. Ninety per cent of the villagers sleep on the floor and become easy prey. They hold that sleeping on cots would make the gods angry,” says Vishwakarma.

Working in the area for three decades, Vishwakarma says the number of cases has come down from an average of 40 every year.

Health and district officials regularly organise awareness camps in remote villages. “We ask people to sleep on cots and use mosquito nets so that snakes do not drop on beds. While travelling, they should use footwear. We train them in first-aid. They have to use the tourniquet method, tying a tight knot a few inches above the injury spot and then slashing the skin in a cross to let the poisoned blood flow out. But this helps only when the bite is on the limbs. If the torso is hit, not much can be done,” says Francis Beck, a doctor at Sitapur hospital.

Krait-bite is myo-toxic — accompanied by paralysis of muscles and cardio-respiratory seizure, leading to death in a few hours. Kraits inject very small quantity of poison and only 6 mg can prove lethal. Cobras inject up to 15 mg of venom. Their bite is neuro-toxic, which affects the nervous system. The symptoms are eye-drooping, frothing in the mouth and bleeding from the injury spot.

“Health workers can now easily distinguish a krait bite from that of a cobra. But villagers waste time with the quacks before bringing the victim to the hospital. This makes things difficult for us,” says Lakra.

Villagers are also asked to burn the khalli (residue left after juice extraction) of mahua as its smoke keeps snakes away.

The government has plans to set up a snake park near Tapkara.

“It will be developed as a habitat of snakes where all varieties of the region will be showcased. The poison, which is used in preparing anti-venom doses and other drugs, can be properly collected. Villagers can also be trained better in handling snakes and snakebites at the park. Land for the project has been identified, work will soon begin,” says a block official.

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