More articles by

Rekha Dixit
Rekha Dixit

WILD LIFE

Snake Tales

  • Nigel with a reticulated python
  • cobra in paddy field

British naturalist Nigel Marven had a colony of hamsters for pets as an eight-year-old and was racing stick insects down his mother's clothes line at nine. He got his television break while doing his MSc, when a television crew required someone to dangle worms before the camera.

Marven's television career has progressed far beyond worm dangling, having been assistant producer on the BBC series on Gerald Durrel's My family and other animals to presenting a number of shows. Marven was recently in India, as he looked around for snake stories to present in his countdown, 10 deadliest snakes, which is being aired on Animal Planet. Excerpts from an interview:

In this part of the world, snakes are not just feared, they are revered, too. You must have encountered this during your travels. Can you share one or two memorable anecdotes?

During my visit to India, I met a few bird watchers. They were much excited about seeing a snake. It wouldn’t cross their minds to kill them.

We were with the Irula snake tribe in Chennai in Tamil Nadu. There are whole families that make their living from snakes. They used to kill snakes for their skins but that has been stopped. Now they catch snakes to collect venom to provide anti-venom, which obviously saves thousands of lives. But they had a great respect for snakes, too. It was amazing.

When I filmed Nag Panchami, I observed that people have a lot of respect for snakes and good knowledge on snake behaviour. It is because of Nag Panchami and such events that cobras aren’t killed as a matter of course in India, which is superb !

Snake Tales Siamese peninsula pitviper

The deadliest countdown aside, which snake fascinated you the most and why?

I think it must be the anaconda. I saw an anaconda in Columbia and that show got millions of viewers on Animal Planet and over a million hits on YouTube. So it proves that everyone else is fascinated by anacondas as well.

The reticulated python may be as long as an anaconda but the anaconda is the heavyweight snake. They are very beautiful. Anacondas are semi aquatic; they are so bulky they need the water to support their weight. Their eyes are on the top of their head so they can ambush from water and in Columbia I was very lucky to see an anaconda swallowing a deer. It actually caught a white tailed deer and it was in the process of swallowing it.

How would you compare human attitudes to, and interactions with, snakes across the world, for in your travels, you may also have seen them in a cultural context?

Snakes are revered in a lot of Asian cultures.

I was disappointed in China because of their belief in snake medicines. They believe snakes are supernatural beings. So, if you drink the blood or eat the flesh of a snake, you will be imbued with some special powers. That’s not good news for snakes. Lots of them are killed in China for medicine. That does not, of course, happen in India.

In the US, there are terrible rattle snake round ups, which is a throwback to the days of cowboys. They still take hundreds of rattle snakes from their hibernation dens and kill them.

So, you know, all over the world snakes can’t get a raw deal but I think the tide is turning and there are lots of people now who are concerned about snakes.

In one of the episodes of Deadliest Snakes, airing on Animal Planet, we tell the story of the venomous viper. These are Europe’s rarest snakes and people have even built bridges under the roads to stop the snakes from being squashed by trucks. So, they really are putting a lot of effort into saving the European viper.

Snake Tales Nigel with ele trunk snake

What is your opinion on the conservation attempts of snakes (and other animals) in India?

There is a lot of good work happening in India. Romulus Earl Whitaker, a snake expert in Chennai, set up Madras Snake Park. He is doing a lot of great work in setting up king cobra reserves.

There is Gerry Martin who runs The Gerry Martin project. He is a snake expert who is protecting habitat and snakes in the Western Ghats. Lots of conservation efforts are going on. Of course, if the areas are protected for birds or wildlife, then the snakes are protected as well.

Have you ever been bitten by a poisonous snake while shooting?

The only time was recently, when I was in Malaysia doing a cookery show Eating Wild, where I was taking a Malaysian chef out into the jungle and she was to teach me how to cook. I was showing her how to find birds and snakes for food in the rainforest when I found a green pit viper. I knew it wasn’t very dangerous but I knew it was venomous, so I held it on a stick. But it was very quick and bit me on the thumb. I was taken to hospital. Luckily, there wasn't much damage as it hadn't injected the venom, yet it was a very painful experience.

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