15 October 2019 07:26

TV

Animal Planet shines light on Snake Squad

A group of youngsters who have dedicated their lives to mitigating human-snake conflict

They save people from snakes and snakes from people

The expanding cities have intensified human-snake conflict like never before. As cities grow both vertically and horizontally, residential complexes have risen where once there was wilderness and wildlife. Hurt and homeless, snakes are turning up everywhere--- homes, schools, offices, temples and even refrigerators! Animal Planet’s new 10-part series Snake Squad, which premiers on August 15 at 9:00 pm focuses on unsung heroes of the urban landscapes who are dedicating their lives to mitigating human-snake conflict and saving both people from snakes and snakes from people.

Snakes – an integral part of India

No civilization, country or society in the world is as inseparably linked to snakes as India has been. Snakes are friends, foe and God, and loved, feared, hated and worshipped in equal measures. They, in brief, are an integral part of India --- culturally, economically and mythologically! On the other hand, they are also the cause of the worst man vs wild-animal conflict in the world. Conservative estimates put the human death toll of snakebites at 50,000 every year. Many experts and field workers, however, feel that the real number could be double that. Close to half a million human lives get destroyed through long-term disabilities. The casualties on the snakes’ side is even worse.

The Snake Squad

Traditional snake charmers have disappeared from modern India. Enter the young Snake Squad, a group of young men and women, often highly qualified and educated, driven by a passion for wildlife. They are dedicating their lives to mitigating this conflict and saving both people from snakes and snakes from people. Every major city in India has its own emerging, young squad. It has turned into a phenomenon. These squads are saving hundreds of thousands lives year after year.

Two years in making

It took almost two years for Optimum Television to put the inaugural series in place. Executive Producer and Director, Upma Bhatnagar met some of the best-known scientists and experts at Oxford University, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and even in Costa Rica. She also travelled to many parts of India on an exhaustive recee schedule.

Upma Bhatnagar, says, “I always wanted to tell the story of the Indian snake. Nothing comes anywhere close to the majesty of a King Cobra when it stands with its hood on full display. But, like most Indian stories, this too is highly, highly complicated. On the one hand, so many people are dying to snakebites every year. But, on the other, snakes happen to be the best pest controllers that nature has to offer. Remove them from the scene and you run the risk of being overtaken by rats and other pests in no time. Plus, lest we forget, snakes also happen to be God in India. It’s almost impossible to separate these two living entities from each other. We, therefore, decided to tell this complex story through the eyes of the many young men and women I met during my journeys. How we found these amazing people in various parts of India is another story. We wanted to include those heroes who are passionate and ethical. I can assure you, it is not easy.”

About Members of Snake Squad

Snake Squad is a salute to these champions- Alex Carpenter, Lynnette D’Souza, Aaron Fernandes, Soham Mukherjee, Shravan Krishnan, Jose Louise, Nick and Gargi Vijayaraghvan. The unsung heroes of the urban landscapes, who would travel to all parts of India in search of many more incredible heroes and to narrate many more incredible stories.

Alex Carpenter, 27, the Host, Foreigner Snake Catcher, Goa

27-year old Alex is an accidental snake rescuer. He arrived in India in the autumn of 2015 with a view to staying for 6 months and learning a little about permaculture and organic farming. His first location was Agonda in south Goa, where he stayed in a small eco project. The workers there quickly discovered my fascination for wildlife – he was always pointing out animals and especially snakes. Alex is now famous all over Goa as the ‘foreigner snake catcher’. Day and night, his phone is seldom quiet, with calls coming from all over the state. He has rescued hundreds of snakes since that first call. He says, “I’ve had a passion for the environment and wildlife from an early age, and a fascination with snakes for as long as I can remember. When I was 15, my parents were working with over 100 snakes in our family home, of which a number were highly unusual species. These were eventually put on exhibit in a couple of well-known zoos in the UK, as well as private collections of distinguished herpetologists and researchers.

Aaron Fernandes, 34, The Goan Spirit, Goa

Aaron typifies the place he comes from, Goa: chilled! Even when he’s handling deadly cobras or gigantic pythons, the endearing smile never leaves his face. He’s popular as a tattoo artist and body painter, but he is more famous as a wildlife and especially snake rescuer. Aaron co-founded ‘Chameleon Wildlife Organization’, an NGO devoted to rescuing and re-habiting wildlife, especially snakes. Besides being saviours on the field, Chameleon also takes up the task of educating and encouraging locals, primarily in rural areas, on how to manage encounters with reptiles. All his experiences have helped him understand their behaviour and personality more closely.

Soham Mukherjee, 34, Crocodile Whisperer, Ahmedabad

As a young computer graduate, Soham had the world at his feet. Tall and handsome, he could

have been anywhere in the world, doing what he liked. He, instead, chose to be a crocodilian.

It didn’t come as a surprise to his parents. He started collecting snakes and scorpions at the

age of 12. By 17, he had forty-four of them! Now, he is India’s first and only crocodile trainer.

When he commands, even the mighty crocodiles listen and obey. While at Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, he wouldn’t require anyone’s help to clean crocodile cages. He would simply ask them to move, and they did! He has caught and tagged hundreds of crocodiles and gharials for numerous scientific projects. At such young age, Soham sits on the IUCN expert groups on crocodiles and vipers. He regularly travels around the world, and India to lead scientific expeditions. But when in Ahmedabad, he is working tirelessly to retrieve snakes from urban landscape.

Shravan Krishnan, 27, The Real Super Hero, Chennai

Shravan shot to prominence in 2016 when two drunken medical students flung a dog, Bhadra, off a three-story building. Shravan rescued the canine. It, however, would be wrong to say that this is the rescue that made him famous. He has always been a superstar in Chennai. As Chennai expands, more snakes are being found in housing complexes that were once wilderness or green landscapes. Shravan and his team work 24x7 to save snakes from people and people from snakes. In last four years, they have saved more than 8,000 of them! Shravan is dedicated to his mission and he even runs an animal hospital, which has become a home for abandoned or abused animals.

Gargi Vijayaraghvan, 25, The Baby-Faced Do-Gooder, Mumbai:

Gargi’s age, face, smile and diminutive frame betray her calling. If one did not know her, you would never guess that she has already rescued over 3,000 snakes in a crowded city like Mumbai. She has been doing it for the past 10 years. Small and shy, she suffered horrendous bullying as a child. However, all of that changed one fateful day when a snake made its way into her classroom. Everyone was frightened, naturally, and students and faculty tried to shoo it away with sticks. But, not wanting the snake to be harmed, Gargi caught it with her bare hands and started petting it. She then asked her teacher’s permission to go and release the snake in a safe environment. When she returned, the entire class gave her a standing ovation and cheered for her. She has never been bullied since.

Lynette D’souza, 42, Guts Galore, Mumbai

Lynette’s presence in the field of snake rescue has an interesting and inspirational backstory. She lives in the Palghar district, north of Mumbai, a place surrounded by tribal villages where snakes

are abundant. Once, while watching a male snake rescuer, she casually asked if he needed any help. He retorted, “Watch from a distance and this is best you can do. You women folk start screaming at the sight of a cockroach. What makes you think you can help in a snake rescue?” She took it as a challenge. Eight years on, she has rescued over 2,500 snakes, including some of the deadliest like cobras and pythons. She has created an organization that has more than 20 young people helping her in day-to-day rescues. She shuttles between Palghar and Mumbai most days for work. Despite her remarkable achievements, though, Lynette continues to battle the rigid views of society, particularly on her line of work.

Nick Casewell, The Venom Expert, United Kingdom:

Nick Casewell is one of the youngest and foremost scientists in the world on snake venom. He dreams of one day finding a universal treatment that could treat snakebite victims without side effects and complications. Nick has worked mostly in Africa so far, but is shifting his

attention to India now, where the snake population is immense and diverse. He is teaming up with institutions like Indian Institute of Science to study the venoms of Indian snakes --- an area where he feels a lot remains still to be achieved.

Jose Louise, 40, The Champion, from Kerala, Delhi

Jose had everything laid out for him in life, but destiny had a different script for him in mind. In God’s own country, Kerala, his family runs many massive rubber plantations. Here, he encountered snakes growing up and started rescuing them at a young age. It sparked a passion in him that would change his life. At his family’s insistence, he acquired top computer qualifications and was leading a prosperous life in corporate IT, but his inner voice could not be ignored. In 2003, he left the digital world to join a not-for-profit organization and hasn’t looked back since then. In between, Jose has created a nation-wide unique network, Indian Snakes, which is the largest network of snake rescuers in India. Along the way, Jose has emerged as the central point for controlling wildlife crimes in India. He heads the Wildlife Crime Control division in

Wildlife Trust of India, the largest such NGO in India. The computer education and skills Jose acquired during his college and corporate days have stayed with him. But he’s now putting them to use in wildlife conservation, devising cutting edge solutions for conflict reduction  and the apprehending of criminals.

SNAKE SQUAD is produced for Animal Planet by Optimum Television and is directed by Upma Bhatnagar, produced by Manoj Narain, written by Siddhvinayak Bhatnagar, edited by Mike Dunne with music by Alex Paton, Harshan Radhakrishnan, Cliff D’souza & Elvis Lobo.

Watch Snake Squad, premiering on Aug 15th, 2019 at 21:00 hrs IST on your favorite wildlife channel Animal Planet and Animal Planet HD

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