India 'microtags' snakes to snare illegal charmers

Sunday 17 April 2011 00:00 BST

Officials in New Delhi have injected microchips into snakes used by snake charmers in a bid to regulate the basket and flute performers who have long been a favourite with tourists in India.

The chips, which contain a unique ID code, will effectively act as name-tags, allowing officials to ascertain whether individual snakes have been registered by their owners, Delhi's forest department chief Deepak Shukla said Wednesday.

India implemented laws in the late 1990s proscribing the commercial use of wild animals, including performances with live snakes.

In Delhi, the state government offered an amnesty for charmers in 2003 but only 10 came forward to register their combined stock of more than 40 snakes.

It was these animals that were tagged with the microchips in Delhi on Monday and Tuesday.

"There are many charmers who did not accept the amnesty and they will be punished if they are caught now with snakes that do not have these electronic chips," Shukla said.

The tagging process was carried out by Goa-based snake expert Nitin Sawant, who injected the chips into the tissue of 42 snakes, including king cobras, common cobras, rat snakes and one red sand boa.

"The idea behind this entire programme was to stop the random collection of fresh snakes by these traditional charmers," said Sawant, adding that many of the animals he tagged were in poor health.

"I told these charmers to give up their profession because they are not capable of looking after their snakes," he said.

The wildlife legislation has emptied most large cities of snake charmers, although a small number can still be seen around major tourist sites in places like New Delhi, risking arrest as they cajole foreign visitors into taking a snapshot for a small fee.

Animal rights groups say snake charmers are cruel impostors who use physical abuse to train the reptiles to move to the sway of their flute-like instruments.

The entertainers generally rip out the snakes' fangs and feed them milk, meaning the animals are unable to catch prey and die when returned to their natural habitat.

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