The Last of the Snake Charmers
Story and photos by Emran Hossain
The fate and livelihood of traditional snake charmers (Sapure) are gradually becoming as endangered as their serpentine companions.
Lately, thanks to a new law, many of these traditional snake catchers have been stripped of a livelihood that has been in their families for generations.
The traditional snake charmers, commonly called Shapure, have been hit hard by the wildlife protection act passed in 2012. Under the law, any hunting without prior license/authorization is punishable by a jail term or fine or even both.
However, the license or permit to hunt wildlife down can be bought by individual and institutions alike, for purposes like commercial affairs, study, scientific research and management, manufacturing life-saving drugs, and supplying wildlife to zoos, safari parks and so on.
The law does not mention anything about the centuries-old profession.
Like many in the profession, the 70-year-old Sardar (a group leader), Kamal, could not believe his ears listening to the news that Shapures needed a license to catch snakes.
“So, they want us to get a license or permit for catching snakes!” said Kamal, sitting on the floor mat of plastic sheet. “And who is there to help us walk through the official process? Who should we turn to?” asked Kamal.
Similarly, his 20-year-old son-in-law, Jahurul Islam, also a shapure, can hardly sign his own name. This is the case for a majority of the snake charmers of the country. Getting a license would pose enormous difficulties for the community members, who, by tradition, lead a gypsy-like life.
Then came the news of forest officials arresting three shapures’ from the city’s Mohakhali and Gazipur area while charming snakes before a street audience. One of the arrestees was his son-in-law, Jahurul. It happened fast; over the last three months.
What hurt Kamal most about the arrests is the release of all the eight snakes seized from two of the arrested charmers, by the forest officers. “Snakeless shapure is just like a life without a heart for us,” said Kamal.
Kamal stopped going out for work after the Snake Bazaar at Savar’s Bede Para, in Namabazaar area, was shut down following the passage of wildlife protection law in 2012.
For four years, Kamal’s group of a dozen Sapure families has been living on the bank of the Dhaleshwari river at Panpara of Savar’s Fulbari area.
For centuries Kamal’s ancestors lived in boats, leading a life similar to that of snakes, slithering over the surface of the water, from place to place. The life of the Shapure is well documented in Bengali literature, films, paintings as the Shap (Snake) became characters through proverbs, myths and religion.
Kamal believes only a handful of professional snake catchers exist in the country, standing through the onslaught of urbanization, deforestation and environmental destruction. The largest concentrations of Shapures can be found in Savar, Manikganj, Sherpur, and Jessore.
The forestry office does not have an idea about the snake charmer population. Researchers cannot ascertain it either. A zoology department lecturer of Jahangirnagar University, Kamrul Hasan, believes the number of Shapure families shall not exceed 10,000, in the country.
Kamrul Hasan shared the concern, also held by Kamal, regarding treatment of patients of snake bites. According to Kamrul, most public hospitals in districts including Savar cannot treat patients of snakebite, due to lack of anti-venom.
Kamal said: “I have saved many lives. I guarantee to save those bitten by snakes, given the patient is brought to me in time.”
Supplementing his father-in-law’s statement, Jahurul took the opportunity to remind the government of their role in containing the spread of venomous snake in residential areas. He recalled rescuing 42 Cobra offspring from a house last year.
He warned the government against unemployed snake charmers getting involved in smuggling goods from India into Bangladesh. Shapures often travel to India’s Assam, Tripura and West Bengal for trading snakes. Many of them have Indian wives too.
“Taking our jobs away would be like making us walk the gallows,” added Jahurul.
Chief Executive Officer of Carmina, a non-government organisation working in Bangladesh, SMA Rashid, observed the situation in the global perspective of saving endangered wildlife species from being extinct by passing laws.
He believes that the shapures could be allowed to continue with their profession by enlisting the existing shapures and tagging the snakes they have. “It will need monitoring too,” added Rashid.
According to ecology and biodiversity researcher Pavel Partha, traditional hunting is an internationally recognized means of protecting wildlife.
“It is proven that traditional hunting is not responsible for wildlife going extinct,” said Pavel. He refers to about a million people whose livelihood depends on the ecosystem of the Sundarbans. Those people live by collecting honey, fish and Golpata.
“Survival of the ecosystem and the livelihood of these people are interlinked. Wildlife has survived for ages in the traditional system until commercial use of wildlife began in the name of development,” observed Pavel.
There are marginalized and Adivasi communities whose livelihoods depend on birds in the Haor regions, and rats in the northern and southern regions.
It is in recognition and protection of such livelihoods that India passed a law titled Forest Rights Act in 2006, added Pavel.
Facing all odds, Shapures from Panpara still believe snakes would continue to fascinate people with its mysterious and dangerous beauty. That’s why none of them have any plans for quitting their jobs.
Perhaps, the last of the shapures would disappear just like the 213 snake charmers did in 2003. It happened after the snake charmers and their unfed snakes remained stranded for six days on no man’s land between Bangladesh and India, as the countries wrangled over their nationality.
An Indian newspaper quoting Indian officials reported the charmers were last spotted early morning on the seventh day as dense fog covered the area. However, when the fog cleared, the snake charmers were nowhere to be seen.
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