Parts of Bengal in grip of Tarantula scare, experts say panic baseless

People in parts of West Bengal are killing spiders over fear that they were bit by tarantulas.

india Updated: Jun 01, 2018 12:49 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Tarantula,spiders,West Midnapore
Dozens of people across several districts of West Bengal have reported suspected tarantula bites.(Shutterstock/ Creative image)

Dozens of people across several districts of West Bengal have reported suspected tarantula bites and killed numerous spiders over the fear that their bite is fatal even as zoologists described the panic as unfounded.

At least 30 incidents of suspected bites and sightings have been reported in the past few weeks. People in Purulia, Birbhum, Burdwan, Howrah, East Midnapore, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur districts have reported seeing the spiders and have been killing those that are hairy and large.

West Midnapore district was the first place where people reported spider bites about three weeks ago and villagers from Danton, Debra and Keshiary went to local hospitals complaining of pain, swelling and blackening of areas around the wounds and even respiratory problems.

However, all the bite victims were released from the hospitals in a day or two.

A number of palm-sized and even bigger hairy spiders, mostly black and grey, were handed over to the local forest department staff, while many were killed on the spot.

The scare in Kolkata’s southern suburbs spread to such extent that the chairperson of Rajpur Sonarpur municipality, Pallab Das, asked flower vendors to thoroughly search their consignments arriving from Midnapore.

“Some tarantula species are found in Bengal but it is simply a myth that their bite could prove fatal. One can fall critically ill only due to secondary infections because of improper treatment. Panic causes more trouble for the victim than the bite itself,” director of Zoological Survey of India Kailash Chandra said.

This is not the first time that tarantula scare has gripped West Bengal. Since around 2000, panic has spread in parts of southwestern and some north Bengal districts almost every alternate year just ahead of the monsoon. Arachnologist Sankar Talukdar said this is the mating season for the eight-legged insects.

In 1895, chilobrachys hardwicki or eastern Indian striated burrowing spider was first spotted in Burdwan district. Later, chilobrachys khasiensis was reported from Assam-bordering areas of north Bengal, and theraphosidae chilobrachy, commonly called the Asian smokey earth tiger, seen in the southwestern part of the state.

Poecilotheria miranda, also called Indian/Bengal ornamental, has been listed as critically endangered species. The spiders captured so far from the villages in the state mostly resemble chilobrachys hardwicki.

A 2008 report by S Molur, BK Biswas, and M Siliwal, published in the International Union for Conservation of Nature, noted that chilobrachys hardwicki was straying into human settlements due to loss of habitat.

“The bite of this spider has created fear amongst the locals in West Bengal, and now they are persecuted. As the habitat has degraded over the years more of these spiders are recorded from human habitations, around mines, and areas of lesser disturbances. Habitat loss, fragmentation and mining are primary threats. Due to this, the spiders have started entering human settlements,” the report said.

What concerns the zoologists most is that their killings could push some of the endangered tarantula species towards extinction.

“Neither is tarantula aggressive nor is its bite fatal. On the other hand, this spree to kill spiders could have a lasting impact on environment and ecosystem. Ultimately, agriculture will suffer,” said Tanmay Mahapatra, an epidemiologist and public health researcher.

First Published: Jun 01, 2018 12:49 IST