Would they kill the keelback?

Did that curious crowd know, or care, that the snake we were trying to see off to safety was a harmless albeit aggressive Checkered Keelback?

Here’s how to tell a Checkered Keelback from its venomous relatives: Round eyes, checkered scale pattern, keeled scales and the oblique stripes behind and beneath the eye

I didn’t really plan to make a habit of writing about snakes and the human folly of mistaken identity, but it appears that the subject seeks me out. Remember the young cobra I had written about some time ago? And the harmless rat snake that could easily have been mistaken for a venomous snake by the ignorant and the fearful?


Heading back from Bandipur last week after a tour organised by the Kumble Foundation (more on that in upcoming posts), we had not yet reached Mysore when a peculiar spectacle beside the highway compelled us to pull over. Two bikes were parked on the verge. The rider of one appeared to be staring hard at something his companion was holding. One chap perched on the pillion of the first bike cradled a live chicken in a cloth bag, its thirsty mouth ajar as it clucked comically in innocent contemplation (perhaps, of its gastronomic destiny). The first rider held in his hands what looked like a snake. By happy accident or design, he gripped it securely behind the head, and the snake did not appear to resist. In fact, it seemed so limp that Arun and I feared it was dead. 

We stepped out of the taxicab to look. Arun, adept at identification, pointed out immediately that the snake was a Checkered Keelback (Xenochrophis piscator), also known as the Asiatic Water Snake. It was olive green overall with checkered markings, which were not as pronounced as in some other individuals that I have seen. True enough, there was the diagnostic oblique black stripe/ band below the round eyes, and the scales on the snake’s back were rough. It was almost four feet long and amply muscular.

Questioning the riders, we learned that they had found it on the road in a stunned condition and picked it up to prevent it from being run over. Good move. But now, the folks had no clear idea what it was and what to do with it. I guess they must have assumed the snake was dead. I took it from him, still gripping it securely at the back of the neck.

Keelbacks can bite, and how. As a child I’d seen a cousin savaged as he foolhardily attempted to handle one swimming in a tank. The snake champed hard on his big toe, repeatedly reaffirming its grip even as he tried without joy to release it. He was left with an unsightly sore and ample insult as onlookers jeered his inopportune bravado. Naturalist Rahul Alvares has written about one snake that left a tooth behind in his bite wound!


Memory had not eluded me even as Arun gingerly reminded me of the keelback’s propensity for biting. I held the snake gently but firmly behind its thick muscular neck, which felt tough but offered little resistance to my grip. Some scales had been chafed near the right side of the head but there were no flesh wounds, no haemorrhage and no obvious tissue damage. That was a relief. But the snake was in trauma and needed to recuperate safely before it made off. Initially, I suspected it was gravid but given my inexperience, I assume it was only food in its stomach that I was feeling under its skin. Arun pointed out that a fully fed snake would usually disgorge its meal to lighten up before taking flight.

Placing the snake on the ground, I hoped it would shoot off into the bushes, but it stayed put flicking its tongue. Arun and I, as well as some of our fellow-travellers, exchanged worried glances. If the snake didn’t flee, it would become an easy target for humans zealous for a show of heroism. A crowd of passing motorists had collected by now and clearly, they anticipated action. I caught wind of conversation — one expert pronounced that it was a cobra I was holding. In despair, I appealed to the crowd to disperse and informed them that it was only a water snake. I bent down and picked up the snake again, half-hoping that it would turn and bite, as that would offer assurance of its ability to fend for itself. But the keelback was still sluggish.

Diinesh, Arati, Radha and others who were travelling with us suggested that we leave the snake in a quieter place away from the highway. Idiotic as it may appear, anyone picking up a 4-feet-long snake by the tail looks like a superhero to the gawking bystander and I found it hard to shake off the crowd trailing me. Happily, the snake in my hands was now starting to resist, whipping at me with its tail and veering its head around. When I placed it at the foot of a hedge beside some farmland, the snake began to crawl forward but still not at satisfactory speed. Were we within sight of a water body, we could have released the snake into it without fearing for its fate.


Much of the crowd had now dispersed but a few persistent men followed me to investigate this most questionable rescue operation, among them the swaggering stud whose better judgement informed him that the snake was a cobra. “Nagara haavu,” he pronounced in Kannada to those about him; they nodded agreement. I pleaded with them to leave the snake alone but they lingered. I was also concerned about holding up the rest of our group so we left the snake, which was now slithering away from the road with what I hoped was renewed determination. 


A pang of guilt gnawed at me for the rest of the journey. Sure, we had averted a roadkill, but would the snake evade that crowd before its idle curiosity turned to ignorant fear, and then possibly to murderous rage? 


I’d rather not know…


Text by Beej
Photos by a very focused Arun (who happily decapitated me in his zeal to photograph the snake)


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