A study released by the ICMR on the incidence, mortality, morbidity, and socioeconomic burden of snakebites in India claimed snakebites kill more than 46,000 people in India annually. These numbers are colossal. Comparatively, US and Australia report 10 to 12 deaths annually from venomous snakebites.
According to Study Protocols for Knowing Incidence of Snakebites, almost half of all global deaths are due to venomous snakes occurring in India. Only 30% of these bits reach hospitals or medical centers to seek medical treatment. In 2017 World Health Organisation (WHO) included snakebites envenoming to its priority list of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). WHO has also revealed that snakebites cause over 4,00,000 amputations and other permanent disabilities and many go unreported as victims do not seek medical treatment. WHO’s Essential Medical List recommends snake antivenoms to be included in primary health packages in areas where snake bite occurs.
Also Read: Covid-19 tragedy and missing death reports in India creating a new stir
In India, around 90% of snakebites are caused by the big four crawlers; Indian cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper, and saw-scaled viper. These are the living members of a lineage that evolved in the Triassic period 200-250 million years ago. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) revealed that about one-fifth of reptile species are threatened with extinction. King Cobra has been listed as Vulnerable and large-scaled pit viper is listed as near threatened in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The Eastern Ghats in India are a discontinuous range of mountains and have an assortment of habitats. The world’s longest venomous snake, King cobra is found here. However, snakes have been an object of superstition and fear in India. Such fear of snakes has developed deep intolerance of snakes among locals. The current solution for mitigating this snake crisis is the indiscriminate killing of snakes. Moreover, the habitat destruction caused by mining and unsustainable agricultural practices has also threatened this specie. There is an urgent need to address the human-snake conflicts before the current threats extirpate this iconic specie
Snakes Thrills; But Does It Really Kills?
Maintaining high levels of biodiversity is key to all life on Earth. These middle-order predators keep natural ecosystems working and without them, the number of prey species would multiply to unnatural levels. Moreover, if snakes are killed in large numbers, the predators will have to struggle for food, destroying the stability of the ecosystem.
Snake venoms have been used as medical tools for thousands of years, especially in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. Cobra venom is used to treat joint pains, and arthritis; four Viperid snake venom enzymes are used in diagnostic tools; many other snake venoms are under preclinical and clinical trials. Snake venoms can be an essential source of new principle components in drug discovery.
Why India Needs A Strict Policy To Address Snake Vulnerability?
According to Volza’s Export data, snake venom export shipments from India stood at 1.5K till November 2022. India is among the top 3 exporters of snake venom with 1,599 shipments followed by South Africa and the United Kingdom. Interestingly, India exports most of its produce to Pakistan, Ghana, and Nigeria. Despite the legal doors open to snake venom trade, ‘Siliguri corridor’ remains a preferred conduit for smugglers of wildlife-origin goods. The 120-km stretch if NH31 that traverses northern West Bengal with Assam in the East is easy passage for smugglers. Recently, on November 22, 2022, BSF seized a jar with 2.14 kg of snake venom valued at Rs 17 crores from the Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal.
In India, snakes are protected as wild animals under various schedules of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. In 2013, the Maharashtra Forest department decided to allow venom extraction from the snakes rescued from human localities. Although the decision evoked sharp reactions from environmentalists who thought it would encourage the snake parts trade, the state government aimed to reduce the illegal venom trade.
Recently, Tamil Nadu Forest Department has formed an expert committee to streamline the entire snake venom trade. The committee shall comprise herpetologists, a trade expert, and socio-economic expert to generate datasets on snake population density.
The government must address that steps taken to capture snakes for venom may harm biodiversity. Too much extraction can degrade biodiversity. Moreover, the venom composition of snakes vary from geographical location. There is an urgent need to study the different venoms of snakes from different regions. This will be useful to make region-specific anti-venoms. Different forest departments can do data collection, sampling, and report to MoEFCC. Health Departments can also utilise this data to procure anti-venoms and provide in areas prone to snake bites.
MoHFW must address that there is no specific treatment strategy for snakebites. Treatments are dependent on Polyvalent antivenom, that are still having adverse effects on the human body. Also, there is a need to develop a detection strategy rather than relying on conventional non-specific detection systems and also symptomatic venom detection systems. This can be done only by proper documentation of Venom-bite cases, including all venomous species like Snakes, Scorpions, Spiders, Conesnails, etc.