Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Russell’s Viper-a awe inspiring species

It is 11.30 in the night and I am standing against a mud wall of a small warm home in the village of Aldona. With a headlight on my forehead and a thumping heartbeat, I tune in to the environs. I must admit that it is very eerie to hear a pressure cooker whistle like sound at this hour, especially from under a wooden bed where stacks of Rice bags and large aluminum utensils seem to share space with one of the most commonly feared and revered of Indian reptiles that has crawled our world. I stoop down to and focus my headlight in the direction of the sound to reveal a breathtaking coiled wonder, one that sends a shiver of excitement down my spine- as here I am face to face with the Russell’s Viper (Daboia russellii), and a huge specimen at that.
Locally known as Kusdo or Ghonas, this large thick set ground dwelling viper is crepuscular in nature-i.e. active at dawn and dusk and is found near human habitation very often due to its fondness for rodents and their like. Besides which it has been known to feed on birds, lizards, frogs and even crabs on some occasions. A sluggish slow snake, capable of a fast strike when disturbed or threatened, the coloration of a Russell’s Viper varies from deep brown to brownish yellow with a set of three dark brown rows of spots that are lined with white edges and meet to form what is commonly known as ‘chain markings’, a sign that helps laypersons stay away from this snake when encountered in the neighborhood! The head is a triangular and broader than the neck, a sign of this species belonging to the Viper family while the tail is short and abrupt! While the skin is rough and the scales are strongly keeled, it is still in demand as the color patterns on the skin make it a target for skin dealers to be used for illegally manufacturing purses and shoes, a practice that has now ceased thanks to the inclusion of this species as a Scheduled species. But despite this, at a local level, Russell’s vipers are often killed as they are feared to cause death instantly according to the locals.
The individual I rescued from under the bed at Aldona measured a little less than a meter, and was definitely a female ( scalation proved that), and while the largest record for Goa is a 1.5 meter female, male Russell’s Vipers grow up to a meter in length.
Russell’s vipers are also unique in nature as they are viviparous which means they give birth to live young ones numbers ranging from anything between 8 to 60 individuals during the months of March- July.
Capable of fast strikes as mentioned earlier, the Russell’s vipers prefer to forewarn intruders and predators with their loud hissing and strike only as a last resort. The venom is a mixture of haemotoxic as well as neurotoxic venom and affects the blood vessels and to an extent the central nervous system, causing muscle pain and stiffness coupled with bleeding from the area of the bite. And while these are symptoms that appear for a Russell’s viper bite, the fact remains that the bite is cent percent curable with the administration of Anti venom serum provided it is treated with utmost urgency. Considered to be part of the Big 4- i.e. the 4 venomous common snakes of India, the Russell’s viper venom is also used in medical research today.
It is here that I would also like to mention that one of the beacons of Indian Snake venom and allied research, Dr. R C. Kankonkar passed away recently and was cremated at Sada in Vasco. His work on the venom and its local necrotizing of the Russell’s viper and the efficacy of the Haffkine Institute Poly venom on Indian snakes is considered as a path breaking scientific work for the country as far as modern day toxicology is concerned. I offer my silent prayers to this great scientist and guide for our generation and hope to receive his blessings through his pioneering work for the reptiles of our land as well as the human population that lives in harmony with them.
I leave the small Aldona home by expressing my gratitude to its residents for not having killed the snake and hope that this species will continue to help us keep the rodent population in check thereby rendering a yeoman service to the urban ecosystem at large.

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