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India snake charmers have identity crisis

COLUMN ONE

A few lucky ones got their cobras and other serpents ID-chipped before the deadline. Others will have to lie low, which won't be hard because their profession is as endangered as some of their snakes.

February 21, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Pali Nath, a snake charmer in the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, shows off his most prized possession, a cobra called Reshma.
Pali Nath, a snake charmer in the outskirts of the capital, New Delhi, shows… (Mark Magnier, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tiplit, India — Pali Nath has a high-tech advantage in performing an ancient ritual. The snake charmer's cobra is computer chipped and ready to dance. Well, almost. It's winter in northern India, and the beast isn't terribly energetic.

So as Nath waves his flute, striking up a brisk tune, a listless Reshma briefly lifts her head before retreating into her basket and semi-hibernation.

Nath, 52, is one of only 10 Delhi-area snake charmers whose serpents have semiconductors embedded under their skin by the Delhi government. The chips act as name tags that legalize ownership and help ward off officials threatening to fine, extract a bribe or jail Nath under laws designed to protect wildlife.

This gives Nath a big advantage over competitors. "I'm sure they're jealous," he says in this dusty community half an hour from the capital. Dressed in a traditional saffron robe and cap, he says, "They're unemployed, and I'm making money."

Which should make him happy. But working in a profession that's as endangered as some of its snakes weighs on him. Tastes are changing as India's middle class explodes. Children who once followed the sound of his flute, Pied Piper fashion, now barely glance up from their portable Game Boy consoles.

"We're losing our culture," says Nath, whose sixth-grade education puts him ahead of his mostly illiterate compatriots, arguably why his four cobras, rattlesnake and king cobra are on the right side of the law.

Bureaucrats didn't really publicize the snake-chip program, in effect a one-time amnesty for a lucky few because all snake charmers are technically in violation of the country's wildlife act. And, truth be told, the authorities wouldn't mind if the charmers gave up their snakes for good.

Charmers have long been suspected of using their art as a cover for selling snakes to smugglers who supply the lucrative Chinese traditional medicine trade.

The microchips — which cost the government about $20 per snake, including implanting — are embedded below the skin to survive the snake's molting process. The idea is to ensure that a specific snake actually belongs to a charmer.

Nath learned of the program only after reading a newspaper article two days before the deadline to comply. He rushed to Delhi's Department of Forests and Wildlife office with his six snakes in a bag, where a worker took them into another room to be chipped and gave him a document attesting to his legal status.

Media, animal lovers and the government criticize charmers like Nath for confining the snakes to tiny baskets and ripping out their fangs — done periodically because they grow back — leading to infection and death. But Nath strongly disputes this, arguing that his snakes sleep with him and eat better than he does.

"We treat them like our children," he says, jamming 5-foot-long Reshma into a basket the diameter of a dinner plate.

India had about 800,000 unlicensed snake charmers in 2007, according to a recent survey by the Snake Charmers Federation of India. Those now caught without a license face up to seven years in jail under Indian laws that aim to safeguard biodiversity by banning the possession, sale or trading of wild animals. Among the most affected, other than smugglers, have been traditional showmen: charmers, monkey grinders and trick-bear keepers.

In reality, though, enforcement is spotty, and it's more likely that offenders' animals will be confiscated, which is still a huge deterrent.

Nitin Sawant, the zoologist at Goa University who implanted the microchips into the 42 now-legal snakes in mid-2011, has a dim view of how charmers treat their scaly moneymakers. "Almost all were defanged and they were kept in very small traditional containers," he says. "The health of all the snakes was very pitiful."

But it's the charmers who are seeking pity these days, as they recall a golden age when tourist officials directed wealthy foreigners their way to experience a cliche of Indian mysticism, alongside elephants and maharajah.

Even their simple presence on the streets was auspicious then, they say. According to Hinduism, the snake-loving god Shiva sent 12 devotees named Nath to all corners of India, which is why "Nath" is such a common name in the charmer community.

It is often noted that a biographer of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) mentions that Indians worshiped a 105-foot snake (an exaggeration, no doubt) with eyes "as large as Macedonian shields." At one point, snakes were even included in dowries.

But growing environmental awareness and exploitation — at the peak in the 1960s, India exported 10 million snakeskins a year to foreign fashionistas for belts and purses — led to passage of the 1972 wildlife law that authorities started to enforce only in recent years.

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