In the dead of night, Vava Suresh, 38, receives a desperate call from forest officials saying a snake had crept into a house and all occupants had fled. He reached the site in 45 minutes and found a king cobra, the most venomous snake on earth. Finally, he managed to cage the 20-feet long reptile that had swallowed a rat snake and released it in the dense forest in the early hours.
Vava Suresh gets about 25 calls every day from people seeking his help to catch snakes. (Vivek Nair/HT Photo)
When Prince Charles visited Thrissur in Kerala in 2013, he expressed a desire to meet the master conservationist, who had rescued more than 32,000 stranded snakes and suffered 250 bites. “Even an elephant dies within half an hour of a king cobra bite. Then how did you rescue 51 king cobras?”asked the Prince as Vava Suresh demonstrated how he caught snakes without using gadgets or tools. This is a mystery to the medical world as well. Though Suresh has suffered 254 bites, he has been hospitalised only six times, and has been put on the ventilator twice. Doctors have warned that his liver has developed serious problems but Suresh is unmoved though he lost his index finger to a cobra bite in 2005 and lost the movement of his right wrist after another attack. He continues to devote himself to his reptilian friends. Even setbacks in his personal life haven’t deterred him. the woman, whom he married 12 years ago, couldn’t tolerate his passion for reptiles and soon deserted him. Suresh’s love for snakes started when he was 12 years old. Once, when he saw his friends brutally stoning a pair of mating snakes, he was horrified. After completing his schooling, he turned to this interest and has not looked back since. Today, he is a household name in Kerala, where, every year, 40,000 people are bitten and about 60 die.
“Snakes are friendly creatures. No snake attacks anyone without any provocation. If we take their space, where will they go?” he asks in every class he lectures. On an average, he gets about 25 calls every day and travels 200 km to attend to snake-related issues. Due to the increasing number of calls, he now concentrates on venomous ones. “If the snake is poisonous, people kill it fast. The snake is the most misunderstood creature in the world. It plays a key role in eliminating rats and in balancing our ecology. It is the farmer’s best friend,” he adds.
Forest officials and veterinarians often seek his advice. He also takes regular classes for security officials engaged in jungle warfare. Suresh has also performed more than 200 operations on snakes; he cures the injured ones fully before releasing them in the wild. His thatched two-room house in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city is full of ailing snakes.
“He’s a living encyclopaedia on snakes. What is interesting is he does it free of cost. He never uses gadgets so the stray snakes are spared any stress. People like him give us hope,” said famous wildlife photographer Balan Madhavan.
Vava Suresh has received more than a thousand awards. He pumps back all the money that comes with the awards into saving reptiles. Well-wishers and nature lovers also help out with funding. Two years ago, the state government had offered him a job but Suresh declined. “If I take up a job, I won’t be able to devote all my time to my first love. Now, whether it is day or night, I can move on my own,” he says. Suresh also got some offers from West Asia, which he declined.
“When he was on the ventilator, I visited him. I was in tears. The man who saved many reptiles and other animals was dumped in a corner without an attendant,” says Malayalam film actor Bhagyalakshmi. “Leave alone the government, society will have to be more affectionate to this man.” The actor relates how one of her friends, fed up with the palm civet cat menace plaguing their household, had planned to poison the animals. At that time, Suresh had dissuaded them and rescued the cats and released them in the wild.
“He is a role model for those committed to preserve mother earth,” says former minister and MP of Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor.
A strong votary of the Madhav Gadgil report to save the ecology of the Western Ghats, Vava Suresh hopes the central government will do what’s best for the environment. “The government has the guts to rein in the quarry mafia that’s eating into the vitals of our forest wealth. We have to remember the earth is for all, not for human beings alone,” he says. “Like the game of snakes and ladders, where the former is a symbol of downfall, there are many, even among those who are educated, who harbour wrong notions about snakes,” he says. Now, technology professionals of the Thiruvananthapuram IT park have developed an interactive portal for him aptly called ‘King Cobra’. They have also come up with an Android-based application which allows users to post queries on snakes, which Suresh clarifies. A man without material ambitions, Vava Suresh hopes for a world where all living beings can carve out a space for themselves.