Like other children of his neighbourhood, Karan Bahadur Shah was afraid of snakes. At the age of 10, his family migrated to the plains of Kanchanpur from Dadeldhura, and the fear of snakes heightened because more snakebite cases were reported there.
“The fear persisted till I was doing my master’s in zoology in the 20s,” the sexagenarian says, “But later, I developed an affinity towards this reptile because I wanted to do something new in my field.”
Around two decades ago, this pioneer herpetologist discovered a new snake species, and the scientific community named the species after him, an unprecedented achievement in the field of zoology in Nepal. Content with the feat, Shah, now, has a more serious concern–he feels that humans have not understood the importance of snakes. “They rather perceive the serpents as their enemies and kill many of them every year,” he says.
The Phulchoki finding
Since he began studying zoology, Shah was intrigued by snakes. “The number of snake species in Nepal was far less than the number of snake species in India. But I thought Nepal too should be home to at least half of the Indian species because the two countries have similar geographic and climatic conditions.”
As Shah tried his hand at the study of snakes, he got into contact with many scholars from different parts of the world. “During that time, many foreigners would come to Nepal to study various species. The government would allow them to take to other countries the animals and plants they found in Nepal for study,” he says.
It was during the 1996 late monsoon. Shah was hosting a team of international snake researchers. “We went to hills around Kathmandu almost every night for several days,” he recalls, “Then, we decided to do it in the daytime for a few days because it was raining frequently and we thought the snakes would come out in the sun to warm themselves.”
That particular day (he does not remember the date), Shah hired two vehicles for his team to travel up to Godavari in the early morning. They had planned to walk up to Phulchoki hill. His teenage son, Utkrisht, also showed interest in the trip as his school was closed that day.
“But he could not catch up with the adults so I had to leave my friends and walk with him,” he narrates, “I almost forgot my research work as I was busy talking to him. But coming down, something unexpected happened.”
It was past 10 am. The clouds had cleared and the sun had just emerged from the horizon. “Suddenly, I saw a green snake in front of me. As I approached it, the snake crawled towards a nearby hole. I ran towards the hole to catch its tail. Fortunately, I managed to bag it.”
Shah thought that it was just a snake belonging to one of five to six green snake species found in Nepal. He joined his colleagues at the Godavari station and told them about the incident. They photographed the serpent.
The snake remained in Shah’s bag for the next few days. After concluding the study for that season, one of the researchers, Nikolai Orlov from Russia proposed that he take the snake captured by Shah along with him. Shah agreed.
“But, he did not tell me anything about the results of the study for the next few months. Later I found that they took time because the characteristics of that snake did not match that of others. Hence, they suspected if it was a new species,” Shah says, “Orlov visited many other places and summoned specimens from other menageries. Finally, they concluded that the snake belonged to a species not recorded yet.”
Perhaps the discovery was not an achievement in itself. There was something more Shah should have looked forward to.
Orlov and his friend Notker Helfenberger published their analysis of the same in the Russian Journal of Herpetology (Vol. 4, No. 2, 1997). In the article, the two scientists named the new species as Trimeresurus karanshahi. The snake got named ‘Karan’s Pit Viper’ or ‘Shah’s Pit Viper’ in English, and ‘Karanko Hareu’ in Nepali. The researchers explained, “The species is named after Nepali herpetologist Karan B Shah, whose organising support was principal for realising the expedition” (sic).
Shah felt he was on cloud nine when he received a copy of the journal. He felt his dream “of doing something new” come true as no Nepali zoologist had been able to put his/her name after any species till then. Shah claims there is still no one in zoology who had achieved a similar feat till date though there are some in botany.
Shah believes having his name associated with a species is important because not everyone can achieve that despite discovering new species. “It’s not up to you to name the species you discover. Other researchers should acknowledge your contribution to the discovery, in a scientific journal recognised across the world,” he says. Besides, a number of naming systems exist in the field. It is up to the authors to name the new species after people, places or other characteristics.
Recognising the achievement, the government of Nepal published a postal stamp featuring Karan’s pit viper the next year.
Despite achieving such a ‘celebrated’ status in academia, Shah is not happy with people’s perception of snakes. He says the snakes should not be killed just because of some snakebite incidents.
“We need to understand is that all snakes are not venomous. In fact, only 10 percent of snakes are capable of injecting venom into other living bodies,” he says, “Secondly, all snakebite do not cause injury. Around 50 percent of cases are ‘dry bites’ in which the snakes cannot inject venom inside the human bodies.”
Then, people need to understand the contribution of these reptiles to the ecosystem and let them live freely, according to him. Snakes are carnivores and they balance the ecosystem by eating various insects and small mammals. “They also eat rodents. When applying other measures like poisoning and trapping, yourself could be a victim,” he jokes, “Practically, it is safer to let the serpents eat rodents around you.”
Protecting snakes is also necessary because their venom can be used in various medicines, Shah suggests.
However, he is aware of the tragedies that snakebite can cause. Nepal records around 20,000 snakebite incidents every year, and a few dozen people die. But Shah still argues that killing snakes is not a solution.
“Yes, I know. My brother’s grandson was bitten by a snake in Mahendranagar last year while he was asleep inside the home,” he says, “But, before talking about the risks, we need to keep ourselves safe.”
Shah claims snakes do not bite unless they feel threatened. Hence, people should stay away from snakes. However, during the summers, they frequent human residences in the search of cooler places as the surface and underground temperatures increase. Likewise, when it floods, they come to dry places for safety. “Therefore, during high-risk seasons, stay prepared. Keep your doors and windows closed,” he advises, “Whenever you go out, cover the body with sleeved clothes and boots. Carry a torch if you walk in the dark.”
“Seeking help from shamans and traditional healers is a bigger problem than the snakebite itself,” he says, “The Nepal government gives anti-venoms for free in all of its health facilities and they can save your life.”