Ban bites Indian snake charmers hard

India's snake charmers are fighting for its survival amid stringent wildlife protection laws.

Indian street performer, Baba Baijnath charms a pair of cobra's during a roadside performance in Amritsar on February 8, 2009.  Street performers across India are known for their use of animals ranging from dancing monkeys to snakes and even cattle with extra limbs.  
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NEW DELHI // For centuries, India's snake charmers have enjoyed a celebrated place in the country's history. The hypnotic tunes they played to enchant snakes to dance have not only captured the imagination of Indians, but people around the world. But now, the industry is fighting for its survival amid stringent wildlife protection laws. Since the late 1990s, when the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) was implemented, members of the nomadic Bedia community have been watching their finances dwindle. The act bars people from using wild animals commercially or turning them into pets, including bans on performances with live snakes. With the literacy rate among the Bedia community being very low, most families make their living from pavement performances, including snake charming. "Having lived with the reptiles since childhood, the snake charmers know only one vocation, that is handling snakes and holding public shows, but strong measures adopted by police for the last decade or so have put them in a difficult situation," said Goutam Banerjee, chairman of the Bedia Federation of India (BFI), a non-governmental agency that works on behalf of nomadic communities. Thousands of Bedia are planning to hold a rally in Kolkata this week to demand alternative employment from the government. "We are organising this first-ever rally to tell the government that thousands of people have been neglected after the ban. The government should do something to provide employment to the people associated with the trade. Our slogan is 'Save the snake, save Bedia, save Earth'," Mr Banerjee said. The BFI says more than 100,000 snake charmers have been affected by the ban in West Bengal's Murshidabad, Birbhum, Nadia, Malda and Coochbehar districts alone. They put the figure at 800,000 for all of India. Although snake performances were banned in all major cities in India in 2000, the Bedia were still able to work in smaller towns and villages, earning a few rupees for each performance. But with rapid urbanisation, many people in the countryside can now afford televisions, which keeps them inside. "Now we have taken up all kinds of jobs, ranging from daily labour, rickshaw pulling, rag picking. The end of snake charming is much more than a loss of work or means of livelihood. It is a loss of tradition and we have faced lots of hardships in these years; the repressive measures by authorities have resulted in jailing of 20,000 charmers with 10- to12-year terms," Mr Banerjee said. The Bedia federation plans to step up its campaign for either an exemption to the wildlife ban for snake charmers, or push the government to set up snake farms that would provide employment for the community. Charmers say their expertise can be utilised in developing serums at these farms. Raktim Das, one of the federation's activists, said a cartel controlled the trade in serum, which is worth millions of dollars. "A snake yields approximately 12 grams of venom in a single strike and the international market rate per gram is US$210. On average a snake will yield venom worth 20 million rupees (Dh152,000) in a lifespan of eight years. The cartel wants to monopolise the trade and breed snakes in private farms and not allow the snake charmers their share," Mr Das said. Snake charmers are paid by private firms for the venom they extract from the snakes, but the companies then sell it at a much higher rate to pharmaceutical companies to make the serum. "We demand that the government allow only the snake charmers to sell the venom. The price will then naturally come down and these gypsies, who are a vanishing tribe, may get a fresh lease of life," he said. According to official data from 2006, more than 250,000 people are bitten by snakes every year in India out of which 50,000 people die and a significant number are left maimed in some way. India has two per cent of the world's venomous snakes compared with Australia, which has the most venomous snakes but only recorded one death in 2006. "Snake charmers, with their generations of knowledge of snakes should be employed in remote health centres where doctors are not available or they don't know how to treat a bite. We will make this suggestion to the government to employ snake charmers in rural areas," Mr Banerjee said. Animal rights groups ridicule the idea of setting up snake farms for antidote production. "If the government has banned commercialisation of wildlife, there is no point in demanding snake farms. Such a step will jeopardise the already dwindling population of snakes," said Ambika Shukla of the People for Animals. This week's rally in Kolkata will be a testing time for both the authorities and the charmers. The BFI has said the Bedia will carry their snakes with them as they march. With charmers taking to roads, the government has to protect their interests, without harming the snakes, making it a tough call, as both are now endangered.