India has a vast diversity of snakes, of which a few are venomous. One needs to be aware of these venomous snakes and precautions to be taken to reduce human-snake conflicts. Of course, there is no single rule for identifying a venomous snake, as many non-venomous ones have evolved to look like their venomous brethren. However, some of the more medically important ones can be recognized by their shape, size, colour, behaviour and the sound they make when threatened.

1(19)Saw-scaled Viper 

Identification of Medically Important Venomous Snakes
  1. Spectacled Cobra or Common Cobra – Identified by a spectacled mark on the hind of its forehead and its ability to spread its hood and hiss. This snake is revered across the country and is found in all habitats.
  2. Russell’s Viper – Identified by dark brown, chain-like markings on its body coupled with a triangular head and a highly audible pressure-cooker-like hiss. This snake is found all across the country and enters homes in search of rodents and small birds.
  3. Saw-scaled Viper – Identified by a trident shaped mark on its head and a distinct side-winding movement. It is found in all parts of the state. The scales of this snake, when rubbed together, make a sound akin to a saw on a log of wood; hence its name.
  4. Common Krait – Identified by it metallic black body with white markings. This nocturnal snake is uncommon in urban areas but is found in rural areas in the country.
  5. King Cobra – Identified by its characteristic hood, large length (often crossing 10 feet) and a blackish-grey body with bands. The King cobra cannot be mistaken for any other snake. This species is found only in India’s forests and records of bites are rare.
  6. Pit Vipers – Identified by their triangular heads and heat sensing pits. India has over 21 species of pit vipers, of which some like the Hump-nosed, the Green Pit Viper and the Malabar Pit Viper are being considered as medically important. While work still continues on whether their bite is fatal to humans, these species are venomous and found only in dense forest habitat

2(17)King Cobra

 Russel’s Viper
How a Bite Is Executed
Venomous snakes of medical importance have a pair of enlarged teeth, the fangs, at the front of their upper jaw. These fangs contain a venom channel (like a hypodermic needle) or a groove along which venom can be introduced deep into the tissues of their natural prey. If a human is bitten, venom is usually injected subcutaneously or intramuscularly.First-aid treatment is to be carried out immediately or very soon after the bite, before the patient reaches a dispensary or hospital.
 Saw-scaled Viper
Recommended First Aid Protocol for Snakebite, as Practiced Today

  •  Reassure the victim who may be very anxious and scared.
  •  Immobilise the bitten limb with a splint or sling (any movement or muscular contraction increases absorption of venom into the bloodstream).
  • Consider pressure immobilisation for bites by elapid snakes (snakes with short, erect fangs) like the Indian Cobra, Indian Krait and sea snakes. This should not be used for viper bites because of the danger of increasing the local effects of the necrotic venom. There is considerable debate of which technique to be used and I have personally found the use of a local compression pad applied over the wound, pressure-bandaging the entire limb, to be very effective.
  • Avoid any interference with the bite wound as this may introduce infection, increase absorption of the venom and increase local bleeding.
  • Remove watches, rings and other jewellery from the site of the bite.
  • Note the time of the bite and the sequence of symptoms.
  • If possible, the patient should not be allowed to walk, but carried with the help of a stretcher, bed, or sitting on a chair.

To summarise – the best possible first-aid for a venomous snakebite victim is to rush him/her to the nearest hospital in the least possible time, with any movement (especially of the bitten limb) reduced to an absolute minimum.

 Common Cobra
Unproven First-aid Methods to Be Avoided

Unfortunately, most of the traditional, popular, available and affordable first-aid methods have proven to be useless or even dangerous.
  • Suck out venom.
  • Make local incisions or pricks / punctures at the site of the bite or in the bitten limb.
  • Go to traditional healers or anything similar.
  • Use (black) snake stones.
  • Apply electric shock.
  • Try out home remedies.
  • Tie tight tourniquets around the limb.
  • Apply ice packs, potassium permanganate, or other chemicals and herbs.
  • Clean out the bitten part with Dettol, etc.
  • Try and catch / kill the snake.
Please do not attempt any of these above-mentioned methods in case of a bite. Most of them have been proven wrong and in fact, put the patient at a greater risk than before. I have sadly seen many people have great confidence in traditional (herbal) treatments, but they must not be allowed to delay medical treatment or to do harm.Most snakebites take place unknowingly, when the snake is accidentally threatened, or when there is a human-reptile interaction (where snake-handlers are concerned). Whatever the reason, it is not unlikely that you might end up in a situation where a simple strategy and presence of mind can prove useful.

Suggestions to Reduce Snakebite Accidents and Conflicts

  • Be aware of snakes found in your locality, their general habits and learn to identify the venomous ones from the non-venomous ones.
  • Be vigilant and alert during specific times of snake activity – at dawn, dusk, during heavy showers, flooding, at harvest and winnowing times.
  • Always use a torch while walking at night and wear proper footwear if you are walking through vegetation or thick undergrowth.
  • Avoid sleeping on the ground and near dark, humid corners. Avoid cradles and beds that are closer to the ground, for children.
  • Do not go very close to a snake; observe from a distance. Never threaten, handle or attack a snake with sticks, insect sprays, fire or any such improvised devices or weapons.
  • If a snake is unintentionally trapped or cornered in any part of your home, keep an eye on the snake and call for assistance from the wildlife rescue squad or local snake-rescue volunteers who will rescue and release them in safe habitats.
  • Avoid hoarding rubble, rubbish and unwanted items in or around your homes. These provide hiding places for rodents, and are then inhabited by snakes.
  • Do not attempt to pick up or handle a dead snake on the road or elsewhere. Many times, the snake is still not brain dead and can inflict a bite. Do not touch or pick up sea snakes that have been washed or stranded on the beach. They are venomous too.
  • Avoid disturbances to forest patches and green areas that are potential snake habitats. This way, the snakes get their niche habitats and we get our safety too. Co-existence is the key in today’s world of nature conservation.
  • Be aware of the nearest health center or hospital that treats snakebites and keep their phone-numbers handy.
If your neighborhood has a high density of snakes, it is advisable to prepare a snakebite protocol (plan of action in case of an emergency) best suited to you. This can simply be a document specifying: important contact people and numbers who should be informed first, names and addresses of nearest hospitals treating snakebites, best mode of transport and related details, names and contact numbers of doctors, etc. Make sure all family and neighborhood members understand their role in an emergency.Remember, snakes are an integral part of our urban as well as rural landscapes and a vital component of any healthy ecosystem. Issues of conflict arise due to disturbance in habitat or loss of prey, both of which sadly are factors created by humans. We thus need to be tolerant and understand that straying of snakes is part of a larger impact that we as humans are causing on our immediate landscapes. We must take steps to minimise such negative impacts.  Also, it is equally important to be safe than sorry, and hopefully, the above suggestions will be handy in reducing human-reptile conflicts.
 Green Pit Viper
Difference Between “poisonous” and “venomous” in Reptiles and AmphibiansVenom is a chemical (most often a complex group of protein enzymes) injected into a victim via some sort of bodily apparatus specially evolved as part of the creature possessing the chemical. A viper’s fangs are a classic example of a deliberate venom-dispersing system. Bees’ and wasps’ stingers also fit into this category.

Poisons are toxic substances that exist inside or on the surface of a plant or animal, and they cause pain or death when they come in contact with another animal’s skin, mouth or digestive system. Not injected directly, they are absorbed through exposure. It usually happens when a poisonous creature is bitten or swallowed, but sometimes handling a poisonous creature is also enough.

Amphibians’ skin secretions fall under the poisonous category, but calling them irritants is a better way to describe many, because most skin secretions are not life threatening especially where India is concerned.

These two terms are clearly distinct in their meanings as well as effects, but lay-people often confuse and interchange them. In fact, most people prefer not to learn the details and are satisfied with being at a respectable distance from potential venomous and poisonous creatures. However, understanding the difference could be the key to an effective treatment.