Encounter: Common Sand Boa

True to its name the Common Sand Boa spends most of its life under the sand or in loose earth, and its tough skin offers protection while burrowing. I’m glad we didn’t run over this fine snake

The Sand Boa where we found it

Six of us were driving back to Bangalore after a trip when Sunil shouted from the back seat, “Snake! Stop the car!” 

Khusro pulled over to the side and four of us ran back to the spot. In the available light Sunil and I tried to identify the snake. At first glance the stout body gave us the impression that it was a small Russell’s Viper. Peering closer, aided by the head light of an oncoming vehicle, we determined that it was a Common Sand Boa (Eryx conicus).

We had to prevent it from becoming another all-too-common roadkill. While I stopped vehicles speeding past us, Sunil took off his tshirt, draped it over the snake and lifted it off the road. He has been working with snakes for a while and was comfortable handling the boa. We then put the snake in front of Khusro’s vehicle. Under headlights, we checked it for injuries. It seemed all right. 

When Sunil put the snake down, it exhibited an odd behaviour. Rather than try to slither away, it coiled up between his shoes. This is the Sand Boa’s defense strategy – to get into a hole or crevice and coil up, keeping its head protected within its coils. When handled the snake was aggressive and ready to strike.

The snake lashes out, trying to strike

It was only my fourth touch of a snake, but this felt different. The sturdy, muscular serpent had rough, hard scales. True to its name the Sand Boa spends most of its life under the sand or in loose earth, and its tough skin offers protection while burrowing. Its scales were rougher and harder than that of the other three snakes I had handled. Boas are thick, short snakes with rough, keeled scales. Although individuals up to 90 centimetres have been measured, on an average they grow to around 60 centimetres.

At first glance, they can be confused with Russell’s Vipers but the viper has a clear pattern and a triangular, arrow-like head that is broader than the neck. The Sand Boa’s head is hardly distinguishable from its neck. Its body is short and thick and it has a rounded snout and a short, tapering tail. The eyes are small with vertical slits in the pupil. The snake’s upperparts are grey with large, irregular brown or reddish-brown blotches, which may or may not be joined.

Note the pattern on the back and the shape of the head

The Sand Boa is often mistaken for the venomous Russell’s Viper and therefore killed. Other reasons for its declining numbers are the illegal trade in animals and poaching for its skin. These snakes are caught and sold as pets and their skin is coveted for making fancy purses and wallets.  

Sand Boas are a part of the subfamily Erycinae under a family of non-venomous snakes called Boidae. So, how do they kill their prey? The snake wraps its coils around its prey after restraining it by biting and holding with its several sharp teeth. Then it constricts the captured animal until it suffocates to death.

Sand Boas are found in arid and semi-arid regions and are generally active at dusk and night. They are ovoviviparous, producing 3-16 live young. The breeding season is usually November.

Ready for release

We took a few shots of the snake before releasing it away from the busy road. I have seen and heard snakes being run over. Yes, “heard”. The sound that is produced as a vehicle runs over a snake is a sickening snap. I am glad I didn’t have to hear it this time.

Text and photographs: Arun

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