Barefoot Notes: The Holy Python

We’re only a phone call away to rescue snakes from homes before they are killed, and work with the Forest Department on such small rescue missions. But often we hear about a handsome snake only a day after it is killed. The most common incidences of human-snake interactions happen during monsoon, and they are different than most because the incidences of the largest of the snakes  – the Indian Rock Python, Python molursus  –  of central India venturing boldly near human settlements and agriculture fields in search of prey increases.

Pythons have fascinated man since a long time, and Forsyth wrote about them to be a “subject of so many wonderful tales” in central India. Forsyth mentions the Indian Rock Python only once in his epic Highlands of Central India as a narration of his encounter with this snake in the forests of central India. His description is rather vivid, as is his reaction, for pythons evoke a great fear and awe in those who see it (pp. 353–354):

“It was in these jungles that I first saw the great rock python of India, which is the subject of so many wonderful tales. I was following the track of a wounded deer, and, the day being very hot, had mounted my horse, a chestnut Arab, from which I could shoot, carrying a rifle. The horse almost trod upon him, lying on a narrow pathway, and started back with a snort, as the great snake slowly twisted himself off the road, and down the slope of the hill, along which it wound. A loud rustling, and here and there the wave of a fold in the grass, told me that something was moving down the bank, and I forced the horse after it, very unwillingly on his part, till with a loud hiss, and a swish of his folds, the serpent gathered himself into a great coil, just under the horse's nose. A very unpleasant sound, like the boiling of a big kettle, came from the gathered pyramid of coils, and I lost no time in leaning over and firing both barrels of the rifle into the mass, at the same time drawing the horse back to the pathway, as I did not know the customer I had to deal with. The snake made off down the hill, and my horse refused to follow, so that, before I could dismount and get down on foot, all trace of him was lost. I was taken by surprise, or should perhaps have made a better business of it. My impression was that the creature was about twenty-five feet long, of a leaden colour, and about as thick as a large man s thigh. I have seen one killed in the same jungles, which measured sixteen feet in length. They are of a very sluggish disposition, and do not molest man. The stories of their swallowing spotted deer whole, antlers and all, I believe to be utter myths.”
On World Snake Day (July 16), we received a call about a python that had come in contact of a grazing lot of cattle and goats under the shadow of a rocky hillock striped of trees called Chandi. It had caught hold of an adult goat by the neck, twisted her around a couple of times, but had let her go when the shepherd hit it hard on its head. Since then, the shepherd later informed us, the snake had been lying still. We arrived in the evening to a little gathering of several bystanders, local taxis and bikers forming an arc around the road, and first laid our eyes on a gorgeous eight foot long python lying still by the roadside. A few yards from the gathering the cattle and the goats grazed oblivious to the commotion.

The left-half of the python’s jaw was bleeding, and remained half-open. The snake’s body however showed no wounds. With the help of the Forest Department, we took it away for a checkup and some dressing of its bleeding mouth. I asked the shepherd if the goat was alright, and he said yes; except for a sprain in the neck, she was okay. I also wanted to ask why he didn’t kill the snake, instead of just hitting it enough to let it go of its grasp, but refrained.

We brought the snake to our centre in Kanha, and let it rest here for a while. The most snake-friendly veterinarian was with us that day, and we were able to examine the snake when the park authorities arrived. It had six severe puncture wounds on its lower jaw, probably created by its own upper teeth when he was hit hard on the head; and the upper jaw was a black-blue line of broken teeth and damaged mouthparts that had punctured the lower. Clotted blood had filled its mouth.

Once cleaned of its wound and examined for other injuries – which fortunately were none – the snake was bathed with water a number of times. And then, it began to move. Some said that the snake might be a female about five years old. When she began to crawl, she did so in a very straight line using her muscles as legs.

The deputy ranger told us of his encounters with these giants in the forests of Kanha. Generally, it is said, when a python makes a kill, all the animals unite against it and stamp upon it. Once, he said, he saw a python bringing down a Barasingha, but the snake received a strong resistance, and became masked in its own blood, but it did not let go of its prey. It perhaps implied that a python is strong enough to withstand such excruciating pain.

It was unanimously decided that the python would be released that night itself, so she was taken deep inside the protected forests, away from any human interactions, where she could find peace of mind that she earnestly required for healing. That is all we could do. Snakes do not express pain, the veterinarian expressed, and to keep her would have stressed her, and might have killed her.

To watch this large python eight feet long and weighing about the same slither smoothly on the moist earth as it vanished into the darkness was a hopeful sight. It would have been in vain, and unnatural, for this gentle wild beast to be arrested until she was fully healed. We saw her raise her head to see where she was headed as she made her way through the thickets. She would find shelter, and rest there for days until her wounds healed and her teeth grew back, and she would never have to chase human pets again.

For five years she stayed near human settlements, feeding on rodents, hares, and possibly small domestic animals. And in those five years she had never encountered a human. On this fateful day when we were celebrating World Snake Day, she encountered her worst enemy – man – by a mere accident.
The Holy Python, now ready for release.
But what made the shepherd not kill her when almost all the snakes are inevitably killed made all the difference. It gave her a new life. The reason for not killing her perhaps lies in an ancient tradition. Pythons are considered an avatar of Goddess Lakshmi, who brings good fortune, and who visits homes after the harvest is stored in granary and rests there guarding the grains from rodents and bad omen. This simple belief has saved this snake from its doom, and perhaps has saved many in the past. Old tales tell of pythons seeking shelter in granaries for many years, when people were more tolerant of them.

Last year we rescued a feisty python measuring five feet and weighing about the same, which was found by women working in fields. A few years before the Forest Department had to request women to stop worshiping a female python and her neonates who had taken shelter on a hill not so far from Chandi so that they could rescue the snake family.

These tales are of a small note, but the traditional culture is probably the only thing that has kept central India’s largest snakes alive outside of protected areas. But their fate hangs by a thread.

Kaa’s words to Baloo and Bagheera, “Psshaw! The branches are not what they were when I was young. Rotten twigs and dry boughs are they all” (– Kaa's Hunting, The Jungle Book) might be coming true after all.

Woodcutting, bringing new land under cultivation, and expanding of grazing lands is closing the gap between these gentle giants and the potentially easier-to-catch domestic animals. And that would mean conflict. It is only this traditional thread that is keeping local communities tolerant of pythons in their backyard, and it is the only thread ecologists have to pull on to, to make it stronger if we are to protect this enigmatic species before conflict increases.

The First Long Flight

Phapha sat on the dashboard of the car, clueless of where he was going. He sat in a position that meant he was exhausted, scared, and unsure of what had happened and would happen. When the car came to a halt, he made no move. He was picked up by two hands cupping his wings, and was placed carefully on the table. He wore the fully-adorned plumage of myriad shades of blues, with subtle hues of crimson sprinkled on the brown-streaked neck – the shades and hues typical of the elegant Neelkanth, the Indian Roller, Coracias benghalensis. The only noticeable characters were a shorter-than-usual tail, and yellow gape flanges typical of a fledgling – a teenager of the birdlife – whose curiosity is greater than fear, and who’s more eager to spread wings than stay nestled.

He sat in the same manner when he arrived – the pose he retained until he found a suitable place to perch upon – and looked at us intently as we observed him for any injury. He appeared healthy but incapable of flight: several of his primaries were missing, and a black mass, probably the result of burning, seemed to have damaged further down to the sheath that covers a new feather. As I made a box, in which he spent most of his nights, he sat and made my bag his perch – where he sat for more than half of his stay. The box was completely open from a side and a branch, inserted near the lower-bottom frame of the box – served as a comfortable perch. After a few drops of glucose, he sat inside for the rest of the day and into the night.

The summer mornings are pleasant until the sun rises four fingers high. Phapha stirred before I did on his first morning, and hopped and sat on my bag again. I decided to venture out into the verandah, wondering what could possibly be the best food for this little bird. Phapha had not eaten in more than a day, and I was getting worried.

The Indian Roller is a common bird of the Indian countryside – more at home in the vast expanses of scrub and grassland habitats than dense forests – where they perch on the edge of plantations or commonly on electric wires and scan the ground for insects. The name, Indian Roller, comes from its habit of rolling midair during courtship display. Their dance – which begins around March and is a common sight in the central Indian skies – is a spectacle worth watching. The males fly up high in the sky, and roll back down as if on a swing, like a trapeze artist, calling out to the spectators – usually a female perched somewhere in his vision – in a rather shrill, bark-like, call.

Their breeding season begins with such dances, and mating occurs shortly afterwards as days become hotter. I consider this time unusual for breeding, especially for birds that rely so much on open spaces for food, but the rollers seem to have adapted to this season by nesting inside tree cavities. How they tirelessly feed their chicks in this hot season I cannot fathom, and I had a glimpse of it when Phapha came to us.

Phapha was born on an ancient Banyan tree in a quaint little village in central India. His parents had made home in a hollow in one of the many of the tree’s arms. Phapha might have had the best memories of the place – a tree as wide as a playground for a small bird to play on, surrounded by houses and agricultural fields which must have served as an endless source of food. I wondered what his first glimpse outside the hollow beheld – did he see the tree as the playground, and houses where food hid? He must have jumped off his perch, and stumbled upon the thinner branches of the tree when he thought his time to explore had come. Sometime during his solo adventures he must have fallen into the hands of children playing around; a moment that changed his life completely.

A kid held the end of a rope that was tied to Phapha’s legs, and the children were sitting and playing with this young bird when my friends intervened, but the only intervention sought from the elders around was that the children are children, let them play and then they will leave him, they said. Phapha’s rescue was bought for a sum of five rupees, and he was taken from them, untied, and kept on the dashboard of the car. I was quite unaware of what befell this young bird until I heard the complete story. Why was the bird not put up back up the tree, where his parents would have been waiting? What should have been told to the kids, who had no clue that tying the bird is harmful for it? But Phapha was here, over a hundred kilometers from his home, clueless of where he was, and he was hungry.

Studies by Sivakumaran and Thiyagesan (2003) on the ecology of the Indian Roller have shown their preference towards beetles (Coleoptera), grasshoppers (Orthoptera), and then members of Hymenoptera, and Lepidoptera; they are also known to eat reptiles such as lizards and small snakes. When I walked among the shriveled grasses on Phapha’s first morning, I pondered over what he could possibly eat – and his potential food hopped right off my path and sat on a grass blade – a grasshopper. Catching grasshoppers is not an easy task. Although you see them everywhere, getting close to them and having to use your fingers to grab them requires a lot of patience, and skill. Both of which I lacked severely. I caught eight of them of the thirty or so I tried, and brought them back to where Phapha sat on his favourite perch.

To my delight, he ate them all in no time – but that meant that I had to catch more. And to catch more I had to persuade more people to help me catch more grasshoppers with me. We devised a small bamboo-framed triangular net called phapha net, to catch grasshoppers. In that day we fed Phapha with eighty grasshoppers of varying sizes – from less than an inch to over two in length. Catching grasshoppers, called phapha in Baigani (a dialect spoken by Baiga tribes of central India), became a morning and evening exercise, and thus he came to be named Phapha himself, partly also because he hopped like one wherever he went.

On the morning of the next day, I saw a small pellet lying outside his box, comprising all the indigestible parts of the grasshoppers he gobbled up whole – and in it were remains of legs, wings, and assorted unintelligible parts. I found it difficult to select beetles to feed him, since some are unpalatable even though they appear edible, and this made me think about Sivakumaran and Thiyagesan’s paper which shows beetle parts as a major component of a roller’s pellet. Although there is no doubt that beetles are a part of their diet, I think they do not contribute significantly to their diet, one of the reason being that beetles are rather small, and difficult to spot when the birds perch up high. Or, that beetle parts are mostly hard and indigestible, and hence appear more commonly in pellets than other insects.

I kept a track of how many grasshoppers Phapha ate, and at times, when we could manage to catch as much as a hundred, he ate as many in a day. Slowly, however, we grew tired of catching grasshoppers in the day, and I substituted his diet with raw chicken. This showed some interesting facets of Phapha.

By the end of a week, Phapha had become accustomed to be eating from my hand – and would hop closer to me whenever I sat on the bed, making a shrill kree-kree sound when he was hungry and I was around. On a fine Sunday morning as I sat to read Jeff Corwin’s 100 heartbeats: the race to save Earth’s most endangered species, Phapha who was sitting on his favourite perch hopped and landed on my shoulder, and made it to my head, and sat there watching out the window. His gaze fell on everything that flew past his eyesight. I was reading about the Heath Hen that became extinct in the Americas, and of the success of bringing Bald Eagles a step back from the valley of extinction. Later that day, I read these words (quoting Jeff Corwin): “…we keep it alive because we should. We do it because we take responsibility for this bird’s plight. We do it because we are responsible for its plight”. (pp 32).

My thoughts went back to Phapha and at countless other animals caught from the wild, and tied, and toyed with.  I felt a deep sense of regret when I looked back at Phapha; his life that seemed to have faded from his eyesight without his knowledge. That he, although untied and uncaged, was living within four walls of a human habitat separated by a glass that kept him from venturing out. Rescuing an animal is easier said than done, but it is easier – far more easier – than rehabilitating it.

I faced an ethical conundrum. Rescuing an animal hurt by humans is ethical, but if the animal is injured by a natural cause, I think it is unjustifiable. Had Phapha been a victim of a mongoose or a snake attack, rescuing him would have meant hurting the mongoose or the snake that had every right to do what they’re evolved to do. However, rescuing Phapha from humans with intentions to use it for mere entertainment seemed the most ethical thing to do, as ethical as rescuing a leopard that fell in the well. My heart went out to the elders who said that the kids are just playing with it – would they be so casual if they found a tiger playing with theirs – I wondered, but shrugged at that thought, for it is too inhuman, too sensitive, too cruel to think of. What of Phapha then, I ask.

Phapha’s plight is but a symbol of what millions of birds go through when they are cramped in cages, even in bottles, to be sold as displays, toys, or used for superstitious rituals. But Phapha made me think of the ethics of rescues – his rescue is justified because he was in danger from humans, but had he been put up back on the tree, his parents would have accepted him, and fed him – but he would have never been away from harm, since the kids knew where he came from. His rescue was also highly doubtful because we were unsure of whether he would survive such a shock. During his initial days, I kept observing his primaries – he had lost four of them from the root – to see signs of their growth, but all I saw was a black smoldered spot that appeared as though his feather would never grow back. He started losing several of his other primaries and tail feathers, but he always ate plenty.

He did not take liking to chicken at first – he was accustomed to the jumping, crunchy grasshoppers than the slimy, dead, wet chicken pieces, but he slowly developed a taste for it. Whenever he was done eating, he would vigorously shake his head if I offered more. Sometimes when I came back with a few morsels, he would shake his head when he saw me entering the room – signaling me that I’m full, or saying no, not chicken again!

To reduce his dependency on us, we decided to open an empty, large room, and rested his box near the window. He now had a large space to explore, safer than he would have been without wings in the open. I stopped offering him food from hand, and instead threw it around him for him to catch. And he gobbled phaphas, and ate chicken, and puked pellets and shat all over the room. I kept a track of his lost primaries every two-to-three days, but they looked like lifeless little holes. It was quite discouraging really, that after more than a week Phapha was as helpless as he was when rescued. Many of the people remained discouraged, and questioned the ethics of sacrificing grasshoppers for one bird’s survival; that he would never fly again, and the best for him was to release him and let the nature take its course. I relented partly, because a bird in a cage is as good as a bird dead – Phapha’s fate was sealed when he was captured first. I kept him and his box outside my window under a banana tree, and he quickly came out and sat on top of the box. I sat a few yards away. Phapha made no move, but then he slowly started hopping about in the undergrowth – but he could never reach to any branch of a tree around. Deciding that he was not ready for the outside world yet, he was back in his room, eating phaphas and chicken.

By this time Phapha had eaten more than 500 of grasshoppers, some put the figure between 800 and a thousand.

[If this number is related to the number of grasshoppers eaten by rollers in agricultural fields, they seem to be very efficient at removing grasshoppers from fields, and are as much a farmer’s friend as an earthworm. In my expeditions of keeping a stock of grasshoppers, I also came to realise that grasshopper poop – which appears like tiny pellets pointed at two ends – can be a great source of fertilizer which can be derived by feeding grasshoppers with weeds in agricultural fields (but that’s another topic).]

But by then people were fed up with me more than with Phapha, since he demanded a lot of them, and the cruel nautappa, the season of extreme heat and humidity in central India, was at its peak, making hunting for grasshoppers an exhausting task. After a few more days, albeit being pessimistic, I decided to release him again. And in deciding his fate I somehow declared myself god. Who am I to decide this for him – not once but twice – what if he required more time to recover?

On the morning of June 4, fourteen days after Phapha first came to us, I happened to check his primaries after several days – and I saw all the stubs sprouting little folded, wrinkled, deep-blue feathers – like first leaves of spring. I was overjoyed. What prompted me to check I know not. Over the next few days, I observed he was able to maneuver sophisticatedly while reaching out to catch grasshoppers on the floor; he was able to see them from over five-to-six feet away, chase after them if they hopped off, and would perch gracefully on the arm of the bed. His chuckling voice (sounds as chhuckk-chhuckk) – typical of the adults – and his practice of bill-up laughter displays became frequent.

I started feeding him more of chicken than grasshoppers because it became physically nearly impossible to find so many for him – and I wonder how parent rollers manage to feed their chicks in this oppressive heat –, and by June 11, he flew well around the room, but he wasn’t able to sustain his flight for long, neither could he fly up the table if he sat on the floor eating.

My early days with Phapha were divided into the time I had to feed him, which I calculated at every two hours from 7 or 8 AM to 6 PM, with a 3 hour long break during the hot afternoons. He had become quite accustomed to this timing, and when he started flying a little, I made his feeding time irregular. I would infrequently enter the room, and whenever I did I would let grasshoppers all around for him to find and eat, and forced him to keep changing his positions in the room for a little exercise.

We received our first monsoon rains on June 14. It poured sweetly all afternoon, and calmed the weather by several degrees. Winged termites and ants, velvet mites, and tiger beetles left their earthly homes to venture out in the open. Grasses sprouted, and the life of monsoon spun into action.

Phapha, by then, was excellent at flying short distances. On June 17, he flew all around the room without crashing into anything or taking a pause, but most elegant was the way he landed – by carefully flapping his wings with his eyes set on the perch, stretching his feet, and grabbing onto the arm of the bed.

Phapha seemed to be ready for the wild, for he often sat near the window more than ever, and on June 20, exactly after a month from he was rescued, Phapha’s box was kept atop an old Palash tree. This spot was in a secondary forest, away from any village. Several other trees stood around, and green grass grew at their feet, rich with bouncing grasshoppers. The morning we decided to release him was cold and it was drizzling. After placing the box on the tree, Phapha immediately came out and sat on the platform created by one of the box’s flaps. And he sat there for an entire five minutes, chuckling and looking around at other birds flying by. We sat a few yards from him. And as the sun shone behind him, and into my eyes, Phapha took his first long flight, away from those who tied him, away from those who released him, and disappeared behind a vast treeline overshadowed by monsoon clouds. And he never looked back.