After being scoffed at, initially, for his website, Indiansnakes.org, and social media page on snakes, Jose Louies’ app Indiansnakes, launched early this year, already has 5,000 users, mainly from rural India. This is a step forward in changing the mindset about snakes, and helping snakebite victims to identify snakes and connecting them with the nearest doctor in the area. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What inspired you to start a website dedicated to Indian snakes?
I have been rescuing snakes as a student and even while working in IT (information technology), before becoming a wildlife conservationist in 2003. I’ve observed that people are petrified by snakes, venomous or not. So, in 2010, I started a website as a free reference point to the diverse species of snakes inhabiting India. It’s only when awareness sets in that snakes won’t be killed.
What was the response to the website when you started?
Many laughed at the idea. However, renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker encouraged my vision. A major challenge was getting people to share photos and descriptions. I came across Vivek Sharma, a young zoology student from Jabalpur, and we were like crazy people discussing snakes online. He is now our in-house expert, as is Shaleen Attre, who heads field-level projects. After the website, a Facebook group was launched. That really got people interested.
Today, the IndianSnakes app is available on Android and iPhone. How has the app evolved?
There are scientific discoveries happening, on-ground workshops and field projects taking place. The app is a huge step forward, a perfect replacement for a field guide being searchable and portable. Launched in February, the Android app has 5,000 users, many from rural India and tier C-D cities. The website too has become popular with over 500 members visiting daily, and the FB group strength has gone up to 20,000. Members are the core strength, who contribute with ideas, photos and info on healthy snake rescues—it’s become a collective mission.
What are the myths and misconceptions associated with snakes, and how are you helping dispel some of these?
Among the biggest problems has been educating people about treating snakebites. Even now, people visit temples, snake charmers and quacks. A World Bank study says India loses 50,000 people annually to snakebites. We now have a WhatsApp group with experts from Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra and more helping members identify snakes and connecting them with the nearest doctor in the area. We also have a snake rescuers’ map on the site, enabling you to choose from 100-200 authentic rescuers. Snake rescue is a highly specialized art performed by trained professionals using proper equipment. However, untrained youngsters are performing rescues, who think it’s a “cool thing”, and snakes are dying in the process. We forbid videos and photos by people who have rescued a snake using bare hands or who hold it as a trophy. Another worry is the influence serials such as Ichhadhari Naagin and Nagmani have. I got a call from a man whose car had run over a snake. He was worried about the snake’s mate seeking him out for revenge. We got Rohan Chakravarty, cartoonist-conservationist, to create a series about myths associated with snakes. Nothing works like humour.
You have adopted hospitals in various parts of India. What work is happening there?
Shortage of anti-venom is a huge problem. Ideally, it should be available in all district hospitals. Doctors, citing the shortage, keep referring patients to another hospital. So, we adopted a hospital in Pithora, 150km from Raipur, which gets above 110 snakebite patients every year. We have connected the hospital directly with Pune-based anti-venom manufacturer Premium Serums and Vaccines Pvt Ltd. It’s a matter of pride for us that in the past two-and-a-half years, all snakebite patients have visited the hospital instead of a snake charmer and not a single one has died of snakebite in the area. This is the model to follow in rural areas. We have adopted two more hospitals in Mandla and Balaghat districts of Madhya Pradesh and are working with the district administration as well.