Natural World (1983–…): Season 30, Episode 13 - Natural World - full transcript

From the giant King Cobra to the tiny sawscaled viper, India is home to many of the world's deadliest snakes. Now a new report has revealed that India is in the middle of a snakebite epidemic of epic proportions, with a loss of human life far in excess of any official figures. Armed with more than forty years of field experience, snake expert Romulus Whitaker and his team set out on a journey around India to investigate the natural history behind these chilling new statistics and to see what can be done to help India's people and ultimately, its snakes.

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Ever since the Garden of Eden,

humans and snakes have had
a difficult relationship.

And nowhere more so
than here, India.

One of the world's
most crowded countries,

and home to over one billion people.

A recent scientific survey
has confirmed

what some have long suspected.

India is facing a hidden health
problem of epidemic proportions.

It's on a collision course
with its snake population,

and the human casualty count is far,
far greater than official estimates.

Reptile expert Romulus Whitaker has
committed his life to conservation.

Long ago, he realised protecting
India's snakes would be impossible

without first factoring in
human welfare.

Armed with this new data,

and more than three decades
of field experience,

Rom is about to investigate
the natural history

behind these incredible statistics,

and find out why India has become
the land of one million snakebites.

India is one of the snakiest
countries in the world,

and home to an estimated
65 species of venomous snakes.

Of these, 15 have been known
to cause human deaths.

For centuries, an accurate figure
for the number of people

bitten and killed by snakes
in India has been simply unknown.

Until now.

At his farm in South India, Rom's
received some interesting reading.

I'm looking at an absolutely
fascinating report just out,

and it's about numbers
of snakebite deaths in India.

This is based on something called
a Million Death Study, and it's not

hospital records, it's not records
from state government sources.

This was based on
interviewing families

and households all over India
to find out

the causes of death, and snakebite
deaths are incredibly significant.

If the survey is accurate, each year
India suffers 50,000 deaths

from as many as
one million snakebites.

Comparing this to Australia,
home to double the number

of venomous snakes, yet with only

an average of three fatalities
per year,

and the extent of India's problem
becomes very apparent.

These statistics, compiled by
Toronto University's Centre
for Global Health Research,

suggest a mortality rate far
in excess of any official estimates,

which have been as low as
1,400 deaths every year.

The cat's really out of the bag now.

Snakebite is an extremely
serious problem in India.

The estimates of close to 50,000
deaths by snakebite per year

are absolutely way, way above
the previous estimates,

and of course way above the official
government statistics.

And something does
need to be done, and now.

Armed with this new data, Rom sets
out to explore the natural history

behind the report's
chilling statistics.

He needs to find out
which snakes are doing the biting,

which bites are fatal,

and what can be done to mitigate
this soaring human death toll.

But for a mission of this magnitude,
Rom is going to need some help.

He's come to visit
some old friends.

The Irula, a southern Indian tribe,
are in Rom's opinion quite simply

the best snake catchers
in the world.

All the Irulas I see here,
including some of the women,

are snake catchers from way back.

Their faces are etched in my memory,

but they're all part of
the original gang that started...

30 years ago? 35 years ago?
God, long time!

Rom has shared most of his
extraordinary life in India

and his passion for snakes
with the Irula.

Together, their knowledge
and experience is unrivalled.

To understand why so many of
his fellow Indians are

losing their lives to snakebite,
Rom will team up with his son Samir,

a scientist
and biotechnology graduate.

And Kali, one of the Irula's finest.

Rom first heard about the Irula
in the 1960s.

The young snake-obsessed American
had found a tribe whose knowledge

and experience of these remarkable
legless lizards

match his own passion.

We're just arriving at
the headquarters

of the Irula Snake-Catchers
Co-Operative. Here's where

all the snakes are brought, the venom
is extracted, the venom is processed.

It's a little place,
but a lot gets done here.

Probably most of the venom being
supplied for anti-venom

all over India is being produced
right in this little place. Morning.

The Co-Operative provides
the Irula people with a sustainable

livelihood, which in turn has saved
countless lives.

At present, around 80% of the
anti-venom produced in India

is made from venom sourced
by the Co-Operative.

An effective polyvalent anti-venom,
a one-shot cure

for all of India's venomous snakes,
is still a long way off,

and Rom also knows it will never be
a magic bullet.

The answer to India's snakebite
epidemic is going to need

a better understanding of
many factors.

If the ability to deliver fatal
venom were the only qualification,

there'd be one snake that stands
literally head and shoulders

above the rest as India's deadliest.

Growing up to
five and a half meters long

and capable of delivering colossal
amounts of venom in a single bite,

the king cobra is the world's
largest venomous snake.

It's found in undisturbed jungle
and preys upon other snakes.

Its Latin name, Ophiophagus Hannah,
translates as "snake eater".

Rom is visiting Agumbe,

a place where he's spent many
years working to protect the king.

We're heading over to the Agumbe
Rainforest Research Station,

which I set up about five years ago.
We're just about to go and meet

Gowrie Shankar, who's been
heading the king cobra study

for several years now.

Hey, man. How's it going over there?

Good, good. How are you?
Really good.

We just got a call that
a king cobra has been sighted

in a farm down here,

and the farmer is very worried about

doing his work with his cows
and ploughing the field,

so we're going to see if we can
help him out with this situation.

That's perfect!

Good hiding place!
Yeah, I see him there. Really?

There, there. Oh, yeah.

OK. It's a big one too.

Let's lift some of this stuff aside.

If it comes that side, just grab it.

He's moving. OK. I'd just like to
get some of this out of the way,

because we need a clear field.

He's up here, he's up here.
OK. If he's coming out,

it might be easier than
removing the whole bunch of junk.

Let's see what happens.

Slowly, slowly. All right.
He's a big guy, he's a big male.

Wow, let me bring him
from the top here, if possible.

OK, now what we want to do is

to at least get these photographs.
Get one back shot.

Got it? Let's get him
from this side. Once you reverse...

I'll come this side
and you go that side. Go, go.

Oh, he's coming, OK.

Watch out, you're lower than he is.

You know, the hoods of king cobras
are basically like our fingerprints.

Each one is different, and by getting

very clear
photographic documentation,

we'll be able to identify
one snake from the other.

One second. Watch out, watch out!

Samir, get the bag around.


Keep the bag low, on the ground.

Yes, got him.

That is too good, man! Yes!

I mean, what a co-operative snake!

He says "Don't let it go
very close to my house!"

Well, between you and me, since
we're speaking our own language,

he's got to be let go within
his own home range, basically.

Just around the corner is
probably where we have to go.

Rom knows that
statistically, king cobras pose

an almost negligible risk to humans,
and in all the years

he's worked with the king, he
can recall only a handful of deaths,

invariably due to human provocation.

Sitting a few feet in front of me is

the largest venomous snake in the
world, the king cobra. Been known to

grow to over 18 feet long
in Thailand, and here in south India,

the record length is
about 15 feet, seven inches.

This guy is close to 12 feet long.
He's got enough venom to, they say,

kill an elephant, and certainly
at least 10 or 20 human beings.

If you consider the snake's hardware,
so to speak,

this guy is stacked up to be
public enemy number one.

And yet he hardly bites anybody,

because he knows how to
keep out of people's way.

When you consider the other venomous
snakes in India, the cobra, kraits,

the Russell's viper
and the saw-scaled viper,

they're snakes which
come in contact with people

every single day, but the king cobra,

primarily living
in rainforests like this,

rarely comes into contact with
people, and when it does,

it sees the people first,
it's very alert,

very aware,
incredibly good eyesight,

and it gets the hell out of there
as fast as it can.

Just the way
a good snake should.

The king cobra is a classic case of
not judging a book by its cover,

illustrating the complex,

sometimes counterintuitive nature of
India's snakebite problem.

Far less imposing snakes are
responsible for far more deaths.

OK, a snake like this,
if he wanted to kill me,

if he wanted to kill
any of us, he very well could.

But the point is, the king cobra
wants nothing more than

just to keep away from human beings.

We've all seen these TV snake
molesters who are always going,

"Whoa! What a hero I am!

"Oh, how dangerous this is!"

But I think this is
a really good opportunity

for me to show you exactly
how dangerous this snake is.

Need I say more?

So if the king cobra isn't part of
the problem, then which snakes are?

Rom and his team are heading to
the plains of Tamil Nadu,

in search of a snake that may very
well be India's number-one killer.

This land has been shaped by
agriculture and manual labour,

which Rom suspects are
two key factors

in making this state
a snakebite hot spot.

It's abundantly clear that
it is rural people, the workers,

the agriculturalist farmers,
who are getting bitten by snakes.

These are the people
most at risk from snakebite,

simply because
they're putting their feet

and their hands where snakes live.

The team starts the hunt,
and it's not long before

a little healthy father-son
competition begins to surface.

I reckon we're going to get
many more snakes than Rom.

Younger team, ready to go!

The banks and field edges are
peppered with rat holes.

To locate the ones
occupied by snakes,

the Irula hone in on
the subtlest of clues.

The Irulas are looking for
signs like this,

and I think you can pretty clearly
see this is nice and smooth.

As the snake rubs along it,
it's actually shining it up.

The snake slides along and
actually polishes the soil.

Kali is a natural snake hunter,

and he and Samir have been
close friends since childhood.

I used to go out snake hunting
with Kali a fair bit.

Just now starting to
get back into it.

Kali's a great teacher,

so I'm just going to watch and see
what I can learn from him.

It's good so far.
We haven't seen signs of anything

that we're after.
Lots of snake skins.

Rom knows that mitigating India's
snakebite epidemic is not

just about the 50,000 fatalities.

If the figures are accurate,

India has as many as 950,000
snakebite survivors every year,

each left with an understandably
negative view of snakes.

These victims might be
quite justified in asking,

why not just kill all snakes?

But even if that were possible,

would it make India
a better place for humans?

Snakes are a key species
in India's ecology.

Removing them would have
profound consequences.

One simple consideration is
the part snakes play

in controlling India's rodents.

Yeah, Kali is looking for
a snake in a rat hole,

but found a store of grain instead.

Rats are a huge problem
to agriculture in India,

and if it wasn't for snakes,

they could clear up maybe 1,000 kg
per acre,

and we could be facing famine.

Snakes play a crucial role
in India's pest control.

But this is understandably
of little consolation

to those who get bitten or bereaved.

Rom is on the hunt for a snake
that's responsible for

some of the most agonising
and disfiguring bites,

and the most deaths.

Russell's viper,
common throughout much of India,

and in particular the hedgerows
and field edges of Tamil Nadu.

Mostly nocturnal,
it is an ambush predator,

relying on its exceptional
camouflage to avoid detection.

It often stands its ground
when approached,

and is frequently stepped on.

Yeah, looks like a Russell's.

Kali almost put his hand
on top of it, and it hissed,

so that's how he knew
there was a snake in there.

So what they're trying to do is
flush it out and send it towards us.

Well, hopefully Kali!

Right, so Kali reckons the snake is
right in there now.

You can actually hear it hissing.

I can see it. It's right under us,
basically. Nice, fat Russell's.

The Russell's is
armed with a cytolytic venom,

a complex toxin which can cause
catastrophic cell breakdown,

haemorrhaging and loss of
the blood's vital clotting agents.

Its bite is excruciatingly painful.

It's just eaten
something big, probably a rat.

You can see the bulge in
the stomach.

Seems to have shed recently,
the colours are nice and brilliant.

Rom has something special in mind
for this specimen.

Finding this snake in broad daylight
took an Irula's expert eye,

but to the untrained,
and in the dark,

this master of concealment would be
all but invisible.

More than 65% of India's population
lives without indoor sanitation.

Heading into the night barefoot
to answer the call of nature

is the norm in rural areas,

and one of the most common causes
of snake encounters.

Using the figures
from the new report

and his own decades of field
experience, Rom estimates that

the Russell's viper
could be responsible

for half of all fatalities.

Many occur in circumstances
just like this.

OK, let's have the main light on.

It's such accidental interactions
between people and snakes that
are at the heart of the problem,

and Rom has devised an experiment
to analyse exactly what's going on.

What we're doing here is replicating

what could be a very
common occurence,

someone walking around at night
accidentally steps on a snake,

in this case a Russell's viper,
and gets nailed.

But what's really special about this
is that we've got a high speed camera

which can shoot
up to 5,000 frames per second,

showing a snake bite
like no-one's ever seen it before.

To make things as realistic as
possible we've got this artificial
leg which is actually very light,

much lighter than a human leg
so although it looks pretty invasive,
we're not actually hurting the snake,

but we are definitely
threatening him with a human leg.

What we've got here is a series
of images of snakes striking.

You know some of us who have had
experience with these creatures
feel that we know what they're doing

but it took this kind of reveal,

doing this kind of high speed
photography, slowing down the motion

to see exactly what's going on,
the mechanics of a snake bite.

My impression is that
when you step on a viper,

he reacts immediately by...
giving you a big, strong, tough bite.

Mmm, ouch, ouch, ouch, oo-oo-ouch.

But what we actually found was that
the majority of times

that our artificial foot actually
comes in contact with the viper,

the snake just wants to get away.

But sometimes, so dramatically
he sort of half leaps
through the air to getaway.

As well as Russell's viper
South India is home to another snake

that is high
on Rom's suspect list...

The Spectacled cobra, the
commonest of India's four cobras.

The cobra is the iconic
Indian snake, feared and revered,

even worshipped,
throughout the subcontinent.

It's bite can deliver
a powerful neurotoxic venom,
which brings on paralysis

and if untreated, death.

Although not as lethal as the
Russell's viper,

Rom reckons that
India's Spectacled cobra

may account for
up to 30% of snakebite deaths.

As many as, 15,000 per year.

There's a cobra, it's coming out,
it's already out.


Basically this is
a smallish cobra, a female.

Probably laid her eggs this season,
so she's not very fat right now

because she's just
gotten rid of all her eggs.

And in she goes...

and you twist it up,
and you have your cobra.

Cobras are very common
throughout the whole of India,

so why fewer fatalities than
the less common Russell's viper?

Rom hopes the high-speed camera
will give some answers.

Those of us who have had
a lot of experience with cobras

have often said
that the cobra doesn't strike open
mouthed, rather he boxes.

He strikes at you
with his mouth closed.

He's basically wanting you to
get the heck out of there,
he doesn't want to make contact.

He doesn't seem to want to bite.

And that is what is extremely
surprising when you see these images.

It's clear from Rom's experiment
that for this cobra,
biting is a last resort.

It would appear that this snake
offers us every opportunity
to avoid being bitten.

In contrast to the cobra with its
clear warning to keep away,

it's the snake you don't see
which presents the bigger danger.

Thousands of rural Indians run the
risk of bites to the arms and hands

whilst collecting grass or firewood,

and it's to this group
that Rom's next snake
poses the greatest danger.

It doesn't try to escape
like the Russell's viper
or mock charge like thecobra.

This snake means business.

Saw-scaled viper, as a biter
is second to none.

Rom estimates it causes
around 5,000 deaths every year,
many of which are children.

Possessing perhaps
the fastest strike of any snake,

it makes the perfect candidate
for Rom's high-speed snake lab.

Different from any other snakes
is the saw-scaled viper.

When this guy strikes,
he's striking to bite every time.

He strikes with his mouth
wide open, his fangs extended
and he makes contact.

Like many vipers,
it's a well camouflaged and
effective ambush predator.

It's common
throughout much of India.

Although most active by night, it
will bask in the early morning sun,

often bringing
it into contact with people.

When it comes to snakebite,
intent is all,

and the saw-scaled viper
ALWAYS strikes to bite.

A fact that is soon apparent,
and all too close to home.

Kali has received
some worrying news.

Kali's mother got bitten by a
saw-scaled viper just minutes ago
and we're heading to see what's up.

She has been bitten whilst
collecting firewood,
an all too common event.

Although saw-scaled bites in this
region are not usually fatal,

Rajamal is elderly and frail, so
this bite gives cause for concern.

Old habits die hard.

The gruesome procedure that follows
vividly demonstrates what an
uphill task Rom has on his hands.

Kali has worked with Rom
all his life, but still he will not
take his mother to hospital.

The following day
he opts to treat her himself

using traditional tribal medicine.

This type of blistering is typical
of bites from saw-scaled vipers.

Its necrotic venom attacks clotting
agents in the blood often causing
bleeding from the teeth and gums.

Kali just explained to me
that the whole concept here is to

get the venom down to the hand
where they'll be doing the cutting.


We offered a scalpel blade

but Kali prefers to do it
the traditional way
with a piece of brokenglass.

Even though it looks very painful,
I mean it is very painful!

Many Indians share this deep-rooted
faith in traditional treatments,

practices that Rom knows
have little or no scientific merit.

Rom often hears of cases where
the time wasted, taking a victim
to a local medicineman

has made the difference
between life and death.

I still have a problem with this kind
of treatment because when you
see the germ possibilities from all

the things that were there,
including cutting with a piece of
broken bottle, really crude,

but this is something the Irulas
have been doing

for a heck of a long time.

And no matter how much I insisted,
there wasn't going to be
any hospital and there won't be.

So I'd like to come back
and check her out,
make sure she'd going to be OK.

For those who do chose to go
to hospital help

is on hand, in a drug
in the form of anti-venom.

And ironically its availability
is largely thanks to the
people of Kali's tribe, the Irula.

Saw-scaled vipers are one
of the many snakes milked here,
including Rom's cobra.

So we got the cobra with us
that we caught when we were out
snake hunting in the rice fields,

and this is the first venom
extraction for this snake,

he'll be here for another three weeks

and the venom will
be extracted once a week.

This has to be done very carefully,
it's kind of a question
of being gentle yet firm

because you don't want to
hurt the snake, but you don't
want to get bitten either.

Watch carefully, there it comes.

Drop after, drop after drop.

These are literally golden drops of
death, there's a lot of venom there.

And he's bitten again,
and even some more and more.

Probably ten drops
coming from each fang,

that's a lot of venom...


The first anti-venom
was produced in 1895,

and for more than 100 years

it has been
the most effective treatment

for a venomous snakebite
the world over.

This is the venom
collected from four cobras,

there's probably enough venom here to
kill this bunch of people right here!

And on the other hand
there's enough venom in here to make

anti-venom to save many lives,
so this is really important.

As a biotech graduate, Rom's son
Samir is across new developments

that are finally revealing
how snake toxins actually work,

and how they vary not only between
different species,

but also regionally
between the same species.

Although anti-venom
should be the answer,

in reality there is a problem.

For some snake bites
the anti-venom produced in the South
just isn't effective.

The collection and analysis of venom
from other regions will be essential

before a single anti-venom for all
snakebites in India can be produced.

For Rom and Samir
this is the holy grail.

Through this venom research,
we are ultimately trying to produce
a polyvalent anti-venom serum

that is effective throughout
the country

no matter how the venoms
may vary regionally.

To see how toxins vary,
even within the same species,

Rom's heading north
to the deserts of Rajasthan.

Home to some of the world's
largest saw-scaled vipers.

Up to 1.5 times bigger
than their Southern relatives,

these monster saw-scaleds
are thought to be
the region's biggest killer.

Rom suspects that the anti-venom
produced by the Irula Co-op
back home in the south,

has little or no effect
on a bite from one of these snakes.

On this leg of their journey,
the team opts for local transport.

a local tribal snake catcher who
knows this desert well, joins them.

We're up here in the deserts
of Northern Rajasthan, it's a
beautiful, wild desolate place.

It's a place where the really huge
saw-scaled vipers are found and
that's what I'm really eager to see.

I've never been snake hunting
on a camel before but, hey,
what a way to cross the hot desert.

Setting up camp in the desert
will save the team time,

and put them right in the heart
of some prime snake habitat.

Well, the local people have told us
that saw-scaled vipers

are on the move at night, and
that makes sense, being nocturnal.

The other reason for being here is
that the desert comes alive at night
and we want to see what's here.

We'll take a wander after a little
while, wait until it gets pitch dark.

Well, there's plenty
of scorpions afoot I'm told,

and this cool little light
which is basically a UV light

makes them jump out at you
like sparks.

Let's see if we can find one.

There's one now!

Look at that, he's fast, man!

He' looking for a place to hide,
look he's trying to dig in.

Yep, he's digging down inside.

He's going to dig himself in,
look at that.

That is so cool.

Like the ostrich
hiding his head under the sand.

Ha-ha, he's gone.

The next day,
the viper hunt continues.

Kali is kind of interacting
with Malnath.

Difficult because it's a
different language, Tamil and Hindi,

but both of them
are skilled snake hunters

so they're sort of trading off
about where to find a snake.

This is Kali's first time outside of
his home state, and Rom is keen
to see how his snake hunting skills

stand up against Malnath's
with his local knowledge.

Anyway, it wasn't a cobra,
it was a monitor lizard.

The fact that the majority of
India's anti-venom is sourced from
snakes from the south isa worry,

especially if their theory
of regional differences in venom
proves to be correct.

And here we are kind of racing
a long behind Malnath, very different
from the way the Irula's hunt,

they sort of meticulously
look for a sign at every hole,
but Malnath's looking for tracks

and the most efficient way of
finding tracks is to cover as much
ground as quickly as possible.

Rom hopes to include tribes of
snake catchers from other regions,

in an attempt to form a nationwide
venom collectors co-operative.

Malnath's people
could be likely candidates.

Getting the Irula and other
tribes to share their knowledge
with each other may take time.

This hole is going really deep
and the sand is nice and damp
and cool down inside,

which makes a lot of sense for
a cobra, or any snake really
because up here it's blooming hot.

Well, it looks like
it's one for the snake,

couldn't find him.

Come, let's go.

Come on, Kali!


OK, that's a bundi for sure,
saw-scaled viper.

Look at that very distinctive
side winding track.

Snake tracks, man.

Bundi, bundi.

Look how clean that is, man.

Clear, clear, clear, clear.

Saw-scaled vipers have to find
some place to spend the day,

it's already getting very hot
and its only eight in the morning.

So he's obviously gone in there
last night or early this morning

and he's definitely in there,
the tracks go straight inside.

I'm just explaining to Kali that
these are big saw-scaled vipers,

not the little tiny ones
we have down in Madras.

I'll get a bag out,

or maybe that's a getting
little too optimistic. Ha-ha!

Yeah, don't jinx it, man!

Oh, man it's huge.

That is huge, man!
That is tremendous.

Yes! Nice!

Very nice.

This is a saw-scaled viper.

For us it's just an incredible snake

as it's just so much huger than
the ones we have in South India.

And its very likely
the venom has some differences.

And this is the whole point of this
exercise, we want to collect
venom samples from this snake up here

and compare it with the venom
of the South Indian saw-scaled viper.

Right now the only anti-venom
available for the bites
of the saw-scaled viper here

are made from venom from South India.

And that seems to be
where the problem is

because sometimes they have to give
huge quantities of that anti-venom

and it's still not effective for it.

So there is definitely something
going on and we're going to
try to get to the root ofthe matter

by testing its venom.

After a full day's snake hunting
the team have managed to
collect a number of specimens.

And there's the venom.

In field conditions like this
we have to collect the
venom on dry ice basically,

otherwise the venom will be spoiled
almost instantly in this hot weather.

What we're doing here is just
taking a small sample
of the snake for DNA because

the taxonomy, or exactly which snake
this is, is under some question.

Is it a true species by itself?

Or is it just a sub species
of the saw-scaled viper
found around the rest of India?

So this is a pretty important
thing that we're trying to do here.

Ah, I saw some venom spewing
through the air that time.

And it come dripping down,
a little bit like orange juice.

The venom and data that
Rom and Samir have collected
from some of these giants,

once analysed will prove vital
in helping scientists

produce far more effective
saw-scaled viper anti-venom.

Rajasthan's deserts are remote and
sparsely populated,

but the worst snake bite hot spots
are where people
and snakes come into close contact.

With this in mind,
the team are heading 1100 miles
to the east, to the state of Assam.

The Common Krait, found throughout
most of India is one of the world's
most venomous land snakes.

And it seems to be particularly
inclined to enter houses.

Snakes often come into a
home on the trail of a meal

but the common krait,
for reasons unknown, has gained a
reputation for biting people...

in their sleep.

A krait bite is painless, its fang
marks small and almost undetectable.

Fast acting,
powerful neurotoxic venom brings on
paralysis and if untreated, death.

The victim simply never wakes, and
few clues are left as to the reason.

Many tribal people believe the snake
coils up on the chest of the victim,

then sucks their breath away...

a simple, but in a way accurate
description of respiratory failure.

Kali's own sister was bitten by a
krait on her wedding night and died.

We're up here in Assam,
in North East India.

We are actually pretty close to
the Chinese and Burmese borders

and there are species of snakes
up here found nowhere else in India.

Rom suspects that like the
saw scaled viper, their venoms vary,

so he is keen to add
samples to his collection.

You kind of expect us to be hunting
in the jungle for snakes around
here but as a matter of fact,

as is typical with a lot of parts
of India, the snakes seem to be
concentrated in places

where they might be able
to find food, around the village -
rats, frogs, the wholeworks.

But more importantly,
this whole area's a wetland,
and during the monsoon,

the snakes gravitate towards
where people have built

up on higher ground.
That's where we're going to
find the snakes... I hope.

As populations expand
into what was once wilderness,

snakes and people come into
increasingly frequent contact.

And snakes and people
just don't mix.

Piles of brick and rubble,
cool and shady.

The perfect place for a snake
to avoid the heat of the day.

Hands! Be very, very careful please.

We continually tell people to keep
brick piles away from their houses,
this is a dead attractionfor snakes.

Yeah, go for it.

No, he is going deeper. Don't want to
lose him, Don't want to lose him...

Just take that one... Uh, careful,

and here it is! Yesss!

Banded Krait, this is a first
for Kali, beautiful - absolutely
stunning animal. Yeah, it's gorgeous.

Kali was saying it looks like it's
thin, it looks like it needs food,

but as a matter of fact Banded
Kraits always look like this,
with this high ridge on the back.

That's a nice snake.

If it does bite, however, it could be
very serious, and the one reason

we want to investigate this snake
and its venom is to see if

the anti-venom made for south Indian
snakes would protect somebody who
was bitten by one of these up here.

It's a pretty important
part of our work

and it's going to take a lot Kraits

to get enough venom of course,
but it's a start.

Kraits are one of
the world's most venomous snakes.

This Banded Krait is living in the
shadow of from this family's house.

India is incredibly diverse,

and it's testament to
the adaptability of snakes

that they have managed to colonise
almost every available niche.

Rom wants to show that people
and snakes can co-exist.

Every encounter need not end
in tragedy.

Samir has come to meet
a krait bite survivor.

So we've come here to met Biplop
Phukan, who was recently bitten by

a venomous snake, and survived.

So we're just trying to get
an idea of what his story was

and how he survived and whether
we can learn something from it.


'The first I realised that
there was a snake in my home,
was when it bit me in my leg.

'I never saw it come in.
I knew it was important
for the doctors to know,

'what sort of a snake it was, so I
took a picture with my mobile phone.

'I then tied a tight
bandage over the bite,

'got on to my motorbike and went to
the hospital as quickly as I could.

'At the hospital they identified
the snake as a Banded Krait

'and they gave me anti-venom,
they kept me there for five days.

'I was very lucky.'

Luck had little to do with it.

Biplop Kept a cool head and carried
out almost textbook first aid.

He photographed the snake that bit
him, applied a pressure bandage,
not a tourniquet,

and he didn't detour
via a village quack.

Correctly identifying
a snake is a crucial first
step in the treatment ofany bite.

Although Rom is thought by
many to be the leading expert
on India's snakes,

he's the first to
admit that there are still a number
of species he has yet toidentify.

Rom wants to fill the gaps
in his own knowledge and has
come to the forests ofAssam,

in an attempt to track down some of
the so far, unidentified snakes
that this area is home to.

This vine snake is one of India's
250 non-venomous snakes.

We're in standard snake habitat
here up in Assam.

They're hard to see, they basically
don't jump out at you,

so walking slowly
and looking carefully is exactly
the technique that wehave.


Hey, hey, hey, hey...

It's kind of embarrassing, because...

Rom's supposed to know the different
species of snakes, but this is

one of the four or five green
pit vipers up hear in the north east.

Probably the white-lipped pit viper
but we will have to check
the scales and stuff.

This is great, look at him,
it's absolutely gorgeous.

Ok. Let's leave this guy...

and move on.

Watch out, Kali. Watch it, man,
it's really slippery...!



Its slippery, guys. Yeah, no kidding!

The team makes camp in the forest,
and Rom settles in
for some bedtime reading,

in an attempt to ID today's find.

There are a number of different
species of pit vipers
up here in these forests

and I just for the life of me
can't figure out some of them,

especially these green pit vipers
that all look very much alike.

And if I can't figure them out, how
does a doctor or someone who's been
bitten tell the difference?

That's one of the reasons
we produced this snake book.

The sales of the English edition are
able to subsidise the production
of a very, very cheap India edition

which we can distribute free to
villagers so they know which snakes

they're looking at or what
they've been bitten by.

If everyone in India could
identify the snake that bit them,

many more lives could be saved.

Although India's snake bite death
toll dwarf's all other nations,

those who don't die
must not be left out...

and it's this group
that Rom now turns his attention to.

Rom and the team are
heading for the Western Ghats,

where vast tea estates have now
replaced what was once rainforest.

This is home to huge numbers of
pit vipers India's most
diverse group of snakes.

Rom knows that a bite from
a pit viper is rarely fatal,
so why is he so interested in them?

The Western Ghats, like
much of India is agricultural

and the large majority of its people
earn a living with their hands.

Like many developing countries,
India has limited welfare provision.

A worker disabled by snakebite
will struggle to support
themselves and their family.

Rom knows any effective
snake bite policy must address

India's annual 950,000
snake bite survivors.

At present, extraordinarily,

no anti-venom exists for
the treatment of pit viper bites.

So some of this tea
is about 100 years old.

So sort of, your vintage...?

So, if we get some of those
pit vipers, do you reckon I can
have a go at milking oneof them?

Yeah, I'd love to see you get bit!

No, I think it would be a good idea,
a good way to cut your teeth,
so to speak. Good.

Extracting venom on his own
will greatly help Samir's work,

as well as being an important
right of passage.

The team needs to find
the large-scaled
green pit viper, a snakethat has

a reputation for biting tea-pickers.

and yet again little is
known about this snake's venom.

Yeah, I mean, the pit viper's
original habitat has been replaced
by these miles and milesof tea.

It's literally like looking
for a needle in a hay stack.

So to maximise our chances to
find pit vipers we're going to

probably change strategies and look
along forest edges and streams edges.

They have decided to try again
after dark, when this
nocturnal snake is moreactive.

That looks like there's
plenty of food around,

can see rats moving around,
there's a ton of frogs, this is
theoretically a perfectplace.

There's one right there! My God,
what luck, what luck, what luck!

That, friends and neighbours is
the large-scaled green pit viper...

You don't want to bring it
too close to your nose -
they do have heat sensitive pits.

And my nose is large so...

mmm, yes.

This is about an average size for

a large-scaled green pit viper.

I believe it's a male,
males are smaller than females

so, yeah, we're probably
looking at an average size male.

They call it the large-scaled green
pit viper for very obvious reasons.

Look at the overlapping scales
on the top of the head,

very unique, very different from
any of the other pit vipers.

Although not as deadly as a Cobra or
a Krait, this snake possesses venom
that is crucial for the team's work.

Haha, you're kidding man,
it's a joke right?


Can I have a look?

Guess what it is. Large-scaled?

Wow, gorgeous.

It's all curled up right now
so you can't see it very well
but it's a beaut.

Where was it? Close-ish, high, low?

It was so obvious, you guys...
going to buy you glasses...

You're putting it on a bit there!

This large-scaled green pit viper
is last but by no means
least on the team's list.

A venom sample from this snake
will go a long way towards helping

by far the biggest group affected
by India's snakebite epidemic -

the snakebite survivors,

who are left maimed and unable to
work. On this occasion,

it all falls to Samir
and he is rightly nervous.

Yes, oh, that's a good one.

OK, let's just do a quick
measurement of this guy.

It's 39cm.

That's small.

Did you hear the barking in
the background? Maybe
there's a tiger on theprowl!

Not bad, that's what I like
about doing this sort of stuff
out in the jungle.

Yeah, these are the best
working conditions.

Hey, man, this is my first drop
of extracting venom.

Samir holds in his hand snake venom
never before tested by scientists.

This is the first sample of
macrolepis venom possibly

that's ever been collected
for this kind of test.

Congrats, old boy!

More than cool, my friend,
more than cool.

Long-term, anti-venom is undoubtedly
the answer but prevention is always
going to be better than cure.

And there is one very simple thing
Rom knows could greatly reduce the
number of people bitten by snakes.

Whenever I see people walking
on these roads at night
without a flashlight,

I'm thinking, they'll find a snake!

Seriously, it's really dangerous.

There is a little lady
walking a long there...

no light.

You know, we have established
that most snakebites take place

at night, and most snakebites
are on the feet or legs.

In other words, carrying a light
around a night is the main way

of avoiding snakebite and this
wind-up torch is just what we need.

As they head for home, there's one
more stop that Rom wants to make.

Rom has returned to
the Irula village, bearing gifts.

These torches will last for years,

cost little, and need no batteries.

Something so simple
could save the lives of
tens of thousands of people.

It's been six months
since Rajamal was bitten.

At least there's some flexion,
it's not as if she's lost
the use of her hand.

Although she is showing
some improvement,
her hand is far from right.

In many ways Rajamal was lucky,
But it's now known,
thanks to the statistics

from the University of Toronto, that
many Indians aren't so fortunate.


On the 17th April, 2010,

Sister Greeshma, a nun from a town
of Thrissur, was bitten by a cobra
whilst out cutting grass.

It was a close-run thing
and she was fortunate to survive.

Every year,

50,000 Indians won't be so lucky.

There is only one
truly effective and reliable cure
for a venomous snakebite...


And yet, the drug produced in the
South from Irula-sourced venom

but only for some bites,
some of the time.

Rom hopes his continuing research
will eventually make it the wonder
drug India so desperately needs.

In the meantime,
avoidance will always be the best,
first line of defence.

The results of the "Million Deaths
Study" have revealed that close to

50,000 people die
from snake bite every year in India,

and that's out of perhaps,
over a million snake bites.

There's no more denying that
snake bite is a serious problem, it's
reached almost epidemic proportions.

The venom samples we've collected
will be sent to
various labs in India,

and through this venom research
we're ultimately aiming to
produce a polyvalent anti-venom serum

that is effective throughout
the country, no matter how
the venoms may vary regionally.

Rom knows it will take
more than just field work.

Science will have to play
a big part.

Now it's up to the next generation,
people like my son Samir.

These are the people who will
lead us into the future

and hopefully mitigate what is
really a very serious problem.

I've always been a snake man,
but I learned pretty early on

that if I'm going to protect snakes,
I've got to protect the people too.

It's election night.
That's the moment where he realised,

Someone needs to stop Clearway Law.
Public shouldn't leave reviews for lawyers.