|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?
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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