When 10-year-old Shehala Sherin died after being bitten by a snake while in her classroom at a government-run school at Sultan Bathery in Kerala’s Wayanad district in November 2019, it sparked outrage against what was then described as an institutional failure.
Sherin was bitten by a snake after her leg got stuck in an unrepaired hole in the classroom floor and she died a few hours later. This was largely due to the lack of awareness among teachers on how to deal with snake bite cases, which quickly turn into health emergencies.
The girl succumbed to the snake’s venom during the three-hour journey to the Kozhikode Government Medical College, as there was no antivenom in any of the hospitals in Wayanad.
In the face of the uproar, the Kerala government had to suspend the headmaster and principal of the school, along with the doctor on duty at the government taluk hospital in Sultan Bathery, for dereliction of duty and contributing to the girl’s death.
The birth of Sarpa
2018-2019: That was when snakes had become the biggest contributors to the state’s escalating human-wildlife conflicts. Kerala witnessed the largest number of snake bite cases across India. The Forest Department’s data showed that snakes were responsible for twice the number of deaths of humans compared to those killed in encounters with wild elephants and tigers.
However, over the last three years, there has been a paradigm shift in Kerala as far as snake bites are concerned.
An app developed by Kerala’s Department of Forests and Wildlife, in the context of Shehala Sherin’s death, has significantly decreased snake bite-related deaths in the state, aside from safely rescuing and rehabilitating many reptiles.
The innovative app is significant in spreading scientific awareness about snakes, aside from teaching the younger generation how to keep and rehabilitate snakes in distress safely.
Titled “Sarpa”, the app also plays an important role in eradicating superstitions and popular misconceptions about snakes, in an effort to make the state reptile-friendly.
Inspired by the success of Sarpa, the governments of Tamil Nadu, Assam, and Odisha have also started developing their own apps to address the complex issue of snake bites. Moreover, researchers from Oxford University, UK, are now travelling across Kerala to study the change brought about by the bilingual app — Malayalam and English — that carries all information about snakes in Kerala.
Declining snake bite deaths
Since its inception, the app has helped trained rescuers under the Forest Department spot as many as 26,420 snakes that were reported in human settlements.
Among them, 22,062 were safely recovered and released into safe and conducive forest environments. In this process, the Forest Department has enlisted the assistance of 1,866 licensed and trained snake capturers living across the state.
According to Kerala’s Forest Minister, AK Saseendran, the app’s real achievement is reducing the number of deaths related to snake bites in the state. Between 2017 and 2019, 335 people died in Kerala due to snake bites. The yearly average was 111.
The Sarpa app was put into effect in October 2020 and that year, the number of deaths came down to 76. In 2021, the death count was 40, and, in 2022, it was 42.
The casualty figure stands at 19 so far this year, in 2023.
“This may be the first time modern information technology has helped reduce human casualties. We exposed fake snake experts and quacks by popularising the app. The popular perception of snakes as enemies of human beings has also started changing,” Saseendran told South First.
How the Sarpa app works
Sarpa (Snake Awareness Rescue and Protection) has sections to easily enter the details of a spotted snake or a snake bite incident. It also has a specific portion that helps identify snakes easily.
Through the app’s list of rescuers and forest officials, anyone can quickly contact them and seek scientific solutions to medical emergencies caused by snakes.
It also has sub-sections that carry contact details of hospitals that deal with snake bite cases, first aid essentials, and the nature and identity of snake bites. Additionally, the app can help victims and rescuers identify the nearest healthcare facility where antivenom is available.
In Kerala, the Malayalam months of Vrischikam (November-December) and Dhanu (December-January) are considered the mating seasons of snakes and, during these months, they come out of their pits and hide under dry leaves.
These months are also when there are many temple festivals and the movement of devotees would be on the rise, resulting in a sudden surge of snake bite cases. To counter this, the app has listed different hotspots where snakes frequent during these months.
According to Forest Assistant Conservator Y Mohammad Anwar, who is also the nodal officer for snake rescues, the app has facilitated species-specific data on snakes in Kerala and it has been invaluable in bringing down the number of snake bite deaths.
“Once you encounter a snake, seeking expert help or medical assistance is simple with this app. You can easily upload a photo in the app, not necessarily of the snake, but even just the place of its hiding, to alert the nearest rescuer. The government has given a standing instruction recently to all local self-government representatives to install the app and help coordinate snake rescues at the grassroots level,” Anwar told South First.
He explained, “The project aims at eliminating snake bite deaths in the state. About 80 percent of deaths related to human-wildlife conflicts occurring in Kerala are because of snakes. The risk factor is high as snakes can be spotted everywhere, both in urban and rural areas.”
Among the snakes, the cobra, krait, Russell’s viper, and saw-scaled viper always conflict with humans. Among the 14 districts, Palakkad stands out first in terms of snake bite cases.
Rescue and rehabilitation of snakes
Apart from running the app, the Forest Department has a network of Sarpa volunteers who regularly collect and update the data. In addition, the department conducts an average of 10,000 rescue operations annually using a network of 1,720 trained volunteers/rescuers from all walks of life, including experts and common people.
The Health Department and Kerala Disaster Management Authority have also been roped into the project to make it more proactive and quick in remedial actions. While entering the details of snakes, a list of rescuers in the area will be listed in the app.
When a rescuer approves the request, the details will be automatically sent to the Forest Department. The rescue details and photos will be available in the app.
The primary details of venomous and non-venomous snakes are available in the app. It also includes a list of antivenom treatments available in hospitals in every district.
As the app became popular, the government insisted that only trained people had the right to catch and rescue the snakes from human habitations. If non-licensed people catch snakes, the Forest Department will act against them.
Forest officers say that snake sightings have gone up due to uncontrolled construction activities, destruction of forest cover, and poor waste management.
“Unlike earlier times, we now get more than 50 calls a day from urban areas. Rescuers should handle snakes scientifically with the necessary safety materials. However, the unscientific techniques used by some rescuers are the main reason behind snake bites today,” pointed out Anwar.