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Repelling the reptiles

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The Border Security Force jawans patrolling the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan have to be prepared for enemies other than those pointing guns at them across the fence. In addition, to the backbreaking heat of the desert sun, the jawans have been falling prey to a scaly, creepy predator that hides buried in the sand and strikes only in the dark with an aggression that can take even the most battle-scarred veteran by surprise. The saw-scaled viper may just be a few inches longer than the belt you wear on your waist, but its fiery temper and extremely toxic venom have the BSF and army jawans in the area ducking for cover.

In 2009, 24 cases of snake bite were reported by the BSF and the army jawans posted on the Rajasthan border, and one sub-inspector died. "The snakes breed every alternate year, and 2009 was a breeding year. Precautions are taken, but soldiers do get bitten by the snakes, " says R C Dhyani, DIG, BSF, Western Frontier. The venom of this snake, also called 'bandi' or 'peevna' by the locals, can lead to internal bleeding even in the brain. Hopefully, before the next breeding season begins the forces may get much-needed respite from the reptiles with a little help from down south. Wildlife biologists and scientists at the Chennai Snake

Park have been hard at work for the past year, developing a product that will help soldiers ward off snakes. They've been developing a snake repellent to protect army personnel from snakes commonly found in the desert. "We've been working on it for a year, " says B Vijayaraghavan, chairman, Chennai Snake Park Trust. "Another year of trials and we should have a repellent that can be sprayed in tents to keep away snakes. "

The Chennai Snake Park's lab is developing the repellent on a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) grant of Rs 9 lakh. The Park located in the heart of the city was founded by wildlife conservationist Romulus Whitaker in 1972 to preserve endangered reptile species. It houses a wide variety of snakes and has a successful breeding programme that covers more than 30 species.

Research programmes currently underway include studies on behaviour of snakes exposed to specific environments and products. "Similar snake repellents are available abroad but they cannot be used in India as the snakes are different as are the climatic conditions. We've been studying those repellents and are combining various chemicals to come up with a repellent that will suit Indian conditions, " Vijayaraghavan said.

The defence forces have also been arming themselves against snakes, since there have been fatalities in the past. Each camp now has medication, antivenin and trained staff to handle snakebites, and soldiers wear high boots when patrolling in the desert. Soldiers also carry a snake-bite kit. "Every jawan posted in the region is trained to use the snake-bite kit he keeps with him, " Dhyani added. Soldiers also keep a thick black thread tied to their caps and a knife. "If they get bitten by a snake, they immediately fashion the thread into a tourniquet and make a cut with the knife to bleed out the venom, " says Lt Col N N Joshi, defence PRO in Rajasthan. "We're well-equipped to handle snake bites, but a repellent would definitely be a great help, " he adds.

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