Saviour of serpents

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Snakes are not the enemy of humans, even though our fear of serpents could tell us otherwise, but who are you going to call when a venomous snake is in your home and you have no idea what to do?

Bhasuru Prabashwara Dissanayake is giving a solution to that very problem. Handling snakes, even venomous ones from his teens, Bhasuru is always on-call to help catch any venomous snakes that wander in your house, releasing them in protected forest reserves far away from human settlements.

We visited Bhasuru at Habarakada, where he lives with his family. Welcomed inside, we instantly noticed a few boxes with vents drilled into them in the middle of the living room. Walking a little closer, one box emanated a loud hissing noise. It seems Bhasuru was prepared for our meeting.

For some, even knowledge of a venomous snakes passing through their garden is enough to set off alarm bells. But for Bhasuru and his parents, it seems to be a reality that they have all adjusted to. In fact, until their release, most of the serpents are kept in a room in their home, allowed to freely occupy the space with very little disturbance.

“I release these snakes in forest reserves far from any human settlement,” Bhasuru explained. “But travelling these distances every time I capture a snake isn’t practical, which is why I wait until there are a few captured before I take them to be released.”

Thanks Discovery Channel

“When I was really small, I used watch a lot of programmes on the Discovery Channel,” he narrated. “That’s probably where I started to have an interest in reptiles. Seeing how they handle snakes definitely was an influence, but I’ve always wanted to touch and know what they felt like.”

Bhasuru held his first snake when he was about 12 years old, which was a harmless Rat Snake (Ptyus mucosa). “I remember covered my hand with a plastic bag and grabbing it,” Bhasuru recounted.

Teaching himself to handle snakes, Bhasuru would soon dare to touch a venomous snake, a Hump-nosed Pit Viper at the age of 14. And Bhasuru never stopped from there, continuing to catch and handle more snakes, including the deadly venomous ones such as the cobras that now temporarily occupy a room in his home.

Snake rescue

Of course, news of Bhasuru naturally spread among the community through word of mouth, and before long, he started getting calls for help whenever a venomous serpent would slither their way inside someone’s home.

“One time, I got a call concerning a cobra that was up a 20-foot tall rambutan tree,” he recalled. “It was in the middle of the night, and there was no safe way to get the snake down without taking a big risk. I ended up using a stick to slowly get the snake to climb down with some pushing and prodding, until it got down about to about 10-feet off the ground. I had to get on a stool, put a chair on top of that and finally capture the snake,” he said.

“Then there was a recent thing that happened, where the snake had gone up the rainwater pipe which connected to the roof. We literally had to take each section of the pipe apart, but the snake would just climb higher,” he laughed. “By the end of it, the snake was all the way up and we had to remove that entire section of pipe to finally capture the snake, which took us I think at least three or four hours.”

Working alone, Bhasuru mainly responds to calls for help in the Western Province due to practical limitations.

“Cobras aren’t a protected species, meaning that even if you call the wildlife authorities, they’re usually busy handling something else and rarely ever respond a call, which is where I come in,” he explained. “Of course, if the call happened to be regarding a protected species such as a python, I would immediately tell them to call the wildlife authorities and to call me back only if they aren’t able to respond to the call.”

This dangerous work that Bhasuru is involved in isn’t without its risks. Bhasuru has suffered multiple bites by both venomous and deadly venomous snakes over the years, but has lived to tell the tale. It goes without saying, but Bhasuru’s work involves some serious risks, and shouldn’t be replicated without some serious consideration to these facts.

Taking out some of the snakes he is temporarily holding until release, we observed Bhasuru carefully and dexterously handle the serpents from a safe distance. Knowing that these snakes are wild creatures and not domesticated ones certainly was reason to feel a little nervous.

The key, according to Bhasuru, is to handle the serpent without stressing or harming it, without causing any reason for it to feel fear or any reason to attack.

Fuelled by passion

Bhasuru decision to take on those risks, was his own decision driven by a passion to understand snakes better. That has led Bhasuru to pursue an education in the subject as well. He is following a Bachelor’s degree, focusing on zoology, and is already involved with conservation efforts and researches involving the study of snakes.

What if I’m bitten?

“The first thing you need to do is to remain calm, and if it is someone else who was bitten, to help them stay calm as well,” Bhasuru explained. “Panicking would only increase your heart rate and pump the toxin through your body faster. Wash the wound in running water, loosen up any restrictive clothing that may be worn and take the person to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.”

What if a snake gets in?

We wanted to know Bhasuru’s advice on how a person should respond if they spot a venomous snake in their garden or inside their home.

“Of course, I would encourage to not kill it. But I understand that although people like us care about snakes, an ordinary person might not feel the same when it’s in their house. Because their priority should and always will be to protect their family,” he said.

“But killing them is actually counterproductive. Killing one snake isn’t going to solve the problem, and if the snake you killed is a female, her pheromones would immediately attract more male snakes to her, making the problem worse.

“People usually kill a snake because they believe there is no other alternative,” he continued. “What I and other snake rescuers do is provide that alternative for them. In that way, both your home’s and the animal’s safety is ensured.

“If a snake enters your garden, keep a close watch on it at all times from a safe distance. And call for a snake rescuer. For me at the most it would take about an hour to get there. Until then, all you have to do is keep an eye on the creature and confirm where it is.”

Not your enemy

“It’s natural to have a fear of snakes, but we should remember that out of the 108 species of snakes that live in Sri Lanka, only a few species are capable of causing serious harm to a human,” Bhasuru pointed out. “And with proper medical treatment, the chance of losing a life is even slimmer.

“A vast majority of snakes are actually useful and important for humans,” he continued. “There are many snakes which prey on rodents and other pests that spread deadly infections such as Leptospirosis, saving people’s lives. These creatures prevent the spread of disease and pests.

“Snakes control the population of other snake species as well. For example, cobras eat other venomous snakes such as vipers, maintaining balance in the environment.”

Solving a problem

Bhasuru aims to continue his work rescuing snakes that might slither into people’s homes. “As I said before, we need to give an alternative to people rather than instructing them not kill snakes when they spot one,” he opined.

He hopes to grow his efforts and operations in the future, while also contributing to the field of herpetology and the conservation of snakes in Sri Lanka. “There’s a big gap in this field of study,” he explained. “And this is what I love to do.”

(Pix by J. Weerasekara)

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage