By the Harmony page team
In a backdrop where the current education system has failed to bring children and youth close to the natural world and to the many creatures that we share the space of this earth with, there is one man, of humble means and little formal education who has taken upon himself to rectify this imbalance the way he can. Having a profound understanding of the importance of protecting the eco system of the planet Puthrasigamani Jeganthan, is a 35 year old ‘snake rescuer’ from Habarana who juggles a day job at a hotel in the area, to rescue snakes from humans as well as create awareness among youth and adults on the importance of the safeguarding of snakes of Sri Lanka.
He has been a snake rescuer for the past 18 years or so, beginning with rescuing reptiles that came to his house. On finding that he could handle the snake without fear or causing a reaction from it, he continued to un-obtrusively carry out this feat, without much fanfare. It is only when the village photographer found that a cobra had entered his home and called upon Jeganathan to remove it, that this unique self-made snake specialist had the pleasure of having his first picture with the creature he had rescued. That was 16 years ago.
Later having come to own a camera, he has taken hundreds of pictures of every possible kind of snake he has saved totalling to over 3,200, including three of the most venomous of snakes; Thel Karawala (the most poisonous), the Thith polanga and the cobra where if bitten one dies within 3 hours.
In all his 18 years of handling these reptiles, it is only once that he had got bitten and sought medical treatment at a hospital as one should if attacked by a venomous snake.
“I am not someone who studied about snakes theoretically. All what I learnt; such as how to handle them, how to identify when they are scared and are prone to attack, and removing the sting from them prior to doing a training with them, I learnt with them as my direct teachers,” explains Jeganthan who maintains a level headedness in doing his work, and never uses it for exhibition or tourism although his day job is in a tourist hotel.
“I have strong ethics when it comes to my work. I do it with inner conviction and I stick to my principles,” he says.
His mission in life is to educate people that all reptiles are a vital part of the eco system and wants to work with those officially in charge of wildlife protection. He predicts that the way snakes are destroyed by humans who are so unused to living with these creatures as people of yore did, that soon ‘we will have to import snakes from another country’. A 2018 media report in the Sunday Times put the number of snakes killed per day in Sri Lanka as 10,000. Jeganathan believes that the number could even be more and that one day Sri Lanka may face threats such as plagues from rats especially as garbage both local and imported, piles across the country.
Jeganathan whose only expertise on snakes is his day-to-day handling of them, shares the views of other experts such as toxinology (envenoming) expert Dr. Kalana Maduwage quoted in the Sunday Times media report that thousands of the snakes killed in fear of them being poisonous are actually not.
“I am not a theoretical expert on snakes. What I know about them is handling them for the past 18 odd years with the sole intention of saving them from homes they had wondered into and scared the living daylights out of humans. People must be educated that venomous snakes are actually very few,” says Jeganathan. Not charging any money for his services, and riding long miles away on his bike at all odd hours, within Harabarana and sometimes adjoining villages, bearing the fuel cost on his own, he points out the reason he does not charge even a meagre amount.
“The village I live in is inhabited by people who eke out their daily meals with difficulty. They all hold manual jobs and even if they spare Rs. 50 it takes a toll on them and those who are not able to even give that amount will feel ashamed and obliged. As a result of not being able to pay me people will start killing the snakes instead of calling me,” he says.
Not only does he save snakes but also treats them for injuries they have suffered due to mistreatments by humans. His six-year-old son and wife assist him to tend to the snakes who have been doused with kerosene by people wanting to chase them away. Snakes subject to this treatment are submerged in a bathtub full of Aloe Vera gel and fed eggs. As soon as they are healed from their mental and physical trauma and are fit to go back into the wild they are released.
“Many people do not know that when they throw kerosene on a snake that it suffers terribly and dies in a few weeks. I have tried to educate people that the snake is a creature that lives in the wild and is not an enemy of humans – it does not come seeking to harm humans. It is just living in this planet like all of us and wanders more and more into human territory because the wilderness is being destroyed daily,” he points out.
He also feels that that there is a lot of myth and not facts that gets propagated.
“The snake called Katakaluwa is a non-venomous snake. However there is common belief that this snake is deadly,” says this snake rescuer who has trained his young son to identify the snakes according to its appearances and detail out if they are poisonous or not.
“From the age of four he has been with me when I was handling snakes and now he explains to people about them. Once while I was away at work, a neighbour wanted to know if a snake that had come to his garden was poisonous or not and my wife could not accurately identify, so she took our son and he correctly stated that the snake was harmless,” he says.
He points out that almost every week he gets various people, most of them youth or children who travel from far to meet him and learn about snakes. He has trained his younger brother and a neighbour in the art of creating awareness on snakes and rescuing them, says Jeganthan.
Despite his yeoman service to the saving of snakes and educating people on them, he says he faces daily risk of a legal nature, because technically under law it is an offence to have a reptile in one’s possession. Summing up his work he sees it as a small part of safeguarding the oneness of the eco system.
“If the snake is not injured by scared humans I immediately release it to the wild. Only when it has to be healed from injury do I keep it for few days as needed,” he points out. Commenting on Sri Lanka’s other vanishing natural life, he recalls how when he was a child he had daily seen thousands of ‘wee kurullo’ over paddy fields, pecking at pests and keeping the crops safe from them. Today he says that it would be a rarity if one would see even one of these birds because they have all been killed off by pesticide sprayed on crops.
“The same with frogs. Like the birds they too have almost gone fully extinct along with hundreds of other species who we will never miss until our planet resembles a barren lifeless place occupied only by humans who destroy it,” he points out.
The most important thing that everyone should do is educate themselves that this planet is not their sole property and that the right to live in it is shared by other creatures, points out Jeganathan.