Wildbuzz: Rumbles from a cobra grave

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 30, 2015 16:52 IST

Rumbles from a cobra grave

Old shikaris blame contamination of the agrarian eco-system by pesticides, insecticides, rodenticides and chemical fertilizers for the decline in numbers of partridges (francolins) in Punjab and Haryana. Agrarian species such as peacocks, snakes and frogs have suffered this assault by farmers, who tend to overdose crops and contaminate water. This “silent spring” of annihilation in the “green fields” of humanity’s progress and food security was brought to the fore recently in a startling episode in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. A farmer reported that a Spectacled cobra had entered a hole near his hut. The unusual fact was the cobra looked healthy but did not spread its hood and was painfully slow. It was actually dragging itself on a last journey to a secretive grave.

Wildlife consultant Vishal Santra dug out the hole and discovered the cobra, dead. On opening up the cobra, Santra found internal bleeding near the heart, and rodent hair residues in the stomach. Though Santra did not possess the means to go in for detailed tissue analysis or viscera autopsy, qualified technical opinion held that the cobra may have consumed a rodent that ingested a rodenticide laced with an anti-coagulant such as bromadiolone. Santra has dug up many such snakes. If not rodenticide specifically, chemical toxicity is at the root of such deaths.

Had it not been for Santra, the cobra in its burial chamber would have borne no epitaph, told no dissenting tales. Just another unclaimed body. Just another brick in the Auschwitzian wall.


September has seen controversial claims advanced on wildlife “discoveries”. On September 8, snake-catchers deployed by the UT forest and wildlife department made a stupendous claim that they had rescued a King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) from Mahavir Singh’s house in Mauli Jagran. However, the snake was actually a Spectacled cobra (Naja naja), found commonly in the tricity. The nearest region where the King cobra is to be found is Uttarakhand. Interestingly, the snake-catchers — Gaffar, Ashraf and Mehdi Hassan — were traditional langur handlers deployed by the department to scare away monkeys. However, langur services have been outlawed and these men have been put to ferreting snakes from homes. Sensational claims from such new converts to snake catching are, therefore, unsurprising!

Then came the claim of “two new butterflies found in Chandigarh” by Kulbhushan Kanwar, a retired Punjab government official who manages the Facebook page on butterflies for the department. He describes himself as a senior citizen engaged in butterfly research. In his claim of September 16 — duly endorsed by the chief wildlife warden (CWW) — Kanwar says he and Tilak Sharma discovered the Spangle and Red eye skipper butterflies in Sector 49. However, wildlife photographer Jasbir S Randhawa contradicted it by citing his record of the Spangle from March 7, 2014, at Butterfly Park, Sector 26, and publicly posted the same day on his Google+ page. Randhawa has written to the CWW contradicting Kanwar’s claim.

Lepidopterist and author Dr Virinder K Walia of Panjab University said this claim of “two new butterflies found in Chandigarh” must be qualified. “These two species are not found in Chandigarh. They may have wandered into Chandigarh from the Shivaliks or Himachal Pradesh as vagrants or migrants. If these two butterflies reside in Chandigarh, then claimants must identify the host plants where these butterflies breed. Only then can we say Chandigarh falls in these species’ range of distribution,” said Dr Walia.

Commenting on the two specimens, Bhimtal-based expert Peter Smetacek told this writer: “This is the West Himalayan sub-species of the Spangle. It rarely ventures below 600m, since its larval host plant, Timur Zanthoxylum Armatum, grows at higher elevations.”

Earlier, Kanwar had made a similar “first-record” public claim: of a Tawny coster in the Chandigarh area on November 26, 2014. However, Dr Walia contradicted that by furnishing his photo record of the Tawny coster from the Fitness Trail Garden, Sector 10, Chandigarh, from May 29, 2012.


The owl cage’s lock point at Chhatbir. (PHOTO: VIKRAM JIT SINGH)

The key to understanding the dynamics of the theft of two Indian great horned or Eagle owls (Bubo bubo bengalensis) from Chhatbir zoo on September 12 lies in the fact of the thieves changing the lock after exiting the cage. The probe has zeroed onto the main gatekeeper who retained the keys of cages at night and the aviary’s chowkidar, besides a few other staffers. Assistant sub-inspector Tilak Raj of the Zirakpur police station, who is the investigating officer, has requisitioned mobile phone call records to hem in the culprits. The probe is being supervised by SAS Nagar’s superintendent of police (detective), and the senior superintendent of police is in consultation with zoo director Manish Kumar. Evidence and interrogations indicate the theft was not a classic “break-in”.

Raj’s probe points to two or more “expert” thieves (not zoo staff) entering the cage smoothly to grab these large owls, which are active at night and difficult to handle.

“These thieves may have entered the zoo premises during the day, gone into hiding when it closed and proceeded to the owl cage at a given time. The original key came to them from an insider as there is no evidence of the original lock being broken or noises made to that effect. They changed the cage lock after the theft and took the original lock away. This was done apparently to delay discovery of missing owls. But the deeper motive was to mislead on how they had managed to open the original lock. The administration’s negligence is that duplicate or triplicate keys of all locks were retained by the ground staff/zookeepers. The theft took place between 8-10 pm when the chowkidar was on another beat and it was also his dinner time,” said Raj.

Kumar says one employee is under grave suspicion as he was the prime suspect in the theft of Red sand boas in 2013. Since 2011, five zoo owls have been stolen. Owls are in demand for Laxmi pooja and tantrik rituals.


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