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Indian snake charmers -

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Indian snake-charmers

Bahar Dutt grew up living close to snake-charmers. As a journalist she investigated how this group
of people survive in modern India where laws disallow the use of wild animals. There are 200,000
snake-charmers. Bahar Dutt discovered the charmers take a scientific approach to their dealing with
snakes. The charmers look into snake behaviour, and observe micro environments. The cobra has a
hood which flares up. It's a posture of self defence in response to the stick which is waved in
front rather than a response to the music. Bahar Dutt developed the concept of snake educators,
teaching people about snakes. They also do animal welfare work getting snakes out of houses.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Do you remember this voice from last week? Bahar Dutt and her snake-charmers.

Bahar Dutt: They were very unfriendly. It's a male-dominated profession and the fact that here was
this woman walking in asking them all these questions about their profession...it's also a very
scared community. These are people who've had raids conducted against them by animal activists, by
the Forest Department which enforces wildlife conservation laws in India, so they're extremely
suspicious of outsiders. So when I used to first go, I remember they put snakes in my bag to drive
me away.

Robyn Williams: What did you do?

Bahar Dutt: I was scared, I was very scared, and you know they de-fang the snakes but I didn't know
that, so as far as I was concerned here was a bunch of venomous snakes in my bag.

Robyn Williams: But without teeth, you were safe.

Bahar Dutt: Yes, I was safe, I didn't know that at that time, that was the only problem.

Robyn Williams: Well, I wonder what Health and Safety would have to say about that! Bahar Dutt, now
a journalist, got over her scare and persisted.

Bahar Dutt: So I worked with these people for seven years and I have to say I learned a lot. I was
all of 24, 25 when I started out, and gradually I started going out into the interiors, into
villages. This is a community which is spread across northern India, there are 200,000 of them, so
what is the future of this community if there's a law banning their traditional occupation? That's
what I was trying to find out.

Robyn Williams: Did they tell you any of their secrets, how they charm the snakes and what it's
for?

Bahar Dutt: Yes, they did. They have many secrets which they don't let outsiders in on, but I also
wanted to document their traditional knowledge because there's this preconceived notion that
because they're an indigenous community, they don't know much science, but what we actually found
was that there is a lot of science they follow. I used to go with them when they used to go out to
hunt the snakes, and for every species they look into the behaviour, they know what is the
microhabitat in which that species is found, they know that when it's winter they need to make sure
that the snake is warm. So there is a lot of traditional knowledge and that's when I said, hey, we
need to tap into this knowledge and see if we can use that for the conservation of snakes.

Robyn Williams: By the way, what sort of species did they have?

Bahar Dutt: Everything from king cobras to pythons. The cobra we found was most often used by them
because the cobra also had a hood which flares up when they're doing the snake performance.

Robyn Williams: How do they actually get the snake to do what they want? Because they're not
necessarily the brainiest creatures in the world.

Bahar Dutt: You know, if you notice at the end of the flute there's a long stick, so what they're
actually just doing is the snake is in a self-defence posture, and all that they're doing
is...obviously the snake is not responding to the music but to the movement. Most animal activists
would say that that is cruelty and what you're doing is actually making the animal very stressed
out, but I think that's debatable, and I have to say that this project was challenging for me
because do you look at the snake-charmers or do you look at the snakes? For me the challenge was
that as entities both of them are doing badly.

Some of them...this is an old tradition in the community, after they had used a snake for two
months or so in their performances would release the snake back in the wild. So that's an extremely
sustainable way to go about your occupation. This practice has now died, which is why animal
activists are extremely suspicious of this community.

Robyn Williams: Okay, so the law changed and the snake-charmers lost their profession, if you like.
What's happened since?

Bahar Dutt: A lot. There's a number of things we've been trying to do with them. So we came up with
the concept of snake educators, which is basically saying that here is a people who knows a lot
about snakes, can we use that? Can these people go out to schools and zoos and can they be like
extension workers teaching people about snakes? Because in India we have snakes all over the place.

We even tried to start a service in Delhi called Dial-a-Snake-Charmer service which is basically
you call up a snake charmer and say, 'There's a snake in my house, can you come and rescue it?' So
it's very similar to what, say, an animal welfare person would do, so why not pay these guys to do
the same? They're using their traditional skills, they have a sense of identity with the snakes,
they don't want to go out and become a driver or a teacher, that link to snakes is very strong for
them. So we keep that going and we also get them some income.

The second idea we worked on is we formed a musical band because what we found was the music was
very strong, so we formed a musical band called 100 Charmers and they've now performed all over the
world, they've performed in Italy, they've performed in the UK, and they still perform all across
India at people's weddings. We use a lot of music in our Indian weddings. So these guys go out and
perform and they're paid for it.

So this is the balance that I've been trying to achieve between wildlife conservation and
livelihoods. And as I was doing this project I had people write to me from Egypt, from other parts
of Asia saying they also had snake-charming traditions, so this is not something that is confined
to India, it was found in many developing countries across the world.