Wildlife

From Gupkar to tiller’s land, Kashmir’s human-snake conflict has come home as an alarm call

Lately when a sun-tanned farmer caught a snake from his paddy field somewhere in Kashmir’s countryside, long-standing fears about crawling creatures only turned real. Since then, the dreadful possibility that ‘there’s a snake lurking in the grass’ has grown manifold. So, how serious is this new strife in the valley? 

Last time when somebody tried to breach the most protected residence in Gupkar Srinagar—housing the who’s who in town, the vigilant sentries fired to kill a mentally-unsound person. But recently, when another breach happened, the highly-trained gunners stood still, as a woman saved the day at the former chief minister Omar Abdullah’s G1 residence.

The act was caught on camera and went viral on social media, bringing the human-snake conflict of Kashmir to the fore.

Ever since the strife blew out of proportion, there has been unimaginable ecological damage inflicted on ‘Paradise on Earth’. The intrusion is now sending animals to the human habitations. As they fight for survival, their sudden prominence has caused a new wave of panic.

Yes, the growing number of dislocated animals has led to an escalation in the number of human-animal conflict cases. The legless trespasser found in Omar Abdullah’s home a month ago became a celebrity overnight as the news was widely shared and its removal from his residence was celebrated.

But did anyone stop to ask what happened to the creature after? Was it killed or did it live to see the light of the next day?

Thanks to Aaliya Mir of Wildlife SOS, the snake was harmlessly released into the wild following rescue operations.

Aaliya Mir.

Videos on human-animal conflict have been a rage on Kashmiri Twitter and WhatsApp since a few years. An emerging sub-group in this category is the ‘human-snake’ conflict which has been troubling the valley after the 2014 floods.

According to Aaliya, who has had seven years of experience in wildlife rehabilitation, climate change is responsible for the rise of such cases. “Previously, we had to only engage with the Jammu province for snake rehabilitation, but now the valley has seen a spike in the number of snake encounters,” she says.

These occurrences have become commonplace in the past 2-3 years, Aaliya says. “Snakes thrive in warmer climates and due to climatic changes in Kashmir, the population of serpents has increased drastically.”

Due to the problem’s unprecedented nature, people aren’t trained enough to handle snake encroachments. “There are a lot of training programs that equip people with skills for handling such man-animal conflicts. I studied at the School of Snakes in Goa and also acquired a BSc in Disaster and Animal Management from Delhi University,” Aaliya informs.

Wildlife SOS, where she works as Jammu and Kashmir’s Project Manager, has short refresher courses on snake handling in Dachigam and Pahalgam for anyone who is interested. Harmless but firm control over the reptile, distinction between venomous and non-venomous species, rehabilitation into the wild, first aid, and government formalities are taught to the students.

Time and again, wildlife enthusiasts and herpetologists have tried to bridge the gap between snakes and humans. Due to certain misconceived notions about these creatures, the first reaction humans have towards a snake is of fear and defensive assault.

“This is entirely unnecessary because snake seldom attack, unless provoked,” Aaliya says. People choose cruelty to tackle this slithering reptile. Trampling and beheading the creature is a widespread practice, without the understanding that snakes have the potential to live up to 12 extra hours after being decapitated.

The knee-jerk killing of snakes isn’t limited to Kashmir but is a worldwide practice that has its roots in orthodox Christianity and educational misunderstanding. In such a backdrop, it is surprising to know that Kashmir has a rich mythological history of the mystical Nagas who are believed to have inhabited the valley, much before the Aryan invasion of India.

Famous Kashmiri historian, Mohammad Yusuf Taing, firmly believes that Aryans had invaded Kashmir and slaughtered the Nagas. “The story of Hemal Nagrai depicts that Nagas were aboriginal inhabitants of Kashmir and were ethnically cleansed by Aryan invaders, who came to Kashmir from Central Asia and committed genocide of Nagas on a scale which can be matched by events like massacre of Red Indians of America by Spanish Europeans in 1492,” Taing said in an interview with a local publication, adding he has a strong belief in the existence of Nagas in Kashmir and that his belief is reinforced by the topographical evidence of Hemal Nag and Nagrai Nag in Balpora and Safan Naman, two neighbouring villages near Shopian town.

Even the etymology of Kashmir has been challenged and linked with its serpent-worshipping past.

M.A. Stein, author of The Ancient Geography of Kashmir, believed the word “Kashmir” came from the ancient Naga linguistic lore. Taing, commenting on the etymological origins of the word “Kashmir”, says it must be the linguistic vestige of the Nagas, who were wiped from the valley by invading Aryans long before the emergence of Sanskrit in the area. He believes the word predates the recorded history of the place.

‘Gunas’, the local word for Levantine Vipers, is a serpent species native to Kashmir. A lot of folklore is built around their character in the valley. The pre-historic culture of snake-worship has left an indelible mark on the civilization and its impact on words and places is still visible.

Gunas, the serpent native to Kashmir.

For example, the word ‘nags’ is used in Kashmiri to refer to water springs and is reflective of the fact that many snakes reside in water. Even one of Kashmir’s oldest centres of civilization, ‘Anantnag’ can have its name broken down into ‘anant’ meaning infinite and ‘nag’ meaning spring, literally translating into a land of many water springs.

Such revisits into history are always transcendental. Although the human-snake conflict in Kashmir isn’t a full-fledged existential problem, it has the potential of getting out of hand if not dealt with properly. The first step towards the solution is wildlife education.

“Only removing snakes from our houses isn’t enough. They need to be rehabilitated into the forest with good care,” reiterates Aaliya.

Her team had once rescued a cobra from a house in Kashmir. “This isn’t their natural habitat, but their environment has been encroached recklessly,” she states sadly. “We rescued the cobra and had to seek government’s permission to legally place it in its natural habitat in Jammu.”

Unknown to many ‘animal-lovers’, moving a wild animal from one place to another needs to be done with the state’s permission. The request to rehabilitate needs to be approved and only then can the process take place. “If applied in time, the permission can be sought in 3-4 working days,” Aaliya informs.

As per this Kashmiri expert, humility, compassion, and love are essential when dealing with any wild animal.

But as we continue to hear increasingly about ‘snake trespasses’, it is imperative for us to recognize that ours is the only species trespassing and any apprehension over snakes can be managed with emphatic education and corrective measures to repair environmental damages.

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