Field Notes From India

BY SUSAN FRITH // Photographs by David Hammond
Steve Myers’ biology students encounter snakes,
crocs and culture.

0714 hours, a village outside Chennai

Valencia biology professor Steve Myers and his students are out for a snake-walk. That’s a challenge on this April morning in southeastern India, when most snakes have burrowed deep to escape the intense, dry heat. But the group’s guides, two members of the area’s Irula population, know how to look for clues like scat and skins to find snakes whose lethal venom can be turned into lifesaving medicine.

One of the trackers pokes through the vegetation in a drainage ditch with a hooked stick and disentangles a Russell’s viper, a four-foot brown snake with a black diamond pattern. “It makes a very distinct audible noise,” recalls Valencia student David Hammond. (Some have described it as a pressure-cooker hiss.) “So if you hear this coming from a bush as you’re walking by, you know to back up.” Stretched out, the viper comes up to their Irula guide’s shoulders. An untreated bite could cause kidney failure and death, but for this perilous job, the man wears sandals.
Four months later, Hammond sits outside the biology department on Valencia’s East Campus, clicking through hundreds of photos and videos he shot on the trip: The Irula tracker concentrating on the snake in his hand. A jumping spider with eyes on the back of its head. First India sunrise. Hammond’s experience was almost “more than I can put into words.”

Students are basically living their own National Geographic film.

That’s because “students are basically living their own National Geographic film,” says Myers. “This is not a tourists’ tour. This is the real India.”

For nine years Myers has been taking his field biology students to the “real India,” immersing them in the local biology, ecology and culture. Major stops include the Madras Crocodile Bank and Centre for Herpetology as well as the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. Both projects were founded by acclaimed herpetologist and conservationist Rom Whitaker. Whitaker’s Crocodile Bank also houses a cooperative that promotes self-employment for the Irulas, traditionally considered “untouchables” in their country’s caste system. After India outlawed hunting snakes for their skins, the Irulas were left without a chief source of income; today they use their considerable snake-catching skills to find and milk snakes for their venom, sending it off to a lab in northern India for the production of antivenin.

Students in the forest

Foreground: Kara Viademonte. Second row, from left: Professor Steve Myers, Kirissa Byington, Jessica Hunold, Stefanie Edwards, Celine Carneiro, David Hammond, Back row, from left: Nathan Timmons, Stephanie Froling, Joy Mitchem and a guide.

Myers first contacted Whitaker after graduating from University of Florida in 1975 and was invited to work as an intern; he couldn’t afford the trip then. Decades later, he met Whitaker at a herpetology expo and recounted his story.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you come over?’”

Myers took four Valencia students with him the first time, turning later trips into field courses that are now part of the college’s Study Abroad program. (He’s also led trips to Guyana for the past two decades and hopes to get the funds to help students travel there again next spring.) While in India, students handle non-venomous snakes, clean crocodile pits, and practice their observation skills on basically anything that slithers, crawls or flies. They learn and hear amazing stories from the local research staff and students.

According to Myers, the cultural and social aspects of the trip are just as important. “Many schools have got study abroads to Europe—to France and England—but when you step off the plane in Guyana or India, you really are in a different world and there is a certain fear factor,” he says. But then “you make friends, the food is great, and you see that you’re not so different from the people who live there.”

Hammond, an arachnophile, went to India for the bugs (spiders bigger than his face, millipedes as long as his arm—he found them) and got an added dose of culture shock. “I was overcome with amazement,” he writes in his field notes. “Absolutely nothing could prepare someone mentally for the amount of overload present upon their first time arriving in India.” He’s talking about smells, sounds and color. (Not to mention some frightful traffic and the unfortunate cow that got struck and dragged by the train they were riding.)

Kara Viademonte and Stefanie Edwards, former students of Myers who are now completing their biology degrees at UCF, also soaked up the cultural experience. It was the first time anyone in Edwards’ family has traveled abroad since her father emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba decades ago. “It was a big deal,” she says, “not just for me, but for my entire family.”

Creature Close-Ups

The clay pots where snakes are stored between milkings lay empty this month at the Crocodile Bank. That’s because the snakes can’t be removed from their natural habitats during breeding season. But there are plenty of crocodilians to be seen—muggers, marsh crocodiles, and narrow-snouted gharials, all part of a breeding program Whitaker created in the 1970s, concerned that some species were at risk for extinction.

Viademonte is particularly excited one day to feed the gharials. Harmless to humans, these fish-eaters are critically endangered because of pollution and sand-mining that threaten their river habitats. Fewer than 250 live in the wild today. One of the captive gharials, Robin, has to be fed by hand because of a traumatic injury to his snout. One of the staff puts fish on a stick and gives it to Viademonte to hold as Robin slips his head out of the water to snatch it. “I could have touched him,” she says.

Hiss of Death

Snake bites cause up to 60,000 deaths a year in India. Valencia professor Steve Myers, a herpetologist who is licensed to handle poisonous snakes, names four of the prime offenders:

King Cobra

So why isn’t the King Cobra, the world’s largest venomous snake in the top four? Though these snakes can release enough neurotoxin to fell an elephant, “humans generally don’t come into contact with them,” Myers says. They live in unpopulated areas and are quite elusive.

In fact, most snakes are generally shy. “We are not food,” Myers says. “The last thing they want to do is bite you and waste their venom.” All the same, watch where you step.

Hot Spot

The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station—tucked in the Western Ghats mountains, a 16-hour train ride from Chennai—is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. This fact became quite apparent to Myers’ students during their first nature walk there. “No sooner do you step past the wall of foliage then you’re getting attacked by leeches,” Hammond says. “You look down at your feet and the ground has come alive.”

Fortunately, these slimy hitchhikers with an apparent foot fetish are more gross than painful. According to Hammond, “It was like having a wet gummy bear between your toes while you’re walking.

“You can feel it latch,” he adds. “There’s this faint prick and then it feels like ice cold water.” That’s the anticoagulant at work.

While some students flail in discomfort, others manage to keep their cool. “They’re just doing what they do,” Edwards says. “If you just let them suck your blood, they’ll go away.”

Myers’ students were able to appreciate other species from a more comfortable distance—above them, vivid green vine snakes and Draco lizards showing off their “flying” skills. The competitive males climb high in the betel nut trees, extend membranes attached from their body to their arms, and soar 30 feet or more from one branch to another. “Watching them in flight was spectacular,” says Viademonte. But so were the trip’s smaller moments, such as sitting outside after dark and listening to the sounds of the rainforest, she says.

Agumbe’s flagship species is the King Cobra. At up to 18 feet long, it’s considered the largest venomous snake in the world (and one of the most intelligent because of its ability to escape confinement). On previous trips Myers’ students have been lucky enough to see babies hatching; this time they didn’t see any. “The thing about the King Cobra is it’s elusive, secretive,” Myers says. Though if you do hear one, you might know it: the snake actually growls.

The students did hear tales of scientists’ efforts to monitor King Cobras in the wild and got to try out GPS and telemetry equipment. One Agumbe staff member spent more than 500 days carefully tracking the King Cobra, following it into canyons and pits and sometimes sleeping outdoors to see what it does in its natural habitat.

Endangered Gharial crocodile

Endangered Gharial crocodile

Millipede

Millipede

Scorpion

Scorpion

Inspiration

Although their trip lasted just 12 days, Myers’ students continue to feel its influence. Hammond was inspired by the dedication of the Indian students he met, including one whose home community lacked clean water and electricity—basic amenities he takes for granted—and saw education as his key to a better life.

Hammond has completed an associate’s degree in horticulture and is finishing another in engineering at Valencia. He hopes to pursue advanced studies in environmental engineering and use his expertise to help create a more efficient filtration system at the Crocodile Bank. Cataloging arachnids is another goal since relatively little is known about all the species there.

Hammond’s classmates also hope to go back. Viademonte says the trip “focused my energies and attention on finishing school and working in the field of conservation.” One day she hopes to practice veterinary medicine in developing countries.

Edwards, always “an animal lover,” says this trip showed her it was feasible to study them in the wild. The excitement and intelligence of the scientists she met “truly solidified the idea that this is something I want to put my life to as well.”

Myers never grows bored of returning. With India’s great biodiversity and more friends to make, “Each trip is new for me,” he says, “and it’s a great thrill for me to experience India with students who have never been there before.”

The group takes a midday break at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station
The group takes a midday break at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, where they stayed. Agumbe receives an annual rainfall of 280 inches, making it one of the wettest places on Earth.

Tips for travelers

Considering a trip to southern India? Here are several tips based on the experiences of Dr. Steve Myers and his students:

1- Watch the skies, especially if you’re carrying expensive camera equipment in a tropical rainforest with the second highest rainfall in the world.

2- Don’t scream when the leeches glom onto your feet. Your noise will scare away the other wildlife. “I get annoyed with students when the leeches are upstaging the King Cobra,” says Myers.

3- Do use hand sanitizer to dislodge the leeches.

4- Remember that you probably look “different” to other people, too. While visiting a local temple, Via Demante was surprised by a group of Indian women tourists flocking around her, snapping pictures. “They were so excited they didn’t want me to leave.” (Could it have had something to do with the red, purple, and blue hair she was sporting at the time?)

5- Don’t leave food out unless you want that cute bonnet macaque you saw perched in the tree to sneak into the cantina and steal it.

6- Get your feet wet. You don’t want to miss the experience of standing under a waterfall as fish come up to nibble the dead skin off your toes. Consider it a free spa treatment, says Kara Via Demonte.

7- Pay attention to the details. For Stefanie Edwards, all the sensory experiences recorded in her journal and with her camera are priceless mementos. Years from now she’ll remember, “This is what I smelled” and “These are the beautiful moments I saw.”