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8 Apr, 2009 05:29

To charm or not to charm?

The ancient Indian tradition of snake-charming has been officially banned in the country. But the law is widely ignored by charmers, and wildlife conservationists are concerned about the suffering of the snakes.

Since 1972, when the Wild Life Protection laws were enacted, the catching and keeping of snakes became illegal. But in West Bengal, the snake charmers of the Bedia community continue their practices, and claim that they have no other way to earn a living.

“India has 800,000 snake charmers and 100,000 in West Bengal alone. What will they eat, how will they live? It is their birthright to catch snakes and have snake-charming shows,” says Raktim Das, General Secretary of the Bedia Federation of India.

They also deny allegations that their practices harm the reptiles.

“Environmentalists say that the Snake Charmers are cruel to the snakes. They are not cruel at all. These snakes are their livelihood, and that is why they look after the snakes very well. Even if they don’t have enough to eat, they feed the snakes,” Das says.

The snake charmers insist on having an exception made for them based on tradition and cultural heritage. But many worry that this will strike a blow to the wildlife protection in the country.

“If snake shows are allowed, then all others will demand the same for other wild life. It belongs to nature, and it must be left in nature,” says Abhijeet Banerjee, an environmentalist project coordinator.

Anti-Venom Serum, called AVS, used to treat snakebites, needs to be made by venom extracted from the snakes, and there is a shortage of the medicine. This gives rise to an opportunity for these snake charmers to use their skills at official farms that produce AVS. But unfortunately, they don’t have the means to start their own production, and there aren’t enough farms presently to employ them.