The Breathless Hours

by Janaki Lenin 7

Janaki Lenin describes the nocturnal habits of our most fearsome snake, the common Indian krait

Krait1

The real problem with kraits is that they enter homes in the dead of night and bite people in their sleep. Kraits find their way into houses through gaps in the door or walls, especially during the monsoon months. They crawl along, hugging the walls or any object. A sleeping human on the floor will do. As they inch forward, they sink their hollow fangs into a finger, arm, toe or leg. The neck, buttocks, breasts, genitals and earlobes are  not exempt.

Why do they bite with little provocation? Experts propose many theories. Sleeping people inch when they feel the snake crawling next to them. They roll over and the animal reacts in self-defence. Humans attract kraits because they smell like prey. Body heat attracts the cold-blooded snakes. They are so hungry, they mistake parts of the human anatomy for food. My husband, Rom Whitaker, thinks kraits are guided by smell, and something about human body odour triggers a feeding response.

The krait’s bite is almost painless and causes little or no swelling. Often, there’s not even a bite mark. Should the victim or the family switch on the light, they may not find the culprit. Kraits recoil violently from light.

Sleepy victims brush the bite off as an ant bite or the jab of a thorn. Even if they take it seriously, others may dismiss them. They’ll say, “Let’s see in the morning.”

By morning, the victim lies paralysed. Masi and Vadivelu, followed by Rom, hurried along the bunds that separated the elds, towards a distant knoll. I trotted to keep up. We didn’t look twice at any rodent burrow on our path because we weren’t after cobras. It was kraits we were after.

By some accounts, the common Indian krait is the most toxic land snake in Asia, and second only to Australia’s inland taipan in the world. Of course, every test shuffles the deck to throw up a different ranking. Whatever the test—the toxicity of krait venom ranks high and its ability to kill is not in doubt.

As members of the Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative, Masi and Vadivelu had a licence to catch two kraits each that fortnight. The cooperative buys snakes from them to extract venom to manufacture anti-venom, the only antidote for a lethal snakebite.

Of the four venomous, nocturnal, rodenteating snakes that the tribal Irulas hunt—the spectacled cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common Indian krait—the last is the most difficult to find. The Irulas spend more hours on a krait hunt than on any other species. We were searching for a creature of pitch darkness that hides in the deepest burrows and emerges only late at night. I knew we were in for a long, tiring day.

Before setting out, Masi said they’d target piles of gravel dug from wells as kraits like them. They are not so common in field embankments. “I have a hunch they are very shy snakes that don’t like to be disturbed,”Rom explained. “People walk on bunds, repair them. They are constantly messing with them. Nobody meddles with well tailings.”

The Irulas ambled around the gravel mound, pushing creepers out of the way with their three-foot-long iron crowbars. Several minutes later, one of the Irula men called Rom in a low voice. They pointed to a hole about an
inch in diameter. It was impossibly small for a snake that grew to a metre-and-a-half long.

“How do you know the krait is in this one?” I asked in Tamil.

“Kraits push themselves through narrow holes,” Masi replied. “When a krait goes in, it pushes soil out, so there’s an even, raised edge all around. See, the track is smooth not only on the lower lip, but on all sides.”

I saw a raised edge, nothing conspicuous. No matter how much I examined the hole, I didn’t see the smooth tracks in the loose gravel. I slowly nodded my head, unwilling to admit I couldn’t see what they so obviously did.

As soon as I stepped back, the men started digging. Was it just me? “Can you tell if a snake has gone in?” I asked Rom quietly.

“When they point it out, I can see it,” Rom replied. “I’ve never been able to spot one by myself. You need to see hundreds of thousands of burrows with krait tracks before you notice these signs.”

Since Irula kids tag along with their parents on snake hunts, they learn to pick out these subtle tracks. Rom spent 40 years hunting with the tribesmen, and he still felt he lacked the training of Irula children.

*

Krait2

“Irul” means “dark” in Tamil, but it doesn’t refer to their working hours, or the nocturnal snakes they hunt. The Irulas need light to pick up the subtle signs of snake activity, so they hunt during daylight hours. “Irul” refers to their aboriginal complexion, a name given to them by skin colour-obsessed Tamilians. The Irulas call themselves “Villiyans”, or “people with bows [and arrows]”; weapons, the Irula elders say, the British took away. How they developed their sophisticated snake tracking and natural history skills is a mystery.

The heap of gravel wasn’t compacted, and the crowbars dug in with ease. The men pushed the dirt out of the way before it collapsed. Within minutes, beads of sweat became streams, running down their brows and soaking their shirts.

When on a hunt, Irula tribesmen walk all day and cannot carry many things. No tongs or hooks for these professional snake hunters; their only tool is a three-kilogram crowbar. When used with brute force, it becomes an earth excavator. It’s a lathe when they chisel the sides of a burrow to widen it. It’s a torch when the men angle the polished blade end to reflect sunlight into the dark recesses of a hole. It’s a snake scooper if they find a krait or cobra—they lift the animal by supporting its belly with the crowbar in one hand and holding the tail with the other. It’s a restraint used to pin a viper’s head.

Now and then, Masi and Vadivelu inserted a foot-long pliant green stem they had stripped of its leaves into the hole. If it twitched on touching the coils of a snake, they knew they were close. If it hit the end of the burrow and didn’t jerk, they knew the snake was no longer at home or the burrow has taken a turn. They’d look inside for more faint tracks before deciding whether to keep digging or give up.

When the twig moved, Rom and I were on our feet. The men carved the inside of the burrow, peered inside and carefully pulled out a krait.

*

The metre-long snake was glossy black with an oily sheen and thin white bands. It hissed faintly. It didn’t hood: it can’t. Nor did it have warning colours like coral snakes. It didn’t bunch up its coils, poised for a strike, like pit vipers. No krait in real life warns as Karait does in Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki Tikki Tavi”: “Be careful. I am death!”

The animal Masi held pretended to be innocuous, like one of the many similarly banded wolf snakes. Experts will say harmless wolf snakes mimic the dangerous krait, so predators will leave them alone. If so, that trick has spectacularly backfired. People misidentify the more visible and common wolf snakes as kraits and clobber them. But it is possible kraits mimic wolf snakes to slither under the radar. More than a few escape a gruesome death as humans dither with a stick raised in midair, thinking “maybe it’s just a wolf snake”.

Twenty years ago, Rom taught me to differentiate between the identical snake species. Kraits have thin bands, he said, regularly spaced from the fore-body down to the tail. I took him at his word until we found a young 40-cm-long snake with wide white bands that began close behind the nape. In Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, Naseer, a friend of ours, had picked it up from under a rock and was about to gently place it in my outstretched hands. Both of us thought it was a wolf snake.

“Put it down on the ground,” Rom instructed calmly.

When Naseer put it down, Rom said, “I think it’s a krait.” Before either of us could protest, he pointed to the snake’s back. “See the line of hexagonal scales down the spine?” No mistake, it was a krait.

We had been gentle with the snake and it wasn’t alarmed. It sat still, masquerading
as a wolf snake, not realising its cover had been blown.

Kraits, it appears, are masters of deception. Not only do they mimic harmless wolf snakes, they don’t stick to a template. How to instruct people to identify kraits when there are variations in the width of bands; whether the bands are absent, paired, or not; where those ought to be; and even if the colour of the snake ranges from brown to black?

When Masi let the snake go, it covered its head with its coils and pretended we weren’t there. Instead of trying to make a quick getaway, all it wanted to do was hide. The most dangerous snake in India is a scaredy-cat when the sun is up. But at night, the krait is transformed.

“They won’t bite unprovoked,” Rom has always maintained of snakes. “Only in selfdefence. To avoid getting bitten, use a torch at night and wear footwear.” Most bites by cobras and vipers occur when rural people trample on them in the dark, after they finish work in their fields or dash to the neighbour’s when the sugar runs out.

But the krait: that’s another animal entirely.

*

Krait venom is packed with powerful neurotoxins. The first symptom of the venom’s action is drooping eyelids. Sometimes, victims complain of severe abdominal pain that forces them to seek medical help. The extremities tingle as the venom shuts down nerves and progressively paralyses the body. When the muscles can’t pump the diaphragm any more, the victim develops difficulty in breathing and swallowing. Within minutes, he or she can no longer move.

The Rajasthanis say peona, or krait, sits on the chest of a sleeping person and sucks their breath. It is an accurate, if metaphorical, description of respiratory failure caused by krait bite.

Toxins bind themselves to nerves and are impervious to anti-venom. Injecting antivenom neutralises free-floating toxins in blood and tissues only. More than anti-venom, totally paralysed patients need ventilators to keep them going. Or they become deprived of oxygen and die.

We’ve heard of families assuming the seemingly lifeless victims were dead. They didn’t seek immediate medical attention. The victims died, but much later.

What makes krait bite a horror story is that although a victim appears lifeless, he or she is fully conscious. Of all the things that go “bump” in the night, this is the worst. What must go through the mind of a person who’s unable to communicate and is locked in a body over which he or she has no control?

Rom worked for Bill Haast of the Miami Serpentarium for two years in his youth. Haast survived almost 200 bites by venomous snakes, including king cobras and mambas, over his 56-year career. Of all those bites, only one nearly killed him, and that was by a common Indian krait. He maintained a journal of his developing symptoms as long as he was able.

“Every muscle in my body aches,” he wrote five hours after the bite. “Pins and needles sensation on soles of feet. Throat very sore, teeth hurt, back of tongue is numb. My speech and thought processes do not seem to be affected.”

Several minutes later: “Radio and other sounds are tremendously magnified. Colours of the curtains seem more brilliant.” He told Rom a few years later that the sound of a cough sounded like an explosion.

“I felt like the skin had been stripped from my body,” Haast told the Associated Press in 1996. “… [l]ike every nerve in my teeth was exposed, like my hair was being ripped out of my head.”

He had an out-of-body experience, floating above the room and looking down at the doctors and nurses working to save his life. Though he wasn’t religious, he said he saw the white face of a lamb. He heard one doctor say, “He’s fading, he’s fading.” Although helpless, he willed the medical team to keep working.

*

What should people do to avoid getting bitten by kraits?

Obviously, sleeping off the ground was the answer, or so I believed for a long time. Sleeping on the first floor was even better. However, one study in Nepal found that almost 70 per cent of the victims were asleep on a cot, and more than 70 per cent were on the first floor. That’s surprising, because kraits seem reluctant to climb. But, in the Nepali study, they seemed to target people who were out of reach, rather than those sleeping on the floor. The only thing that prevented krait bites was sleeping under mosquito nets.

If they climb up the legs of beds and haul themselves up the stairs, then Rom may be right. Human body odour seems to attract kraits like bees to nectar.

They are also adept escape artists. Kraits put their ability to jam themselves into the littlest burrows to use when imprisoned in a bag. They thrust their noses against the cloth tirelessly. If it gives, they shove themselves through. In the early 1970s, an Irula woman snake catcher, Velliammal, had a window seat on a crowded bus while cradling a bag of kraits on her lap. As the bus rolled down the busiest road in Madras, as Chennai was known then, she noticed a krait coming out of the bag. When she jammed it back into the bag, she was bitten. The brave lady kept her cool and continued to sit tight, holding the hole closed. None of the passengers was aware of her predicament. Moments later, the bus rolled to a stop at her destination.

She told the animal dealer she had gone to meet that she had been bitten. He secured the snakes in another bag and rushed her to hospital. She lived to tell her harrowing tale.

Freshly caught snakes bite and smear their venoms on the cloth snake bags. Venom corrodes the fabric over time. So Rom held up the snake bag our krait was going into against the light, pulling the cloth apart to test for weaknesses.

When he was sure the bag was good, he held it out and Masi dropped the krait into it. He twisted the open end and tied it into a tight knot. The men put on their shirts and we continued the hunt for more kraits.

Until recently, Masi and Vadivelu lived in thatched mud huts. They would have observed kraits entering their homes through gaps in rickety doors. Perhaps they knew more about krait behaviour.

“Why do you think kraits bite people?” I asked Vadivelu.

“It’s the person’s fate. Their time has come.”


This piece was published in The Night issue (January-March 2016) of The Indian Quarterly. Buy the issue here.


7 Comments

  1. Vinod April 11, 2016 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    Very fascinating article. I have learned a lot today.

  2. Steven Paschetto April 12, 2016 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    It was so great to meet Janaki and Rom recently in Melbourne Australia. Their books about Indian snakes are such an inspiration…would love to love to work for them in the Crocodile Bank one day.

  3. Amit Kumar Gupta April 12, 2016 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    Very lovely and precise description of the species Bungarus nocturnal by nature a snake with a voracious cannibalistic appetite..During my early childhood in my Village i witnessed that 2 child from a same family succumbed to death in a single night while they were sleeping on floor in night, next day after the horror the snake was found inside the pillow cover in the Same room…I call this species Night Stalker.

  4. Scott Eipper April 12, 2016 at 4:15 pm - Reply

    Excellent article!

  5. Barry Goldsmith April 12, 2016 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Great article Janaki, Love your writing style to

  6. Anuj Shinde August 17, 2016 at 4:57 pm - Reply

    Lovely..

  7. Kiran September 20, 2017 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Amazing ending.. “Their time has come” !

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