At the manicured residence of the Sandhawalias at kothi number 8, Sector 5, Chandigarh, a Common mormon butterfly flits in the mellowing sun, drawn time and again to orange flowers of cultivated lantana. The neighbour’s kothi is contrasting: dank walls and garden run over by weeds, rat holes and shrubbery. Only elegant, wild Rain lilies sporting yellow, bobbing flowers on lissom green stems, and renewed afresh by late September rains, redeem that unruly garden. A dense hedge serves as the line of control between the two gardens. Now, to the violent outcome of such a sublime-grotesque setting.
At 9:30pm on September 26, an epic encounter erupted between a highly-venomous Russell’s viper and the Sandhawalias’ dogs: Merlin, Reamus and Abari. The cornered viper had infiltrated the Sandhawalias’ garden, and faced the dogs with its back to the hedge. Not the one to flee, the viper kept the hounds at bay for an hour. The descriptions were vivid; the furrowed earth at the battle site revealing.
Simran Sandhawalia said when a flashlight was shone, the snake’s colour had resembled the fading, fawn-coloured Toyota Corolla standing in their driveway, the coils stacked nearly a foot high and chained with menacing dark rings! The doughty snake’s hisses, recounted domestic help Pramod, could be heard outside the gates and he likened these to a pressure cooker threatening to burst and signalling the ‘rajmahs’ were overdone!
Ultimately, the coiled, lunging viper bit Merlin, an English Labrador, four times on the face and neck before retreating to the neighbour’s sanctuary. Merlin was speedily dispatched to veterinarian Dr JC Kochar. However, snake venom anti-serum could not be secured either at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research or the Sector-16 Government Multi Specialty Hospital or at top chemists, till Simran’s untiring efforts located a Manimajra-based distributor. Four vials (at Rs 435 each) were procured 48 hours after the bites. One vial was administered but Merlin is badly hit with damage to kidneys/liver, ulceration, facial swelling, fever and unmitigated vomiting. Vet prognosis: Merlin may just survive because he is youthful, heavyset and resilient.
There was some cold comfort for Merlin. At 11:30pm on September 30, the domestic helps discovered the viper dead on the road outside, crushed by a vehicle. The viper’s examination revealed it had been bitten just once (on the tail) in the face-off with three pedigreed, hunting dogs!
CHHATBIR’S PROUD PAPAS!
The Chhatbir zoo authorities claim a record: ensuring 100% survival of 17 Gharials born in captivity in June 2013. This success was leveraged on the decision to shift hatchlings immediately after birth from the regular display enclosure to the zoo’s hospital under the care of chief veterinarian Dr MP Singh and his team of John Daniel, Raghbir Singh and Harnek Singh. Gharials are listed as a critically endangered species in the wilderness.
“The zoo had failed to preserve earlier batches of hatchlings as these were retained in the regular display enclosures where birds killed some hatchlings, feed was incorrect and close monitoring could not be sustained. However, within the hospital, we preserved the temperature at 20°C, humidity at 70-75% and ensured daily basking without glass enclosures. Instead of feeding insects lured by lights, as was the earlier practice, we procured live fish from Rupnagar farms with great difficulty. The 17 hatchlings have survived two harsh winters and even weaker specimens have done well,” informed a proud zoo director, Manish Kumar.
Dr Singh delves further: cleaning the pond for hatchlings with fresh water sans chemicals, strict adherence to hygiene protocols by vet staff, provision of 1,000-1,500 fish of apt size thrice a week, a well-ventilated enclosure and ensuring that no person or predator could access hatchlings. Stress can take a heavy toll on hatchlings in the first two years.
I reached eminent reptile conservationist Rom Whitaker for comment on the zoo’s claim and his recommendation on when hatchlings could be released in the Beas upstream of Harike sanctuary. “They could be right, hard to say really,” commented Whitaker on the claim of being the first breeding centre in India to ensure a 100% survival. “Gharials should be 3-4 years and at least 1-1.5m long before their release into the wilderness. If they have been kept in ponds and fed dead fish all their captive lives, they may take some time to learn to deal with river currents and catch live fish; there could be high mortality if swept downstream,” cautioned Whitaker.