Ladies, gentlemen, and all snakeaholics, once again a warm welcome to the Snakeman’s Lair. Our guest of today doesn’t need an elaborate introduction- his CV speaks for him, with research experiences in three countries and multiple scholarly publications at the “ripe” age of 23. I first came across our guest of the day’s work on social media, where he shares incredibly insightful content from his day-to-day activities as a field herpetologist. It is safe to say that I was captivated at first sight- I mean, his studies span nearly every aspect of snake ecology and natural history, from diet to reproduction and activity patterns, across three continents! For this and many other reasons, I will now give the floor to the man himself- young herpetologist Yatin Kalki.
1) Here we are, Yatin- welcome to the Lair! So, right now you are working as a snake rescuer in your hometown of Bangalore, India- one of the most populous cities in the country. How frequent is human-snake conflict in such a large urban area?
During the monsoon season, I get an average of four rescue calls per day and during the dry season I usually get a call once every two days. Most people think that snakes are coming into the city’s residential areas from surrounding natural areas, but the truth is that these snakes live in the city just like we do. Some species manage to thrive in the urban environment, feeding on the abundant rodents and living out of sight in stormwater drains and burrows. These snakes sometimes find their way into peoples’ homes, which then causes human-snake conflict. Snake rescuers like myself help remediate this conflict by capturing and relocating these snakes away from residential areas. Considering the number of snake rescuers in the city, the size of Bangalore, and the fact that I only operate in a small area in eastern Bangalore, there are probably several thousands of snake rescue calls attended in the city each year.
Two of the snakes I encounter most frequently on rescue calls are the Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja) and the Russell’s Viper (Daboia russelii), which both belong to India’s ‘Big Four’ venomous snakes which cumulatively cause more than 50,000 human deaths annually. However, bites in the urban areas are relatively rare and the snakebite epidemic in India is mostly rural in nature.
2) To my (admittedly very limited) knowledge, snakes are revered and worshipped in some regions of India, but actively persecuted in others. What kinds of scenarios do you find yourself in most often as a snake rescuer, in terms of people’s attitudes and beliefs towards the animals?
Snakes make multiple appearances in Hindu mythology and are highly regarded by many communities. Cobras have a high cultural significance, so they are not often killed by people. Most other snake species, on the other hand, are usually killed on sight, even the harmless ones. Though cultural beliefs have saved the lives of many a cobra, these actions might eventually be detrimental to the people and to the ecosystem as a whole. By killing harmless snakes (like Ratsnakes (Ptyas mucosa)) that directly compete with cobras for prey and resources, people may end up increasing the density of cobras in their vicinity, thus increasing the likelihood of a dangerous snakebite.
Many of the people who call me are so afraid of snakes that they don’t even get close enough to see what kind it is. To these people, the cultural significance of snakes isn’t very relevant. They just see snakes as pests which need to be removed. On the bright side, the overall awareness about snakes has been increasing and more and more often, I’m meeting people who are genuinely interested in learning more about these animals.
3) Recently, I have been following with great interest the work you have been conducting at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, where you radio-track the activity and movement patterns of king cobras. Could you tell us more about how radio-telemetry works and what your daily working routine entails?
I currently work as a research associate on the King Cobra Ecology and Conservation project at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. We have implanted a number of king cobras with radio transmitters and released them back into the wild. The transmitter emits a signal which we can pick up with a receiver and antenna and use to pinpoint the location of the snake. We typically spend 10-12 hours a day following each snake and observing its behaviour. These observations give us important data on the ecology, natural history and spatial movements of the kings. At times, the job can be extremely strenuous and physically demanding since we follow the kings through the jungle and all other types of habitat in rain or shine. Conversely, it can also be quite uneventful when the king is resting in a burrow for 15 days after a meal and all we do is wait nearby and collect weather data all day. All of that said, this is probably the best job I’ve ever had. The amazing behaviours and places the king allows us to experience are unmatched. Watching a king cobra chase, catch, and eat another snake is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed. During the breeding season we also get to see our male kings pursue mates and combat other males that cross their paths. As far as studies on snakes go, this study is highly involved and intensive as we have eyes on the snake every second that it’s active. As a result, we are able to observe behaviours that no-one else has witnessed and collect high quality data on this secretive species.
4) Probably this should have been the first questions, but maybe it fits even more now that we have discussed your work already: what sprouted your passion for snakes and their conservation?
I’ve always had a soft spot for snakes since I grew up watching Rom Whitaker, Jeff Corwin, Steve Irwin and Nigel Marven, but I didn’t get into herping or herpetology until I was in highschool. Snakes were someimes seen in my neighbourhood and whenever one of my neighbours killed a snake I would get really upset. The level of misinformation and fear surrounding snakes was just astounding and I really wanted to do something about it. At around 16, I decided to learn how to capture snakes so I could relocate them and prevent my neighbours from killing them. At this time, I started hitting the books, learning as much as I could about the snakes in India, and soon I had developed what some may call an obsession with snakes. Since snakes were generally hard to find in residential areas, I would go looking for them in the scrub forest near my house. As I started catching and photographing the snakes I found, I gained a reputation in my neighbourhood and soon my neighbours started calling me whenever they had snakes near their homes. Then, during the course of my undergraduate degree, I learned a lot about the scientific side of wildlife conservation at which point I knew I wanted to do more than just rescue snakes in my neighbourhood, so I started pursuing herpetology a career.
5) India ranks first in the world in terms of snakebite victims per year, with over 50,000 fatalities. What are the reasons behind such staggering numbers and which measures need to be implemented to mitigate the crisis?
The number of snakebite fatalities in India is so alarming that snakebite has recently been classified as neglected tropical disease by the WHO. The majority of these bites happen in a rural and agricultural setting. Many farmers get bitten in their fields while tending their crops and many more receive bites after accidentally stepping on snakes while walking outdoors at night. After being bitten, many refuse to go to the hospital and opt instead for traditional remedies, which are usually not based in science.
The key to reducing snakebite mortality is two-fold: prevent the snakebite itself and then prevent death if a snakebite has occurred. To reduce the risk of being bitten by a snake, people should avoid walking barefoot in vegetation and always carry a torch after dark. In general, being cautious and aware of your surroundings goes a long way when in a snake-inhabited area. If a medically significant snakebite has occurred, the only cure is antivenom, which is available at most hospitals in India. People shouldn’t waste time with traditional remedies, they should instead apply the appropriate first aid and get to a hospital as soon as possible. As for as measures to mitigate this crisis, improvements in medical infrastructure would be great, but more importantly, we need to educate the people about snakebite and create more awareness about the dos and don’ts.
6) Aside from your home country, you’ve also studied and done research abroad- in the US and Ecuador, to be exact. As for the former, what made you decide to continue your education in an entirely different continent?
After high school, I knew I wanted to study wildlife conservation, but all the courses being offered in India were only at the master’s or PhD level. I then thought it would be a good idea to broaden my horizons and go abroad for my undergraduate degree, which ended up being a great decision. At the University of Illinois, I met a number of like-minded people and learned a lot of useful information, not only about herps but about ecosystems as a whole. I got to conduct independent research while working for the Illinois Natural History Survey in the herpetological museum and I also assisted with several ongoing research projects on snakes, birds, plants and even mussels. Some of the skills and knowledge I gained through those endeavours even allowed me to turn some of the previous data I had collected on snake rescue calls in Bangalore into legitimate scientific studies.
7) Now on to Ecuador: what were you studying on the Galapagos islands and in the depths of the Amazon, and how would you relate your research/work experiences across three continents?
I went to Ecuador on a semester-abroad program offered by my university along with my friend, Tristan Schramer, who is also a herper. We spent one month on the mainland and another three months on the Galapagos islands. We had our regular coursework, which included some awesome field trips, but we really wanted to make the most of our time in Ecuador. Early on, we reached out to herpetologists who were conducting research there and asked if we could assist them. Dr. Luis Ortiz-Catedral allowed us to accompany him on a three-day expedition to an uninhabited island where we assisted a population survey of the Galapagos racers, to ultimately determine if the population is large enough to relocate some individuals onto islands where they had been extirpated by feral cats. We also assisted Dr. Kathryn Tosney with marine iguana surveys on an inhabited island to count the proportion of juveniles and measure recruitment. At the end of the program, Tristan and I decided to stay back for a few more weeks and explore the Amazon. During that time, we did some of our own herping and also assisted the herpetologists from Tropical Herping with surveys of regions in the Amazon.
8) To end our interview, let’s have a look at the future: where do you see yourself working in the long-term, and what are your main goals and aspirations for your career?
At this stage, that’s a pretty tough question for me to answer. The work I’m doing right now is a ton of fun, but I would like to join a master’s or PhD program soon. All I can say is that I really like working in the field of herpetology and I would like to ultimately make some significant contributions to the conservation of snakes and other wildlife.
Thank you so much for joining us in the Lair today, Yatin! I’m sure we’ll keep hearing about you and your research for a long time. As for us, the Snakeman’s Lair remains the place to be- stay tuned for the next episode, with another special guest!