Charm offensive: Why India’s snake men (and their serpents) are taking to the streets

A 1,000-year-old tradition is at risk as police start to take the law seriously and animal welfare activists want the music to stop. Andrew Buncombe reports from Delhi

For many people who close their eyes and dream romantic thoughts of India, amid the imagined scenes of desert palaces and colourful chaos is that of the snake charmer – a man playing his flute while a dancing cobra rises and twists from its wicker basket.

In truth, there are fewer charmers than one might imagine. Government legislation dating back almost 35 years gives police the right to apprehend (or more likely, in many cases, take a bribe from) anyone using a wild animal for such entertainment purposes. The charmers that do operate in tourist centres and large cities, live a largely furtive existence, bothering a few coins out of passers-by whom they confront with their anguine companions.

But now the snake-charmers are fighting back. A newly created union for the men and their snakes has been established to demand that the legislation banning them from their “birth right” be overturned and that alternative employment for the snake charmers be provided.

In a sign of strength, around 5,000 snake charmers from the Indian state of West Bengal this week took to the streets of Calcutta demanding action and claiming that their generations-old profession is on the brink of death. Many were carrying their snakes with them as they marched.

“It’s our birth right to charm snakes. No can deprive us of that,” said 35-year-old Langra Bede, one of the charmers. “Our forefathers charmed snakes. We grew up with this. It’s basically all we know.”

Snake charmers have been part of India’s landscape for many hundreds of years. Traditionally the charmers were called on by villagers to help gather and remove poisonous snakes that represented a danger to them. Because snakes are considered sacred in Hinduism, people would not kill snakes but would rather call on these men and their special skills – traditionally handed down from father to son – to remove them.

The charmers would then keep the reptiles and “train them” for performances. (While snakes are deaf, it is believed that their “dancing” movement is a self-defence response to vibrations they perceive as threatening.) In more recent years tourists have been charged a small fee to be photographed with the exotic creatures.

But the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act made it an offence to use wild animals for such commercial purposes or to keep them as pets. Activists pointed out that in order to remove the threat from the snakes, which have the potential to be fatal to humans, the charmers usually rip out the creatures’ fangs rather than regularly draining them of the poison. They then feed the snakes milk. But within a year most charmers release their animals, which, without fangs, are unable to feed themselves. Since the late 1990s, the authorities have markedly increased efforts to enforce the law. Yet campaigners for the estimated 800,000 snake charmers say they are being persecuted.

The majority of India’s snake charmers belong to the nomadic “Bedia” tribe or clan, which speaks Bengali. Many of them live in West Bengal. Raktim Das, a founder of the Bedia Federation of India and an organiser of this week’s march, said the Bedia people, whose tradition dates back more than 1,000 years, had long been persecuted by the authorities and the police. He said that more than 100,000 Bedia families were suffering intense economic hardship as a result of the increased enforcement of the 1972 act.

If the government is unwilling to overturn the legislation, he said, it should establish official snake farms specialising in venom and snake skins which could provide employment to the Bedia people. “This has happened in other countries such as China and Vietnam,” said Mr Das. “This would not harm the snake population and it would provide a sustainable source of income.”

Mr Das claimed that a snake venom “mafia” operated in India and was behind government efforts to clamp down on the Bedia. He said that in a single strike a snake can release about 12g of venom, and that venom could fetch £130. A venomous snake could live up to eight years, which would be highly profitable, and private companies still pay snake charmers for any venom they can collect. The companies sell on venom to drug companies, harvesting significant profit margins.

He added: “In addition, we don’t think that snakes are really wild animals. They only exist where there are rats and rats live in places close to human civilisation. Also, if there are no snakes in an area it will increase the number of rats.”

Yet animal rights activists are adamant that the law is vital to protect all wildlife – not just snakes but bears and other animals – from exploitation. “Even now there are still snake charmers … The problem has been to find alternative livelihoods,” said Shakti Banerjee, director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “The dancing bears have largely been gotten rid of but not the charmers.”

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