Mangaluru: The first time ever Dr Ravindranath Aithal of Puttur (Dakshina Kannada district) tested the medicine developed by him for snakebite was on himself!. Aithal who can charm not only the snake but also the venom out of the victims veins. After getting himself bitten by a cobra, he tried the medicine that he had prepared as an herbal remedy for the cobra venom and it worked. After two weeks, he got himself bitten again by a Russel’s viper and this time too his medicine proved effective. In 2005, twenty-two years after his first experiment, Aithal became well-known expert in the field of research and conservation of snakes and the most sought-after doctor in the State when it came to snakebites. In 2005, he received the Rajeev Gandhi Parisara Prashasti, the award given by the State Government to those rendering noteworthy service in the field of conservation.
But recently according to sources, Dr Ravindranath Aithal who has been catching snakes for the last three decades, has stopped providing his services, for the fact that the forest department have issued notice to him pertaining to various rules/ conditions that he has to comply with before he catches any snakes. It is learnt that Aithal has stopped his service since he is unable to abide with the rules/conditions imposed by the forest department for continuing his duties. Due to this decision made by Aithal, people in the Puttur and surrounding areas are now worried as to who will substitute Aithal, as there are no snake experts in the area to undertake that job. A group of locals there have decided to meet District Deputy Commissioner in order to solve this issue.
Aithal, who originally hails from Saligrama in Udupi, made Puttur his home over three decades ago, when he shifted base to here as a bank employee. A certified homeopath, Aithal, after serving in a co-operative bank in Puttur for five years, quit the job and started practicing Ayurveda medicine, a family tradition he inherited from his mother. During that time, except for one Manmath Kumar, Puttur didn’t have anybody who could catch snakes as well as treat snakebites and the people had to go to Mangaluru for treatment of the same. Many times it would result in the death of the patient due to the distance between the two places. As a lover of animals, naturally Aithal was interested in what Manmath Kumar was doing and requested him to teach him the art of catching snakes. But he refused saying it was dangerous. Not discouraged by his response, Aithal learnt to catch snakes by just observing him do so. Like Ekalavya, he perfected this art without any body’s guidance-that was Aithal’s beginning as a ‘snake-doctor.’
At that time he didn’t have any knowledge about the medicine for snakebite. He studied every book he could find on snakes, observed the cold-blooded animals intently and studied about their food habit, lifestyle, natural habitat, etc. He also visited the knowledgeable elder people in the interior regions of the taluk to learn more about the snakes found there.
The first time Aithal caught a snake was at his friend’s place. He brought the reptile home and started taking care of it. Thus began his association with snakes and now he looks after dozens of different varieties of snakes in his ‘Sarpaloka’ (a shelter for snakes), including poisonous ones like king cobra, cobra, common krait, hump-nosed pit viper, Russel’s viper, saw-scaled viper, Malabar pit viper, and non-poisonous snakes like common worm snake, python, brown sand boa, striped keel-back, banded racer among others.
In ‘Sarpaloka’ he treats injured reptiles (and later trans- locates them to nearby wooded area), breeds rare and endangered species of snakes besides treating the patients of snakebite and other ailments. As part of his reptile conservation work, Aithal has traveled to various parts of the State and even to Kerala, to conduct talks, live demonstrations, audio-visual programmes to educate people on the issue of conservation of reptiles. In order to create awareness among the people about such blunders, Aithal takes live snakes with him to his public programmes and familiarizes people with harmless snakes.
In our State, Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts are the prime regions where snake-worship is part of the local culture and tradition. In the rural areas of these two districts one can find many ‘Nagabana’ (a forest region dedicated to snakes). According to Aithal, “This kind of worship of snakes cannot be dismissed as a blind belief as if one looks at the geography of the region, snake-worship has helped preserve many forests in these districts and has also led to develop a feeling of respect for nature among the people,” .
Aithal has taken care to make sure that every snake that he keeps in ‘Sarpaloka’ is provided with the same environment as is found in its natural habitat. The snakes which usually live for 10 years in the natural environment, have lived for more than 15 years in ‘Sarpaloka’ because of the proper care provided to them. He perhaps, is the only person in India who has done such an amount of extensive work in the field of snakes-related research, medicine and conservation. He has been taking care of snakes, providing treatment to them and releasing them into the forests since long. Until now since three decades, Aithal has caught and released into forest about 60,000 snakes, has helped hatching of about 20,000 snake eggs, has saved 298 king cobras and rescued over a thousand snakes from the jaws of certain death. He has also been helping people bitten by snakes by providing his Ayurveda medicines. In order to make his work more effective, he had started the non-profitable organization called Sheshavana Charitable Trust with the support of like-minded friends.
In the five acres of land which was allotted to the trust by the government , Aithal has grown a herbal garden containing rare herbs and plants of all kinds, the first of its kind to be developed by a single person anywhere in the state, which contributed towards popularising Ayurveda in the region. In fact he has already developed a beautiful herbal garden of 1.5 acres containing more than 600 varieties of plants of medicinal value.
He has also build a library at ‘Sarpaloka’ in order to provide both the live specimens of snakes as well as complete information about them under one roof. Besides being known as ‘snake doctor’, Aithal became popular among the local people as an effective Ayurvedic practitioner. He gives treatment to all kinds of illness except cancer and AIDS. In fact, his treatment for gangrene is said to be very effective and people come from far off places seeking cure for this ailment.
Though several awards have come Aithal’s way, he says, awards alone are of no use unless they provide monetary support for his works. There is a lot that the government could do to strengthen Aithal’s hands in this ecological endeavour. Because here is a person who instead of giving lectures on ecology and conservation, believes in doing something for it!
Aithal’s service is a line between Life and Death-Every time he goes to attend a snake distress call, Aithal reminds himself that there is a thin line between life and death. Being in this field for decades, he has had numerous near death situations like the following one. Here is an experience of him in his own words-“Once I had to apply medicine on the wounds of one of the two king cobras at ‘Sarpaloka.’ It was late in the evening and the light in the room was dim. After placing a divider net to keep myself at a safe distance from the snakes, I got into the box and started applying medicine on the wounded snake. After a few moments I heard a hissing sound behind me. When I turned around, I saw the second snake staring at me with its hood raised, ready to attack at any moment!”
“In fact in the dark I hadn’t noticed that this snake was outside the safe enclosure. I sat there without moving for more than one hour. It takes only two minutes for king cobra’s venom to kill a human. Six of my friends have died of this snakebite. So, sitting motionless inside that box I knew the death would come any moment. But I guess God was in no mood to end my life that day. One of my patients who came to collect medicine, handed me a stick with which I carefully distracted the snake’s attention from me and could come out of the box with my life intact.
Aithal says that as the forest regions everywhere are dwindling, snakes are forced to enter human habitats in search of food. “Once when I had gone to attend a snake distress call, I saw a rat snake eating dead fish from a dried up lake. In another place, a cobra had killed a chicken and the people there, without knowing the reason for its death, had buried the chicken. The snake came there the next day and after digging the dead bird out of the ground, began to swallow it. Snake always eats its prey fresh. It never eats dead animals. This sight of the cobra eating a dead bird made me realize to what extent nature’s food chain has been affected due to urbanization.”