The Snakes

Snakes are among the most dreaded animals, always feared and looked at with awe. Our blood almost clots to see them slithering from down the ridges and getting lost in the bushes nearby. We do not take the courage to take the same way once again, lest the snake should raise its hood, fork the fangs out, and bite. No, we don’t want to face that.

Mythologically, the snake is said to be one of the first reptiles on planet Earth. The term serpent, used synonymously with the snake, comes from Old French, which means 'to creep'. The native people in Australia and the Caribbean islands believe that the Rainbow Serpent that lived inside the sea played an important role in bringing land into existence, making our life possible on earth.

Snakes are long, thin reptiles. They do not have legs and they slither along the ground. They have a long, legless, flexible body that is covered with dry scales. When snakes move about on land, they usually slide on their belly. Their eyes are covered by clear scales rather than movable eyelids; therefore, their eyes are always open. They repeatedly flick out their narrow, forked tongue, using it to bring odours to a special sense organ in the mouth.  

Snakes belong to the order of animals called reptiles. This group also includes crocodiles, lizards, and turtles. As with the other reptiles, snakes maintain a fairly steady body temperature by their behaviour. They raise their temperature by lying in the sun or lower it by crawling into the shade.  

There are about 2,400 species of snakes in the world. They live almost everywhere, in deserts, forests, oceans, streams, and lakes. Some are ground dwellers, others live in trees, and other snakes spend most of their lives in water. There are a few areas where snakes do not live. They cannot survive in places where the ground stays frozen the year around, so they are missing in the Polar Regions or at high mountain elevations. Several islands, including Ireland and New Zealand, do not have snakes.

The Colubrid snakes are sometimes referred to as "typical snakes". They comprise the largest family by far with over 2000 species worldwide. Their left lung is either absent or greatly reduced. Most species are considered members of two large subfamilies, Colubrinae and Natricinae which are distinguished by the presence and absence of spines respectively.

The cobra family is thought to have evolved from Colubrid snakes and many appear very similar in appearance with long, slender bodies and large scales on the head. They differ in having more advanced venom delivery systems than other venomous Colubrids. In the United States, only copperheads, coral snakes, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins have poisonous bites.

The venom of the snakes is made up of neurotoxins and mytotoxins. The fatal dose of their venom is about 1.5 milligram. Sea snakes however do not bite humans and are harmless unless provoked. Their poison is generally more toxic as compared to venom from land snakes.

The Elapidae family contains some of the world's most dangerous snakes including cobras, mambas, and sea snakes. Elapids are found worldwide and in Ausralia, it is the predominant family. In North America, three species of elapids are found, two species of coral snakes and one sea snake. The coral snakes are relatively small snakes that spend most of their time underground. Their primary food is other snakes. Despite their small size and small fangs, their venom is extremely toxic.

Nepal also is home to many varieties of snakes. Snakes are deeply rooted in Nepalese culture and tradition. The snake has an important place as a divine power in Hindu and Buddhist traditions and features in the epics such as the Mahabharata. Hindu people worship Nag, the king of snakes in the snake festival Nagpanchami that is celebrated in August in mid monsoon. They believe that by doing so snakebite can be avoided and rain will be assured for their crops. Colorful posters of snakes are pasted on the main door of the house and milk and money are offered to the priest and snake charmers to feed the snake.

In Nepal 77 species of snakes have been identified so far and 21 species are detected to be poisonous. All snakes of the poisonous family belong to elopidae and viperidae family. The family elapidae processes powerful neurotoxins, while viperidae includes viper and pit vipers.

Snakebite is a major cause of death to many people every year. A study shows that in Asia alone, it has been estimated that four million snake bites occurs each year of which 50% are envenomed resulting in 100,000 annual deaths. In countries like Nepal, snake bite is a common event in many rural areas where transportation and medical facilities are grossly inadequate.

Snakes are an important member of the ecological system. They occupy an important position in the food chain. They maintain the balance by eating up the excess population of frogs and other insects, preventing many plants and smaller creatures from dying out. However, due to human pressure upon the environment, many snakes are losing their habit, and are endangered. The San Francisco Garter Snake  is the most endangered snake in North America. The Eastern Indigo, the largest snake found in the United States is dying out because of the gradual destruction of its habitat due of human settlement. The King Cobra, known as the largest venomous snake in the world is disappearing day by day. Similar the Dumerli's Boa, found in the island of Madagascar may not be visible after a few years.

If they disappear, the food chain will break and the ecological balance will be disturbed. In such a disturbed environment, there is no question that man can live in peace. 

                                                                                                                                           By Mahesh Paudyal

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