At an age when his friends were preparing to join the Army or dreaming about college life, Hariom fell in love with snakes. By the time he turned 18, the man from Bihar had wrangled cobras and pythons, rescued 3,000 snakes of 15 species, worked with Discovery Channel, and saved up money to open a shelter home for snakes and other animals in Churavanpur village in Buxar district.
The shelter, named Nature Wildlife Care Rescue Centre, was the first of its kind in Bihar. But it made villagers seethe with anger. The reason? Too many snakes in one place. Within four months, they burnt the place down, killing 14 snakes and destroying medicine worth Rs 3 lakh. But Hariom wasn’t going to give up. He started from scratch and rebuilt his dream three months ago.
In rural India, where snake bites are common, Hariom’s passion and commitment is unique.
“I want to be known as the snake man of India. I want to find a permanent solution to this conflict between villagers and snakes.”
Bihar sees the third largest snakebite deaths in India – about 4,500 cases a year. And the knee-jerk response of villagers is to just kill the snake when they see one. Fear and superstition are rife in his part of the world. Hariom’s mission is not just to rescue and care for his favourite animal, but also to shift public attitudes toward snakes.
When he’s not rescuing snakes, Hariom can be found working to break age-old prejudices and superstitions against the reviled reptiles. With the zeal of an evangelist, he travels from village to village, telling people about the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, and sharing information that can save lives—of both humans and snakes.
Snake spotted? Call Hariom
On any given day, Hariom receives at least 10-15 rescue calls, mostly between 4am–8am. But that happens only when villagers haven’t already killed the snake, which he says happens 95 per cent of the time. Mostly, it’s the non-venomous Indian rat snake, locally known as ‘dhaman,’ though he has also rescued cobras and common kraits, whose venom can be lethal.
Hariom says he approaches the reptile with nothing more than a jar and a stick. “I don’t get scared. A cobra I had rescued bit me a month ago. I was treated at a hospital for 12 hours. Next day, I was out rescuing again,” he says with unmatched confidence.
Hariom is not well-paid, though. He gets anywhere between Rs 300 and Rs 500 for each rescue call. Often, he has to travel long distances, which means high fuel expenses. “Rescuing snakes doesn’t give me business. I do this out of my love for snakes and because I want to do something for my people,” he says.
Last year, he got an opportunity to work with a Discovery Channel team in West Bengal’s Siliguri for about 15 days. There, he saw a rescue centre and decided to start one in his own village. “I started the centre with the money I got from Discovery Channel.”
A battle beyond snakes
In villages with little or no access to timely administration of anti-venom and proper treatment, villagers turn to exorcists, faith healers and quacks peddling ‘magical’ cures. Traditional healers are known to bathe the victim in or apply ghee (clarified butter) to the bite wound. In parts of Maharashtra, it is common for snake bite victims to be fed a concoction of green chillies or dry chilli powder, sugar and salt.
“Most of the victims first approach a traditional healer for treatment. They opt for jhaad phoonk (black magic and exorcism). Many of them lost their lives this way,” says Raamji Singh, a social worker from Bihar.
Hariom recalls a recent from Brahmpur village in Buxar district. A cobra bit an 11-year-old boy around midnight. His parents took him to a traditional healer, which didn’t work and the boy died a few hours later. “I see cases like this on a daily basis. Around 30-35 every month. I try to help as many people as I can but it’s difficult to convince them. A few understand [the urgency] but most follow the old practices,” says Hariom.
He tries hard to make them go to hospitals where there is a better chance of survival. But it’s difficult, and not just because of superstition. The cost of treatment also plays a huge role.
Private hospitals can charge anywhere between Rs 30,000-35,000 to administer an antidote and perform basic treatment. “From where will they get such money? People here live in mud houses. Also, private hospitals ask them to pay up first,” says Hariom.
And so, killing snakes to avoid such incidents or going to traditional healers for treatment become preferred options.
There was a time when villagers relied on the semi-nomadic Nat community who were called upon to ‘charm’ snakes away. “But we don’t see them anymore. It’s like they have vanished from society,” says Raamji.
Bitten by Instagram, love for drama
Like most Gen Zs his age, Hariom takes photos and videos of the snakes he rescues. He edits and uploads them on Instagram and YouTube. A few days ago, he rescued a 20 kg python in Brahmpur, which made for some stunning reels. He is not famous yet, but he wants to be an influencer.
He uses Instagram to counter snakes-related superstitions and provide information on the need for timely medical care, but he’s not above using a bit of drama and suspense in his reels. One video clip on his YouTube channel shows a grey-black cobra trapped in a corner of a bedroom of a mud house. The next shot is of Hariom on a scooter racing to the house.
When he confronts the snake, the creature is on high alert. Its scales ripple and gleam under the white beam of a phone flashlight. Its forked tongue flicks in and out of its mouth as it raises its head to track Hariom’s movements.
People have gathered outside the hut, but neither the snake nor Hariom pay any attention to them. They have their eyes fixed on each other. The cobra waits, ready to strike. With nothing but a plastic jar, Hariom approaches it. In a flash, the jar has engulfed the snake’s head.
When Hariom rescues a non-venomous snake, he releases it in the fields or jungles away from populated areas. But with cobras, kraits, and even pythons (though they have no venom), he has a special modus operandi. He takes them 10 km away from the village and makes sure to release them in the wild.
An undying passion
Even as a child, Hariom was passionate about creatures, big and small. His uncle, who studied at IIT Madras, used to give him books about snakes.
His childhood friend Rohit, who is preparing to join the Army, has watched him hone his passion into a career. “We grew up talking about becoming officers, doctors or lawyers. But Hariom only had snakes and animals on his mind. He used to carry books about animals in his bag,” says Rohit, 18.
Initially, Hariom’s attempts were derided by villagers. “People around us used to say he should do some real work. But ever since he started getting some recognition, things have been changing,” Rohit adds.
Hariom’s family wasn’t on board with his plans either. But they too have started to come around since the opening of the rescue centre.
On 25 December 2021, Hariom opened the Nature Wildlife Care Rescue Centre, without any help from the administration. He had applied to the local authorities to use government land, but his letter remained unanswered. He waited for six months, travelling from one officer to another. In the end, he leased a 120×24 feet plot for 10 years, for which he has to pay Rs 50,000 per year.
The centre houses goats, dogs, and, of course, snakes. Lots and lots of snakes.
Hariom is thankful to the strangers whose kindness has kept his dream alive. Local people as well as hospitals in Gujarat would send medicine to his centre. Then tragedy struck in April. “People I knew burnt down the centre out of jealousy,” says Hariom.
Rohan recalls a devastated Hariom walking through the debris of his dreams. “He told me, ‘My career is burning’,” Rohit says.
Hariom says the people responsible for the arson came and apologised to him. He then set about to rebuild the centre. After several months and Rs 3 lakh in additional cost, he finally did.
Hariom says he wants peace between villagers and snakes, and claims to have developed a ‘snake repellant’, which he hopes will get government approval and then sold in every medical shop. “Hopefully, people will then stop killing snakes,” he says.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)
Source: The Print