The goodnight killer
India’s most venomous snake, the Common krait, is at the heart of a frighteningly common problem. A nocturnal snake, kraits climb beds at night and bite sleeping humans. During the course of their nation-wide project to study regional variations in snake venoms, herpetologists Rom Whitaker and Gerry Martin were recently in Nawanshahr for the Punjab leg of their research. Writes Vikram Jit Singhchandigarh Updated: Sep 06, 2014 23:55 IST
THE GOODNIGHT KILLER
India’s most venomous snake, the Common krait, is at the heart of a frighteningly common problem. A nocturnal snake, kraits climb beds at night and bite sleeping humans. During the course of their nation-wide project to study regional variations in snake venoms, herpetologists Rom Whitaker and Gerry Martin were recently in Nawanshahr for the Punjab leg of their research. They were handed over a giant of a krait (5-feet-plus) by Nikhil Sanger of the Wildlife Conservation Society. This krait had been rescued by Sanger from a house in Guru Hargobind Nagar, Nawanshahr. The krait had climbed the bed of Harman Singh after midnight and was sliding across his mouth when he woke up and flung the snake aside.
Gerry (to the left) and Rom with the giant krait. PHOTO: VIKRAM JIT SINGH
The narration of that episode by Sanger got the herpetologists thinking. The conventional belief on why kraits climb beds is articulated by researcher Kedar Bhide: “During later part of its foraging at night, typical krait behaviour is to seek a warm place and stay for the day. So, it may be that they get attracted to warm blankets or ‘chaddars’ with a human inside and try to go to sleep for the day (which is the night for kraits). When the person inside moves, it is perceived as a threat and krait-bite is just a reaction.”
On the other hand, Rom’s conjecture is that “a krait is attracted to the smell of rodents” embedded in the mattresses, sheets etc. Though Rom admits that movement of humans while asleep could elicit a bite response from a krait, the chances of this are less as most hard-working people sleep soundly and don’t move much. Bhide remains unconvinced by Rom’s rodent smell theory. Bhide argues that if it were rodent odour, then other rodent-eating snake species would also be climbing beds. A definitive answer, admits Rom, would lie in the realm of a controlled experiment.
“An experiment could be designed to prove the very likely fact that kraits are attracted to rodent smell. The smell could be rubbed onto a large object like a false human limb (perhaps heated to normal human/rodent temperature) and see what happens. The trial snakes would have to be good and hungry and free of stress in a captive situation to elicit normal behaviour,” suggests Rom. Bhide suggests that a controlled experiment could take the form of a krait being released on a blanket, and then on a blanket with a human inside, and observe when and what the krait bites.
WORSE THAN SMELLY SOCKS
When cornered or handled, the common krait can trigger another defensive mechanism: i.e. by secreting a very musky, foul odour. Snake-handlers find it more difficult to wash off this odour from their bodies than a diner would try to rid his fingers and nails of the virtually unsoapable smell of chicken curry. Nikhil Sanger, who handles dozens of krait rescues, says it takes sometimes two or three days to wash off krait odour by persistent application of a detergent like ‘Rin’.
As Gerry and Rom were trying to bring the giant krait under control at Nawanshahr, Gerry cursed the odour it was releasing. It made Gerry recount a memorable instance when he was researching on another krait species in an Asian country and that snake’s odour was absolutely foul and clung to his body and clothes like a leech. Krait odour can easily prick the halo of courage that sits around snake-researchers and dissuade the legion of lady fans just as a pair of smelly socks carelessly discarded under the bed would! In a lighter vein, Gerry remarked that so lingering were the effects of that krait’s odour that his female friend maintained an impolite distance from him till such time as...
PEG SHEG DOWN THE LEG
Last week in these columns, I had narrated the hilarious episode from the good, old days of five hill rajas who drank too much beer and gin before noon. They had then proceeded to a shikar organised near Bhallan, Nangal, by Tikka Shiv Chand, fired a 100 rounds but missed 22 wild boars! Well, there was more action in store later that evening when whisky flowed like water at the Tikka’s country mansion. The Tikka recounts that one of the shikaris was the late Col Raja Niraang Singh (retd) of the minor state of Solangri. Though the retired fauji had lost both his legs due to an ailment, he would drink two bottles of whisky every evening, one before and another after dinner. As the rajas, who included the late Mohinder Pal of Kutlehar, drank steadily, Col Singh was reclining on the bed and also marching peg after peg down his gullet. It finally got to a stage when Col Singh was virtually incapacitated and wanted to relieve his bladder.
He sought the assistance of his companions to loosen his pajama strings but the strings tightened and got further knotted due to the clumsy help rendered by the tipsy rajas. As the urinary tract pressure mounted, Col Singh bellowed in fury at the incompetence of his fellow nobles huddled over his pajama strings. Finally, since the Gordian knot could not be untied, a pair of scissors was requisitioned. But again, since the rajas are not master tailors by birth, the blessed scissors were wielded without finesse and ended up pricking Col Singh in the belly rather than cutting through the pajama strings. He jumped in pain at the scissor stab and vented his fury like a trapped tiger.
That proved to be the proverbial last straw and the old gent could hold on no longer. He relieved himself there and then on the bed and sullied the mattress. The next morning, when the mattress was laid out in the sun to dry, the Tikka’s late wife chanced upon it and was greatly puzzled. In all earnestness, she asked the Tikka: “The mattress is full of ‘peshab’ (urine) but I did not see any small child among your guests last night?”