Snakes: The dilemma of a misunderstood utility creature

"...snakes cleanse the ecosystem by reducing rodents, mice, insects and other creatures that destroy crops."

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Snakes, The dilemma of a misunderstood utility creature, Hajara LemanBy Hajara Leman

The snake is a word that sends shivers down the spine of even gallants. It connotes many things to many people.

For ages, snakes and man have been archenemies. From the Christian perspective, the snake first emerged on the scene following its encounter with Eve, the matriarch of human race, according to Bible account.

The story chronicled the role of snake in the pains and anguish of humans by bamboozling Eve into eating the forbidden fruit against God’s instruction.

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She later convinced her husband, Adam to join her in the disobedience.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his head,’’ God said.

That antagonistic relationship between man and snake as decreed by God, according to that Bible account, has continued till date.

Years ago, the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) published a features story highlighting the rconomic importance of snakes. Expectedly, the reaction of other reporters in the newsroom was harsh.

Does this imply that the snake can be of no benefit to man or vice versa? How about economic and environmental benefits?

The writer faced a scenario that affirmed the enmity between man and snake.

Traveling in a commercial vehicle which was on a top speed, the passengers observed an object on the road.

As the vehicle drove closer, it became obvious that the object was a snake struggling to cross the highway.

Immediately, the entire passengers started urging the driver to meet up and crush the reptile. Behold an enemy has been sighted! The driver obeyed.

Instantly, the universe was deprived of a colourful reptile, which allure would have continued to feed many eyes, and perhaps continued to add beauty to the universe.

The experts say the hatred for snakes that often results in eliminating them, most times out of fear than provocation, has disastrous consequences for humans and the ecosystem.

They say in spite of the perceived dangers of these reptiles, the snake-to-human relationship is shrouded in economic, medicinal and environmental advantages.

The town of Kaltungo in Gombe State, Nigeria, lies within the snake belt region of Northern Nigeria, with a high population of the reptile. The most common species are Carpets Viper, Puff Adder and Cobra.

The presence of the snakes makes farming and animal rearing activities in the area very difficult and risky.

In Kaltungo lies the Snakebite Research and Treatment Centre, where most victims of snake bites, mostly peasant farmers and herders, seek treatment to survive snake bites.

In 2023 alone, no fewer than 2,794 people were bitten by snakes in Gombe state alone, with 30 deaths recorded from the incidents.

For this and other reasons, the local community initiated efforts to reduce the snake population or eliminate them.

One of the initiatives is the payment of N200 as reward to whoever could kill a snake and present its remains as evidence.

This reward approach, initiated by the traditional institution in Kaltungo, reinforces the belief that reptiles are nuisance to the society.

However, Dr.Abubakar Balla, the Research Officer, at the snakebite treatment centre, said snakes have numerous benefits to advantages to man and the environment,

Balla said snakes cleanse the ecosystem by reducing rodents, mice, insects and other creatures that destroy crops.

“When there are no snakes in a farm, that farm will suffer from mild or severe destruction; people always think about the negative side of snake, but it has its advantages.

“Snakes are always on the defensive; they are always hiding, unless they are trampled on, or taken by surprise; they will hardly bite,” he said.

According to him, snakes who prey on rodents, have contributed in reducing the spread of rodent-transmitted diseases like Lassa Fever, Hantavirus, and Hemorrhagic Fever, among others.

“The treatment of these diseases caused by rodents costs millions of dollars, apart from millions of jobs lost annually the world over as a result destruction of crops by same,” said Balla.

He cited examples of U.S. where rodents destroy crops worth 1.8 billion USD Dollars annually,  and India where they destroy 8 million tonnes of assorted grains.

He said the challenge posed by the rodents could be tackled by non-poisonous snakes.

Balla said in the 1990s in Nebraska, the U.S. brown snakes were deliberately imported to checkmate the excesses of birds and ticks.

According to him, the ticks are capable of transmitting diseases like lyme, tularaemia relapsing fever and anaplasmosis, among others.

He also said in pharmaceutical industries, snake venom is being used for the production of cardiovascular and hypertensive drugs like Captopril, Epitibatide, Tirofiban, Enalapril, Perkinson, Alzheimer’ and the Antisnake Venom itself, a life-saving drug.

He also said snakes were beautiful creatures that inspire awe, saying some people kept them as pets and traded them as export to countries like Indonesia, earning millions of dollars each year from export.

Balla also said that snake venom is used in the cosmetic industry to produce cream for anti-aging and the removal of wrinkles and black-spots.

Balla said snake farmers also earned huge money from selling its venom, with an ounce of it attracting a huge amount of money because of its importance.

He said that in addition industries used the snake skin to manufacture bags, shoes, belts, bangles, and many things, which increased the country’s GDP.

Snakes have also become a major source of revenue for Gombe State government, which according to media reports, exports no fewer than 400 snakes to United Kingdom every month.

In the Entertainment Industry, Balla said the placing of snakes in Zoos worldwide, generated over two billion dollars, as people often trooped there to catch glimpse of their eye-catching features.

Dr. Amobi Maduabuchi of the Department of Biological Science, Federal University Kashere, Gombe State reiterated the biodiversity importance of snakes.

Maduabuchi said snakes play an essential role in the ecosystem by controlling rodents’ populations, he said, adding that without predators like snakes, rodent populations could explode, leading to agriculture and health challenges.

He said exterminating snakes could disrupt the natural balance of an ecosystem, thereby leading to unintended ecological consequences.

Maduabuchi further said most people consider snakes as dangerous animals, but that in reality, they are not troublemakers but also fear humans.

“Snakes attack people because most of the time, man always encroach on their natural environment.

“When you encroach, they will naturally try to defend themselves; it is in the process of defending themselves that they bite,” he explained.

He said the snakes also play important roles in cultures.

Maduabuchi cited the case of some parts of southeastern Nigeria, where pythons are never killed, but seen as gods, thereby attracting worshipers some of whom perceive it as ‘protectors of rivers and streams’.

He said the snake also played a significant role in the traditional treatment of ailments, with the scales used in the treatment of wounds and scares.

But not everybody is excited about snakes and their importance to mankind.

For Mr Williams Attah, a resident of Gombe metropolis, saying that snakes are friendly to humans is akin to saying that ‘fire does not burn human beings’.

“I do not think snakes are of any relevance in the society.  I only hear some people saying the reptiles help in clearing rodents on the farm whether this is true or false I do not regard them as being important,” he said.

Similarly, Mrs Alice Joseph, a resident of Kaltungo, said there is no love lost between her and snakes after losing a brother to the reptile 17 years ago.

“I hate snakes with a passion; I lost a brother 17 years ago, after being bitten by a snake,” she explained.

A cross-section of other respondents in Gombe also said that a ‘snake will always remain a snake’ and that no degree of ‘embellishment’ would change the reality.

However, in spite of the snakephobia experts have not relented in laundering the importance of the reptile, insisting that snakes are utility creatures that only react to human provocation in self-defense.

 

News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)