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Her ‘hiss’ story

This snake venom researcher may have been brave enough to handle over 500 dangerous snakes, but she’s scared of cows
By Vandana Ramnani | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON NOV 27, 2012 04:01 PM IST

Anita Malhotra is a molecular ecologist involved in research on snake venom at the School of Biological Sciences, Bangor University, Wales in the UK. To date, she’s dealt with over 500 snakes. Her department interacts directly with the anti-venom manufacturers and hospitals to ensure that knowledge of the different types of venom actually reach the end users. It is also collaborating (there are no formal tie-ups through) with a few institutes in India such as the SASTRA university in Tamil Nadu and the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore.

Malhotra studied at the Loreto House in Calcutta up to secondary level, did her A-levels at Trinity Catholic High School, Woodford Green, Essex. She pursued her undergraduate degree at Jesus College, Oxford, where she secured a first class honours degree in zoology during which she undertook an undergraduate expedition to south India, carrying out a faunal survey of Srivilliputtur Reserve Forest. She did her doctorate at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where she worked on Caribbean island lizards. She finally started work on snakes in 1992.

So, what made her so passionate about snakes? It was in her teens that she first saw a snake at close quarters, when Dipak Mitra of the Calcutta Snake Park got it to her school. “Most of the class stampeded to the other end of the room when asked if they wanted to touch one, which made me wonder why such a harmless and very beautiful animal could produce such an extreme reaction and sparked off my interest in snakes,” she recollects.

Those who inspired her to take up venom research included dedicated Indian herpetologists whom she encountered in her early years, such as Dipak Mitra (of course), Romulus Whitaker, JC Daniel and others. Later, her PhD supervisor Roger Thorpe and fellow PhD students, “some of whom I still work with,” were major influences Malhotra also took to the field because she liked being outdoors in the natural environment and chose to do field-based projects whenever possible. “In the case of the Asian pitviper, field work was a necessity as the identification of museum specimens was often inaccurate and there were huge gaps in the distribution of available specimens,” she says.

And has she ever been bitten by a snake? “I have never been bitten by a dangerous snake, although I have been by back-fanged snakes which are now known to be venomous such as Indian green vine snakes. However, these did not produce any kind of reaction and served to teach me to be more careful in the future,” she says.

But was she ever scared of them? Not at all, she says. “Since I grew up in a city where we did not encounter snakes, I don’t think I ever picked up the innate fear that more rural people have of snakes (quite rightly given how dangerous many of them can be). However, that does not mean I was especially brave, quite the contrary!

I tend to view large mammals as more dangerous on the whole, and my family tease me about being scared of cows,” she adds.

And how are dangerous snakes handle? How does one feel touching them? “We actually tend to avoid handling venomous snakes unless absolutely necessary, using hooks, tongs and tubes to make it possible to do it safely when it is necessary. While working in the field, I have come across cobras, king cobras, Russell’s viper (which is considered by many to be the most dangerous snake in the world), coral snakes, and plenty of pit vipers. In my experience, they leave you alone if you do not bother them, and I would only do so if there was a good scientific reason.”

And what were the challenges she faced in her field? Snakes do not respect country borders which meant that for the study of a single species, it would be necessary to go through a huge amount of bureaucracy to apply for permits to work in three or four different countries. Having done all that, there was no guarantee of success as pit vipers can be very difficult to find and keep unsociable hours, being mostly nocturnal.

And her advice to youngsters who wish to get into this field? “Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, get practical experience by volunteering, follow your dream and accept that sometimes this matters more than making a lot of money,” says Malhotra.

In my experience, snakes leave you alone if you do not bother them, and I would only do so if there was a good scientific reason - Anita Malhotra, School of Biological Sciences, Bangor University

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