Venomous Russell’s vipers make a comeback in Bangladesh’s north and southeast

The snake’s presence on cropland and river banks has made farmers and people living near river banks scared for their lives

News Desk
Published : 22 July 2023, 07:39 PM
Updated : 22 July 2023, 07:39 PM

A breed of venomous snake considered an endangered species in Bangladesh even a decade ago has made a full-fledged comeback in the northern and southeast parts of the country, wreaking havoc on public life.

The snake, Russell’s viper or Chandrabora in Bengali vernacular, is the most venomous snake in Bangladesh.

A viper’s bite can spread poison throughout the body and cause various physical symptoms, including loss of control of limbs, continuous bleeding, blood clots, nerve damage, paralysis, and kidney damage.

Locally say that urbanisation in the northern part of the country nearly wiped out Russell’s viper a decade ago.

However, since 2012, people in the countryside of Rajshahi and Chapainawabganj, as well as in the Rajbari, Faridpur, Kushtia and Patuakhali districts, have spotted fully-grown Russell’s vipers and snakelets in their farmland and sometimes, even in their households.

Dr Md Abdul Wahed Chowdhury, co-investigator of the Venom Research Centre, Bangladesh, or VRC, has a theory about why this particular breed of snake is proliferating again.

“Russell’s vipers were more common in the northern part of the country and the area’s farmlands used to be one-crop focused, but lately, the farmers in the region adopted techniques to make their lands usable for two-crop even three-crop farming. Crops attract mice, and mice attract snakes,” he said.

Dr Mohammad Firoj Jaman, a professor of zoology at Dhaka University, posited another idea.

“Snakelets of the viper float down from India with floodwater during monsoon via the Padma. Those who make it to land stay in the Rajshahi region, and those who can’t end up in the south and southeast region of the country,” he said.

ANTIVENOM SCARCITY A PROBLEM

According to the World Health Organisation, administering antivenom is the key to saving lives after a snakebite.

If an antivenom can be injected quickly after a bite, the antibodies to the antivenom neutralise the venom.

However, the state-run hospitals in Bangladesh, especially the secondary and tertiary ones, do not have adequate supplies, as revealed in interviews with multiple district health administrators nationwide.

Dr Md Ibrahim Titon, the civil surgeon in Rajbari, conceded that the antivenom stockpiles in his district had crossed the expiration date, which is why the doctors in the state-run hospitals in the district were forced to divert two snake-bitten patients to Dhaka and Kushita, respectively.

Both patients died.

Dr Siddiqur Rahman, the civil surgeon in Faridpur, said none of the nine state-run hospitals in his district has a single dose of antivenom.

“We are diverting every snakebite patient to Dhaka as we have no antivenom in our stock to help them,” he said.

An antivenom consists of several doses, and according to a snake expert, Ibrahim Al Haider, even one dose of the venom can help a patient extensively.

“If the secondary-level hospitals in Bangladesh, like Upazila Health Complexes, can administer at least one preliminary dose before diverting the patient to a tertiary hospital, I believe many more lives can be saved,” he said.

Most of the antivenoms available in the Bangladesh market are imported from India.

However, Ibrahim, a lecturer at Chattogram University and a researcher at the VRC, said the centre had initiated a project to develop antivenom, specifically targeting venom from Russell’s viper.

“We hope to go to clinical trial in a few months,” he said.

FARMERS, PEOPLE LIVING ON RIVER BANKS TERRORISED

The presence of Russell’s vipers on farmland and river banks has made farmers and people living near river banks scared for their lives.

Ayub Ali, a farmer in Rajbari’s Pangsa Upazila, said he feared returning to work on his farmland after spotting a snake a week ago.

“I was so scared that I didn’t even pick up my tools. I’ve never gone back to pick them up,” he said.

Some other farmers have reported the presence of the deadly vipers in their farmland in other parts of Rajbari and neighbouring Faridpur.

Golam Kuddus Bhuiyan, a forest official in Faridpur, said that reports of snake sightings have increased in the last three years.

“Russell’s Vipers have been arriving in this area via the Padma and Modhumoti rivers. Every year, at least a few people die from snake bites here,” he said.

Pangsa Upazila agriculture and administrative officials have started a campaign following the deaths of a few people by snake bites.

Muhammad Jafar Sadik Chowdhury, the Upazila Nirbahi officer at Pangsa, said his administration and agriculture officials have been advising farmers to stay on guard while they work in the field.

[Special Correspondent Moinul Hoque Chowdhury, Senior Correspondent Mintu Chowdhury from Chattogram Bureau, Rajbari Correspondent Shamim Reza, Faridupur Correspondent Sheikh Mofizur Rahman Shipon, Kushtia Correspondent Hasan Ali contributed to this report]

[Writing in English, infographic, and video developed by Adil Mahmood]