August 22, 2019
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Meet India's ‘snakeman’ who has caught 222,000 serpents

By Sarwar Kashani

New Delhi, Jul 15 (efe-epa).- Armed with an iron rod and glass jars, Mohammed Saleem has for the last three decades been tracking down and wrangling snakes for his living, and has caught over 222,000 serpents in a city in central India known for ophidians slithering out of their holes to the horror of people, mostly during rainy seasons.

Known as Saleem Saanpwaale (snakeman) in Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, the man in his mid 50s, rescues snakes that are on the loose in private houses, hospitals, hotels or even in the residences and offices of top government officials, including chief minister and governor.

“I have been catching snakes for 30 years. I have rescued a record 222,000 snakes so far, including from chief minister's house and governor's house,” Saleem told EFE in a phone interview on Tuesday as the world marked the International Snake Day.

The professional snake catcher has maintained record of his every catch in the three decades of snake catching in a country, where according to official health figures, each year an estimated 50,000 people are killed by snakebites.

It has not been so easy for the man because he doesn’t have proper safety gears to catch what could even be a Russell’s viper, a saw scale viper or a cobra – some the deadliest venomous snake species found in Bhopal.

He has suffered four near-fatal bites during snake catching – an art he inherited from his father who was was self-taught herpetologist.

“I have been bitten four times in the last 30 years of my snake catching and was admitted in critical care units because cobras had stung me all the four times,” Saleem said, recalling an everyday horror of his life to battle with vicious reptiles.

But the “near death experiences of the thrill that lie catching snakes” has not stopped Saleem, who works with the Bhopal Municipal Corporation as a snake catcher, from continuing doing what he loves to.

“Even after 30 years, I still get that instinctive reflex that I experienced after holding my first catch. I love the thrill,” he said.

So how does he manage to do something that would cause chill in spine and shaky legs.

The first lesson, he said, “snakes may appear scary but they are not man’s enemies unless you trouble them.”

“While I reach out to catch a snake, I appear like I am in a combat mode. But that is not what I feel inside. I go to rescue the poor reptile who maybe facing actual danger from the people around,” said Saleem.

“When you reach the spot, don’t miss the hiss. Listen carefully. Hear it before spotting it. Otherwise, there is a danger of coming under its attack. Once you know the spot where the reptile is hiding, take the rod out, pin its head, grab its tail and hold it upside down and then put it inside the jar.”

Saleem claims that he releases the snakes in forest areas. He linked to a 2016 YouTube video that shows him freeing a pile of large snakes into the wilderness of Panchmadhi forests of Bhopal.

“I have learned this from my father who also used to treat snakebites with naturally traditional remedies,” Saleem said.

India, which is home to some 270 plus snake species, out of which about 60 are highly venomous, was once known as the land of snake charmers who would draw excited crowds of onlookers on a roadside.

The entertaining snake charmers would mesmerize crowds with their ability to control the dangerous creatures and seek coins from their spectators to sustain themselves and their animals.

The practice has now been banned and Saleem is too happy about that.

“Roadside snake charming was a bad practice. They used to cheat people, seek money from them and tell them they have to feed the snake god with milk. How on earth does a snake drink milk,” he asked.

In India, Hindus believe that Indian cobra is a holy snake associated with Lord Shiva. During the annual ‘Naag-Panchami‘ festival, people worship the cobra snake like any other Hindu god. EFE-EPA

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