The misunderstood serpent

The sad slaughter of a protected snake in the heart of Lahore is evidence of our ignorance about pythons

The misunderstood serpent

In the summer of 1980, I joined King Edward Medical College, the premier medical college of Pakistan, with a desire to specialise in medicine. I had no clue my destiny would lead me to civil services, pushing me into a new world of bureaucratic labyrinth where you had to brave politics, deceit, inertia, where survival in the muddle depended on one’s reflexes.

King Edward was thus a transient abode to obtain a medical degree, make friends and enjoy a life full of mischief. This great medical institution was established in 1860 in the military barracks of Lahore, right next to Anarkali bazaar. Later, the barracks were pulled down to give way to the elegant Victorian buildings shaded by old banyan trees. But the most beguiling thing about this place was its motto ‘Altapete’ and the emblem with two serpents entwined on a rod.

Very few enlightened Kemkolians in the 1980s knew that Altapete was a Latin word for ‘aim high’. However, none of my peers or senior doctors could explain the importance of the two snakes on our badge or its relation to our alma mater.

A decade after leaving the medical profession, I was forcibly sent to Larkana as Assistant Commissioner as a sort of punishment for disturbing the status-quo of a powerful wadera whose friendship with the then chief minister was legendary. It was there during the lull period, soon after the 1997 general elections, that I took time out at night to read some Greek mythology. Then the true significance of snakes, the Latin word and the emblem of the medical college, dawned on me.

Asclepius, the son of Apollo, was the Greek god of medicine who learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing one serpent bringing another (which Asclepius himself had fatally wounded) the healing herbs. He had three daughters, each with a unique attribute: Hygieia was goddess personification of health, cleanliness and sanitation; Aceso was goddess of healing; and Panacea was the goddess of universal remedy. To prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal under Asclepius’s care, Zeus killed him with a bolt of lightning. Asclepius’ death at the hands of Zeus illustrates man’s inability to challenge the natural order that separates mortal men from gods.

In honour of Asclepius, snakes were often used in healing rituals. Hippocrates, the father of medicine whose oath is religiously read in medical institutions, began his career from the famous Asclepieion Temple on the island of Kos. In the dormitories of this temple, a variety of non-poisonous snakes (known as Mediterranian Asclepius) was left to crawl on the floor where the sick and injured slept. In another myth, Hercules told Iolaus that "an apple a day keeps Asclepius away"; though in modern literature the word ‘doctor’ has replaced ‘Asclepius’.

Asclepius (the Greek god) was known to carry a serpent entwined rod, and this staff remains a symbol of medicine even today. The emblem of King Edward Medical College, with two serpents entwined on rod, is thus a symbolic representation of the healing power of the Greek god of medicine.

In Hindu mythology, snake primarily represents rebirth, death and mortality, due to the casting of its skin and being symbolically reborn. Over a large part of India, there are carved representations of cobras (or nagas) in temples which are worshipped with food and flowers offerings made to the serpents.

Since times immemorial, snakes have been regarded with both fascination and horror. The instant reaction to a creeping or writhing reptile would be fright, flight or killing it instantaneously without releasing that snakes form an important part in the ecosystem. In Pakistan, about 95 per cent snakes are of nonpoisonous species. More people die every day of road accidents alone or electrocutions at home or drowning in the canals than they die of snakes bites in a decade. As a general rule, snakes would never attack a human and most snake bites occur when they are accidently stepped upon. Their diet mostly consists of rodents which help in keeping a check on the population of these crop pests.

The largest species of nonpoisonous snake in Pakistan is the Indian Rock python. The size of the Indian pythons range between 8 to 10 feet and the weight of an adult python lies between 70-120 pounds. The life span of an average Indian python is between 20-30 years. Indian pythons have a variety of habitats. They are usually found in open jungles, mangroves, river valleys, marshes, abandoned mammal burrows, tree hollows or in swamps.

Though they prefer a habitat with water around them all the time, it is because of their earthy skin colour that they can easily hide in bushes or grass merging with the ground and tricking their prey. But they are lazy hunters. Frank Wall (1912) reported the observations of a Mr. Sharp of Fyzabad, India. In 1906 Sharp climbed a banyan tree with ripening fruit, apparently in the hope of shooting a deer. While in the tree, he noticed a python with its tail coiled around a branch and its body hanging downward. This is a hunting posture that many herpetologists have treated with skepticism. However, it must be noted that no human deaths caused by a python (nick named Asdaha) had ever been reported in Pakistan.

In July 1988, while working as a Medical Officer at the Basic Health Unit, Sanjar, 20 kilometres east of Bahawalpur, along the dry banks of Sutlej River, I was informed by a few patients about the presence of a huge snake that had swallowed a lamb. The villagers normally avoided passing through this dense uncultivated area. I sweated in scorching heat for a couple of days but was unable to track down this large snake. The villagers called it Asdaha or Sheeshnag and, from the description given by them, I safely presumed that it must be a python.

In October 1988, the Sutlej experienced worst floods since 1956 and the entire area went underwater. When the water started receding, this huge creature was shot dead by a landlord while swimming across a dhand (small oxbow lake), a little distance downstream from that spot. I arrived a little too late on the scene to save the python. It measured over 15 feet. Its carcass remained floating in the water for several days and was witnessed by hundreds of people.

I was posted as Political Agent in D.G. Khan tribal area in the year 2000. While riding across the remote stretch of Suleman Range in Jhandi Mountain on an official errand, a gigantic wild olive tree, perched at 5500 feet, caught my attention. The locals called it "Siah Mar Huss" or the tree of black serpent. An old legend tells us of a huge snake which would eat up animals roaming near this tree. It turned into a man-eater. The serpent was finally killed by a brave pir who himself died in the mortal conflict.

Further probe during subsequent visits revealed that, until a few decades ago, sighting of large pythons was not uncommon on this mountain. Cool damp climate, natural springs and dense vegetation provided excellent habitat for the pythons, until the Afghan jihad broke out in the 1980s. Introduction of cheap weaponry and bullets accounted for the extermination of pythons. The last python was shot six months before my first visit. I was told that it measured "as thick as an adult’s thigh" and its "bones were like those of a lamb".

Some local hunters informed me about the presence of a huge python, living in a narrow cave beside a natural spring, in the valley between this spot and the Beeho Mountain (8300 ft) in Balochistan. The elders of this clan promised me not to harm this creature and in this Baloch tribal territory promises made with PAs are not to be broken. The last of the python might still be surviving in that remote valley.

In the late 1990s, my friend Salman Rashid, an eminent traveller of Pakistan, reported that 15 feet long python was killed at Pishukun on the West Bay of Gwadar. This creature was sentenced to death after it had eaten a small pariah dog and could hardly move because of the swollen tummy. The rabies which could have been caused by this dog was not taken into account.

In mid 2003, I read a story in an Urdu newspaper that a Pehlwan (wrestler) had bravely fought and killed an Asdaha in a village near Bahawalpur. The accompanying picture showed a stout hirsute man proudly dangling the carcass of python around his neck like a gallantry award. A few years ago, a 20 feet long python was sighted near Muzzafarabad in AJK at the site of Neelum Jhelum Hydropower project. It was reportedly tranquilised by Chinese engineers, removed in a Shahzoor pickup and was not seen again -- probably consumed in a Chinese cuisine or ending up in a herbal medicine.

A couple of weeks ago there was ‘Breaking News’ in the electronic media that a 10 feet female python was killed in ‘self-defence’ inside Lahore’s Bagh-i-Jinnah (Lawrence Garden) by the staff. Their claim for gallantry award turned sour after it was highlighted in the media that the killed reptile falls in the category of protected animals in the Third Schedule of Punjab Wildlife Act 1974 (amended up to 2007). The theory of self-defence is defeating itself as pythons, unlike cobras, never assume a threatening posture even when cornered.

A blame game started that the python had probably escaped from Lahore Zoo’s snake house located next door, though it was denied by the zoo director. Even if the snake had escaped from the zoo years ago, it could have lived peacefully in the huge Bagh-i-Jinnah preying on small rodents, huge fruit bats that hang upside down from the trees, squirrels and birds.

It could have been a star attraction for the garden, providing schoolchildren an opportunity to see it in its natural habitat. But the opportunity was lost due to sheer ignorance and lack of coordination between the government organisations which are paid to protect the protected species.

This slaughter of a protected endangered snake in the heart of Lahore brought strong condemnation from Dr Uzma Khan, Species Conversation Director of WWF-Pakistan. But much more is needed to change the bigoted mindset that not all snakes are poisonous and that among them pythons or Asdahas are the most harmless creatures.

My civil servant friends, Samiullah and Mirza Razi, told me that in order to create awareness among the general masses the Postal Service of Pakistan had issued a series of stamps on the wildlife of Pakistan in April 1995. It featured a set of four stamps with four different commonly-found snakes in Pakistan and one of them was the Indian rock python.

In this age of communication, the news had not perhaps reached Bagh-i-Jinnah that pythons are not ferocious animals but prized pets in humane societies. Sadly, the garden lies not far from King Edward Medical College where every medical student must remember the oath of Hippocrates and whose emblem with two snakes entwined on rod represents health and happiness to all. 

The misunderstood serpent