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Top experts to study Punjab snake venoms

chandigarh Updated: Aug 21, 2014 20:49 IST

India's distinguished herpetologists Rom Whitaker and Gerry Martin are coming to Punjab as part of a nationwide project to identify regional variations in snake venoms so as to develop more potent anti-snake venom serums.

Herpetologists are experts in herpetology, a branch of zoology that deals with the study of reptiles (such as snakes) and amphibians (including frogs).

The herpetologists will extract or milk the venoms of the Russell's viper, Common krait and Spectacled cobra at Nawanshahr on August 25 and 26 and do DNA tests on these specimens.

At present, the available anti-snake venom serums are a cocktail manufactured by deploying venoms extracted from South Indian snakes, specifically from two districts of Tamil Nadu. This cocktail is manufactured from the venoms of the Russell's viper, Saw-scaled viper, Spectacled cobra and Common krait, commonly known as the 'Big Four' of Indian snakes. However, these cocktail serums have not proved very efficacious for snakebites in other parts of India because of difference in snake genetics and prey base that varies from region to region. According to the latest study undertaken by Indian and foreign academics, an estimated 50,000 people die in India every year from snakebite.

Well-known snake-rescue expert Nikhil Sanger of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Nawanshahr, will be the herpetologists' principal task person for their Punjab research. Since venom cannot be carried in a liquid form as it will get contaminated due to bacterial action, the venom samples will be converted into a powder by using a lyophiliser and then flown back to Chennai/Bengaluru by the herpetologists.

"I have collected three specimens each of the viper, krait and cobra for venom extraction by Whitaker and Martin. The Punjab chief wildlife warden has granted written permission to the herpetologists for the collection of 20 viper specimens and 10 specimens each of the cobra and krait. While the six cobra and krait specimens with me are from rescue work, I had to search for the Russell's vipers in their habitat at night. I plan to collect some more vipers for the research," Sanger told HT.

Before the Punjab leg, Martin and Whitaker collected venom samples in Assam, Rajasthan, Kerala, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. "We are still working on getting permissions from some other states. We have received permission from Madhya Pradesh as well," Martin told HT.

Delving on the nature of the project, Martin explains: "The purpose of the study is to determine whether venom from Russell's vipers varies from place to place. There is enough clinical data to support this. However, we don't know geographically where these venoms vary. We are focusing on Russell's viper venom because this is the snake that causes the most amount of damage (to human life and limb)."

The study has a much broader thrust. "We are also looking at venoms from all snakes in every region. One of the most important aspects in the efforts to cut down the numbers of deaths is the creation of an effective anti-venom that is specific to various regions. This is especially important in regions that don't have the same venomous species as the 'Big Four'.

For example, Northeast India has none of the 'Big Four' but is still experiencing snakebite deaths. The region needs its own anti-venom serum. Our field work involves the collection of venom from different parts of the country to be compared to establish if the anti-venom will work against them or not. This research will then dovetail into the production of regionally-specific and potent anti-venom," said Martin.