Snakes of India book

Review: Snakes of India -The field guide

Snakes evoke mixed feelings in most people. They are either  feared, adored, worshipped or despised. Even among those who worship and revere them, most of them would rather keep their distance than come up close to observe them. On looking  back at my past interactions with snakes, from a total of about six or seven , two stand out. The first took place when we were taken to a “snake exhibition” as part of our school outing in Mumbai. Although  I now find this practice of keeping any creature in captivity against its will detestable, it was here that we were allowed to touch a snake. The head was of course held safely out of the way by the handler . The second, the closest I ever came into contact with a wild snake was when I rode over one at top speed on my bicycle. The rat snake was crossing the road at top speed too. I instinctively lifted both my legs high up in the air and was scared witless for a while. I suppose the snake was just as scared too. Both these incidents  happened when I was still in school. After this, both the parties successfully managed to evade each other for about 25 years or so. Now I’ve started looking for them in earnest wanting to know more about them.

A section on scaling/methods of scaling for those who are interested. Sorry about the quality, I has to over adjust the contrast to make it visible.
A section on scaling/methods of scaling for those who are interested. Sorry about the quality, I has to over adjust the contrast to make it visible.

Ever since Discovery and National Geographic began airing on television, a lot of myths about snakes have been dispelled. I’ve always been an animal person, but of late I’ve fallen in love with plants, insects and now reptiles. The Ray Mears programs on Discovery channel produced by the BBC, stirred up in me a deep love for Bushcraft and for all things wild. Soon I had become an avid backpacker roaming around wooded areas with my trusty Nikon DSLR slung around my neck. I was disappointed however that I could not spot any snakes anywhere. I was probably often in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong season. It is quite possible that I was looking in the wrong places as well.  What was worse was that I could identify only about three or four Indian snakes.

I had already bought some books on birding, bushcraft and botany which I often carry around with me when I go backpacking or camping. When I was browsing  through some  other related books, I came across Snakes of India written by Romulus Whitaker and Ashok Captain. Although I knew this is what I was looking for, I was disappointed as the price  was quite steep. I was saving to buy a  pair of good quality tactical binoculars made by Steiner for birding, and this book cost half  its price. I then Googled the book title hoping that some other bookshop would be selling it for less and ended up at the Draco books website.  I was sure this was a good buy as I had watched programs featuring Rom on  TV. I was disappointed once again at the price. Thankfully instead of  just closing my browser window. I decided to let Draco India know that their books were a bit overpriced for most of us, so I shot off an email to them not really expecting a reply.

I got a prompt reply from Ms Janaki Lenin the next morning. She explained that the price I saw (in USD) on their website was for a hard cover edition. This  was printed primarily for overseas customers and held more photographs than the Indian (paperback) edition, which retails here for Rs. 975/- .  She also mentioned that the cheaper paperback version meant for the Indian audience was to be sold only through their distributor, so she couldn’t offer it for sale on their website. That made things a lot clearer. I had previously noted that some of the online book shops were selling a cheaper version. However since there were no thumbnails of the book cover, and there were no  reviews by people who had bought it either, I was a bit skeptical as I have had enough past experiences of buying stuff online from Indian merchants which on delivery looks nothing like what had been shown online during purchase. I finally bought the book for Rs. 780/- from a popular website with free shipping and received it in less than two days in Delhi.

I was surprised as the cover was semi-rigid. I was expecting a flexible cover on the book. Even though the corners of the cover had curved slightly inward, I was glad to have this instead of a flexible cover.  I was eager to see the quality of the paper and the photographs as well. I have an Oxford India publication going by the name ‘Flowers of the Himalayas’, whose pages  are fit to be  used as tinder for starting a fire as the paper is rough, yellowish and only marginally better than newspaper. In addition, the photographs are washed out and look like they have been clicked on a first generation camera phone.

Coming back to the snakes of India, what immediately caught my  attention was the strips of color running down the unbound sides of the book. This is the result of the color coding on the pages which divide the snakes  broadly into three  categories,  Non venomous, Mildly venomous and Venomous. (There are a few mildly venomous snakes in between the non venomous ones though). I’m not sure whether they are graded by the relative toxicity of their venom to some scientific standard or by the toxicity of the venom to humans. The book does mention that even non venomous snakes have toxic saliva which is used to subdue their prey.

[ Note:  On reading this review, Janaki  added, “There isn’t much of a difference between “relative toxicity of their venom to some scientific standard or by the toxicity of the venom to humans.” So if the snake is red coded, its bite can be fatal, the orange coded ones can cause reactions such as swelling, localized pain, etc. for a couple of days and green coded are totally harmless although the bite is painful! But this is an evolving field of study as we don’t know a lot about toxic saliva and its effects on humans, which snakes have such saliva…”  Thanks Janaki for setting the record straight.]

The book starts and ends with a total of three plates on the end pages of the book. Spread across the front end pages, we have the map of India  and across the rear end pages, a close up of North East India.  On the pages preceding the rear end pages, you have a close up of the Western ghats. The pages are  made of good quality smooth paper and the photographs are brilliant. Knowing the associated problems of shooting out in the wilderness in various kinds of lighting, I commend the photographers who have shot the pictures. The details stand out and makes it quite easy to identify the snakes and admire their patterns and colors.

The book has a very good introduction called ‘What this book is about’. In a couple of pages it speaks of the basics of identifying snakes, what to look for and where and of course what the book is all about. Then there is a general introduction to snakes which is also very well done. Next a section on snake bite and anti-venom follows. This contains among others a section on snake bite first aid, how to safely remove a snake from your  premises, a summary of snake laws in India and a section on snake conservation. Just before the section on individual snakes start, there is an Introduction to the snakes covered in this book.

Layout of Pages
Layout of Pages

Here is what you will find on a typical page in this book (refer to pic above)

  1. The Scientific name of the snake followed by its maximum length. Wherever data is available,  the lengths of the hatch-ling and adult are also mentioned.
  2. The Common name of the snake, followed by whether it is common, uncommon or rare.
  3. The colour code for quick classification into non venomous, mildly venomous or venomous. This is repeated on the top and bottom edges of the right hand pages as well.
  4. Distribution Map -where you can expect to find these snakes
  5. Inset -other pictures as necessary or where available.
  6. The main picture of the snake.
  7. At the end of the book, you can find indexes both to common names as well as scientific names.

On the Left page, after the description, you have a section on scalation, Natural history/behaviour and finally at the bottom of the page, a list of lookalikes which I felt would be very helpful when attempting to positively identify a snake.

I was looking for something like this. The book is exactly  is what it claims to be -a field guide. Although it lists only 157 out of what probably could be a total of 270 species (The book says so). It is more than adequate for most of its audience. It was written to assist travellers, herpetologists, naturalists and doctors -especially doctors working in rural areas where a greater percentage of patients are snake bite victims. I would also recommend this book to students. It filled my need for a compact book to carry with me on my camping and backpacking trips  and should help me in identifying at least most of what I see. I’m a beginner, and I doubt whether I’ve really done justice in this review to the more technical parts of this book. You can find more reviews though at the reviews section on the Draco India Website

Thanks to Draco books for making such a good book available and affordable. The book seems to have been first published  in 2004. I wonder how I missed it for so long

A few of my other books. Snakes of India fits in well with them. I plan to take it with me whenever I travel to rural places as part of my job.
A few of my other books. Snakes of India fits in well with them. I plan to take it with me whenever I travel to rural places as part of my job.

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