When a snake is spotted in Kerala: The SARPA app and rescue operations

With the onset of monsoon, snakes are increasingly spotted in residential areas. Photo: Marc Freebrey/Shutterstock

On a summer afternoon, residents of a house at Kanjikuzhi, Kottayam in Kerala, saw a young cobra crawling away from the car porch. Disturbed and scared, the inmates followed its trail until it wound itself up inside a small crevice at the bottom of the compound wall. A call was made instantly through SARPA, an app for snake rescue operations and kept a watch on the reptile to ensure that it didn't crawl away and disappear. After about 30 minutes a young man arrived with snake-catching gears and swung into action. In a few deft moves, he bagged the creature in a specially made black sack and took it away to hand it over to the forest department. The youth, an Ayurvedic doctor by profession, was one among thousands of trained volunteers in the snake rescue team.

The sight of a snake always sends shudders through the spine of a layman, no matter how much he or she is tutored about its significance in biodiversity and in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. One cannot react without panicking from its presence in the vicinity. However, Kerala, the state which accounts for a large population of diverse snake species, reports an increased number of snake bites in the state. And, the number of cases spikes with the onset of monsoon. However, when a group of volunteers and forest officials launched a snake rescue operation aided by the online app named SARPA (Snake Awareness and Rescue Protection App) it provided a sigh of relief for many.

Though the mechanism is meant to rescue reptiles, it is a bliss for people who live in perpetual fear of snakes, especially for those who reside in houses which are close to thickets and open fields. Launched in 2020, the app from the Kerala forest department has been instrumental in conducting around 35000 snake rescue operations so far across the state. The snake rescue operation cell that functions under the guidelines of the forest department closely monitors the spotting of snakes and updates the instances every day.

Volunteers are present across Kerala
There are around 2400 volunteers connected with the app and they are supervised by district-level co-ordinators. Spread across the state the volunteers are pressed into service instantly when a case is reported on the app. From hundreds of applicants close to 52 new volunteers are recruited and trained every year for the operation. However, the delay in fund allotment on the part of the government has kept the training programme in limbo this year.

That has in no way deterred volunteers from the app-augmented rescue operations yet. but has increased the burden on the existing rescuers. But the real problem is something else. It's the random, negligent calls for rescue without fully confirming the presence of the reptiles that put rescuers in a quandary. Abeesh, Forest Watcher and district co-ordinator of SARPA, Kottayam, explains the situation: "On several occasions, we get calls from people after mistaking a lizard or a rat's tail for a snake. We rush to the spot, which could be far away and discover it was a false alarm. Had there been better scrutiny and sense of judgement on the part of rescue-seekers to avoid such situations, we would have ensured a better service to those in real need. Since the network is spread across the state volunteers present in any region in the state, even while they are travelling, swing into action by alerts generated from a location in their proximity."

Food waste attracts rodents and pests and these creatures in turn are preyed on by poisonous as well as nonpoisonous snakes. Photo: Klameko Pictures/Shutterstock

The prime reason for reptile visits to residential areas is the negligence of people dwelling in the place themselves. "Littering of food waste in surroundings is predominantly the reason for snake incursions in the area," says Abeesh, "Food waste attracts rodents and other pests and these creatures in turn are preyed on by poisonous as well as nonpoisonous snakes. So, above any other measures like making the house pest-proof by using mesh and so on what's most important is keeping surroundings clean and litter-free, says Abeesh.

What one should do when a snake is spotted
Panic and confusion are natural reactions when a snake is spotted. But what's mostly required is presence of mind and composure. "If it's seen outside the house and in a big yard, it's better to let it go and alert people in and around the area. If it's found stuck in a small plot immediately inform the forest department. Killing or capturing a snake is illegal," Abeesh says.

Now that the app is there, the ideal way is to click a picture of the snake and upload it on the app, that is available on Google Play Store, and then make a call through it. "If the snake is not visible, at least take photos of the spot where it is believed to be holed up and post it on the app along with the location," says Abeesh, "but one should ascertain the presence of a snake and the call should be genuine. SARPA app is a useful, life-saving tool and to make it remain so, what is required is scrupulous and judicious use."

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