Young and fearless: They display nerves of steel to rescue snakes in Uttar Pradesh

19-year-old Prachi is perhaps youngest woman snake rescuer in Uttar Pradesh. She is part of a brave group which has more members who tackle the serpentine challenge with poise
(From left) Aditya Tiwari, Prachi Tiwari and Devyani Singh rescuing a snake in Lucknow. (Deepak Gupta/HT Photo)
(From left) Aditya Tiwari, Prachi Tiwari and Devyani Singh rescuing a snake in Lucknow. (Deepak Gupta/HT Photo)
Updated on Aug 10, 2021 12:16 AM IST
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ByOliver Fredrick, Lucknow

Quick reflexes, a cool and razor-sharp brain, nerves of steel and a fearless heart — that is what it takes to be a skilful snake rescuer. And 19-year-old Prachi Tiwari has all these traits. No wonder, many foresters say about her: “Don’t go by her delicate, skinny look, she can do things that most of us can’t.”

Prachi is perhaps the youngest female snake catcher-cum-rescuer who is part of one of Uttar Pradesh’s oldest snake/reptile-rescuing-helplines operating in Lucknow and the adjoining districts.

The foresters’ praise of her skills received further endorsement during a rescue operation at the Lucknow zoo a couple of months ago.

On getting a SOS call reporting the presence of a thick python in the zoo’s open area, the 19-year-old was rushed to the spot and took control of the situation. It was found that the snake was a thick Indian rock python, around six feet in length and weighed several kilograms.

The zoo staffers were overheard saying: “She is too young to handle the snake.”

Undeterred and armed with a hook and bag, she successfully rescued the python.

“I was just focusing on the snake. I want to tell people it’s not your body’s constitution but your skills that matter while rescuing a snake,” she said.

In her almost a year-long stint as a snake rescuer, she has saved around 12 non-venomous snakes including python, rat snake, checkered keelback (commonly known as Asiatic water snake) and common kukri. Prachi, who aspires to be an IFS (Indian Forest Service) officer, became part of the helpline in June last year only after celebrating her 18th birthday. “Currently, I am allowed to handle only non-venomous snakes. Soon, I would be tackling the venomous ones as well,” she said. Prachi is the sister of Aditya Tiwari, who owns an NGO Paryavarnam that runs the snake rescue helpline. She gives the entire credit to her brother Aditya and her father for bringing her close to nature.

She, however, is not the lone female snake rescuer in a special group of 12. In all, about half-a-dozen others are part of it. Devyani Singh, 31, is the senior most among female snake rescuers with expertise in rescuing the venomous snakes.

In her almost six-year career, Devyani has rescued more than 80 snakes and other reptiles.

Cobra, Common Krait, Russel’s Viper and saw-scaled viper are a few of venomous snakes that she rescued. Admitting that rescuing poisonous snakes is not easy, she recalled a most recent experience.

“We got an SOS call from Parag Dairy near Bhaisakund, Lucknow, informing about a snake on a battery-loaded truck. We rushed to the spot and asked the staffers to stay away. On boarding the truck, we came to know that it was a cobra that was hiding between the batteries. While we were trying to bag the snake, a hiss was heard from another corner. To our surprise, we noticed another male cobra that was in the attacking mode. It took me more than half-an-hour to tackle the situation. This rescue operation would be remembered throughout one’s life. There are several such stories to tell,” she said.

She said she was thankful to her mother Rooma Chauhan, a retired official of National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) for motivating her throughout. “I know how tough it is for a mother to allow a daughter to pursue her dream of rescuing snakes. But I am thankful to her as she always motivated me,” she added. She said she would like to continue pursuing a career in the same field and would continue to live up the motto of the Paryavarnam helpline that is to prevent human-animal conflict and to minimise the snake bite cases to zero.

Aditya Tiwari, a nature enthusiast from Lucknow, launched the helpline—8090667166 in 2012.

Instead of climbing career ladder, he chose to save snakes

Rescuing snakes, especially venomous ones, is no cakewalk. Aditya Tiwari, a nature enthusiast, knows this all too well. Yet, he remains unfazed by the challenge.

A consultant to the “snake house” at Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Zoological Garden (Lucknow Zoo), he said he preferred nature conservation to better job opportunities. Hence, he was trying to conserve nature in his own way through the human-animal conflict helpline. Aditya Tiwari runs the NGO Paryavarnam and launched the helpline—8090667166 in 2012.

In the nine years since inception, Tiwari and his group have rescued more than 2500 snakes and other reptiles. However, his journey as a conservationist was not easy.

Tiwari gave the entire credit of bringing him close to nature to his father, a retired government employee and a staunch believer in Lord Shiva.

“I remember the short trips to the temple where my father used to touch the snakes with the snake charmers. He used to ask me to touch them as well. He also used to tell me the names of the snakes and about their habitat,” Aditya recalled.

His curiosity about how snakes could move despite not having legs attracted him to the reptiles.

Out of curiosity, he said he read all the literature about snakes available on the internet and had watched all the shows related to snakes on wildlife channels to learn about them.

Tiwari was in class 9 when he had his first encounter with a live snake at home.

“It was a sultry afternoon when my mother shouted.... and my sister came rushing to me, saying that there was a snake in the house. Having watched so many television shows based on snake rescue, I was treating myself to be no less than an international snake expert. I immediately assessed the situation, went into the kitchen, tried to calm down my mother and asked about the colour and location of the snake,” he said.

“The seemingly professional behaviour of mine surprised my parents, too, who just stood by to watch what I was about to do next. I took my mother’s kitchen tong and my socks. I took hold of the snake with the help of the tong and guided it into the socks. The job was done. That was no less than a Eureka moment for me but before I could expect a few words of appreciation, the snake escaped from the tiny hole in the socks and I received a thorough scolding from my parents,” he recalled.

Recollecting the maiden rescue operation, he said the first call was from Chhata Mill in Bakshi Ka Talab (BKT) area of Lucknow where a snake was sighted in a granary.

“We rushed to the site. On enquiring, we concluded that it was a cobra. I remember that I was holding a tong and I have asked another volunteer, who was holding a torch to assist me. I managed to get hold of the snake, using a tong and then we heard a loud hiss, following which the volunteer ran away. It was pitch dark in the granary again and I was left with a cobra in my hand. I at once threw the cobra to one corner and ran out of the granary. Though it was an unsuccessful rescue operation, it taught me a lot,” he said. After gaining experience for seven years, he registered his own NGO Paryavarnam and took the snake conservation work to a new level.

Tiwari’s group has 12 members at present and six of the snake rescuers are women.

“Yes, that’s true. We have 50% boys and 50% girls on our team. The youngest girl in our team is 19,” he said.

Giving a brief idea about the “daredevils”, he said almost all the group members were professionals working together voluntarily out of interest.

“We first teach them how to identify snakes or any reptile. This helps the volunteer in learning more about the particular animal which further eases the rescue process.” He said the motto of the group is to prevent human-animal conflict.

During the monsoon, the call load increases to 10 to 15 calls a day. On regular days, the group receives around three to six calls a day.

“On getting a call, the first thing we ask the caller is to stay away and keep watch. Then we note down the address, ask about the colour and other details of the snake or any reptile and tell them to keep watch. On the other hand, we prepare our team and rush to the spot. Once we reach, we make sure that the area is clear. With the help of hook and gunny bag, we ensure that the snake is rescued safely. Once rescued, we inform the forest department that ensures that the animal is released in the forest area.”

Tiwari said more than handling snakes, it was tougher to convince his family members, especially his mother, to let him continue his work.

“No doubt, it’s my father who brought me closer to nature but it’s actually tough to convince them to allow me to continue rescuing snakes. However, after so many years, now they are ok. But I know that somewhere within, they don’t want me to expose myself to the dangerous task of rescuing snakes that can cost one life,” he said.

Seal AC ducts, plug manholes to keep snakes at bay

Snakes were the most peace-loving creatures, nature enthusiast Aditya Tiwari said.

“They won’t harm you unless you harm them or if the snake thinks that you may harm them. In the monsoon, snakes generally come out in search of rats or frogs. And the chances of a snake entering the house increase if you reside in greener areas, including the Cantonment,” he added. The best way to prevent snakes’ entry into houses was to seal cracks, holes, plug manholes, AC ducts leading into the houses as it often acted as a hideout for snakes, he added.

“On seeing a snake, do not panic. Maintain safe distance and inform us,” he said

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Thursday, December 02, 2021