AFP, Thursday, 17 June 2004, New Delhi: With the increasing attack from animal rights activists and the police, India’s estimated one million snake charmers are at a crossroads and conservationists are charting out ways to turn the age-old practice into a modern, eco-friendly profession. A 1972 ban on snake charming has been inconsistently implemented, but more than three decades later, 75 percent of the entertainers have felt its effects in some way, a study by the private Wildlife Trust of India found. Largely chased out of major cities, the snake charmer is now increasingly based in villages where he does not risk police crackdowns but earns far less, the study said.
The Trust, in a list of recommendations to the government, proposes redefining the role of snake charmers, who catch some 400,000 snakes each year, as “barefoot conservation educators”. The snake charmers would work in special centers where they can share their knowledge about the venomous reptiles and sell traditional medicine to treat bites.
“This is a poor community and in an era where tolerance for wild animals, especially dangerous reptiles like snakes, is going down, the skills of the community can be used for conservation,” said Bahar Dutt of the Wildlife Trust of India. Alternatively, the Trust suggests turning snake charmers into musical ensembles, performing on their beens, clarinet-like instruments they play when the snakes appear to go into a trance.
Snake charmer Banwari Nath said the entertainers, whose skills are passed from father to son, desperately needed to find a new form of income. “India is known for its kings and its snakes. You have stopped our profession but there was a time when we used to be sent abroad to perform at festivals of India. Even that has stopped now,” Nath said. “Please restart these festivals so that we can earn something. Also please see that our children get educated so that they don’t enter this profession,” he said.
Snake charmers routinely used to accompany troupes of dancers, musicians and village entertainers to special “festivals of India” organized in the mid-80s in many European countries and in North America. Clad in the holy color saffron, they are a fixture at village festivals in India, where there is little awareness of the ban. They take the reptiles, generally cobras, out of their sling bags and appear to hypnotize them with the swaying movements of their beens and the mesmerizing music, which snakes, being deaf although highly sensitive to vibrations, cannot hear. But animal rights groups say snake charmers are cruel imposters who through physical abuse train the reptiles to move to the sway of the clarinets. The entertainers generally rip out the fangs of the snakes and feed them milk, because of which the animals unable to catch prey and die when returned to their natural habitat after about six months of performance.
Conservationists know their work is cut out for them in ending the traditional charming of snakes, which are considered holy by many Hindus. “Snake-charmers enjoy a God-like status as they are able to conquer these deadly animals,” Dutt said. Dutt traveled through the heart of India with fellow conservationists and was initially shunned by snake charmers who feared she had come to take their reptiles away. “They threatened they would put snakes in my bag if I didn’t go away. Slowly, the trust began to build,” she said. Critics of conservationists point out that snake charmers help treat people for bites in rural areas where health care is inadequate and that some of the snakes snatched from the wild for entertainment would have been killed immediately by frightened farmers.
For 60-year-old snake charmer Krishan Nath, the conservationists’ plan makes perfect sense, that he put his skills to work at a special center to educate people. What he cannot come to terms with is the inconsistency of the approach to snake charmers. On the one hand, his occupation is illegal, but then he is sought out for his expertise when snakes present dangers. He said he was once even called to the prime minister’s office to catch a snake. “I don’t understand this,” he said. “If there is a ban, why does the prime minister’s office need us to catch the snakes?” asked Nath.