My first visit to Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as it is also called, was in 1980 when I was 23 years old. It was, and is, a fabulous island with amazing wildlife, scenery and history. One day, when I was sitting in my hotel room, I saw two young boys squatting by the side of the road. They didn’t seem to be local boys. They carried cloth bags and a box that they had placed on the road in front of them. Curious, I watched them for a while and discovered that they had snakes crawling out of their pockets and around their feet. Not just your garden-variety snakes, these were cobras, the snake they say kills more people than all other snakes combined!
When I was four years old my father told me, “Son, be careful in the forest and never go near the stone walls because there are snakes there.” That admonition served only to spike my interest in the animals that I was supposed to avoid. Now, when I had a chance to study the king of all snakes, I just had to go out and get a closer look and talk to the boys. They told me, in broken English, who they were and where they came from. I was impressed by the way they handled their animals. As a filmmaker, who had produced and sold a few of my first wildlife documentaries to television, the temptation was just too great. I would have to go home, get my camera and then return, as soon as possible, to Sri Lanka.
One year later I was back again and produced the first documentary about the snake people for Swedish Television. They are actually called Ahikuntake, which, in Sanskrit, means, “people who catch spear bodies,” or rather, “snake catchers.” They are nomads, traveling around the island collecting poisonous snakes from rice paddies, plantations, homes and gardens.
As the rice ripens it attracts rats and mice, and the snakes follow in their wake to feast on rodents. When it is time to harvest there are plenty of poisonous reptiles lurking in the knee-high rice. Before the reapers can step out into the paddy they call on the Ahikuntake to come and gather the snakes. When their bags are full, they’ll walk around to another field and release the snakes. That might sound strange, but if they killed the snakes, the rats and mice would destroy every harvest for years to come. The snakes, especially the cobra, are essential for the economic survival of the rice farmers.
When I returned to Sri Lanka to produce my first film about the Ahikuntake, I followed the children out to the fields to gather poisonous snakes. The children, only 8-10 years old, picked up those dangerous animals as if they were toys. It looked kind of fun and I, who had been interested in snakes since I was a small boy, also wanted to try. Understandably a bit nervous, I tried approaching the serpents from behind, but every time I got close enough to grab the least dangerous end, the snake turned around, hissed and lunged at me. After umpteen attempts that all failed, one of the children tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, sir! Don’t be afraid! DON’T BE AFRAID!” These children who had been playing with snakes since before they could walk, saw nothing dangerous in their task.
You could compare those children in the field with our own children who have learned to walk on the sidewalk along a heavily trafficked street in the city. We’ve also taught them how to safely cross that same street. As long as we follow the rules, we are not particularly concerned about the cars, but one false move, a thoughtless mistake, could be catastrophic. The same applies in the field and since snakes can also sense or smell fear, it is important to remain calm when working with poisonous snakes.
The children in the rice field taught me an important lesson that day. “Sir, don’t be afraid!” Fear is, in itself, the most dangerous thing we carry with us wherever we go. Fear causes us to make foolish decisions, whether it is when we confront a bear in the forest or our boss when we are asking for a raise. It took awhile before I was comfortable holding a cobra in my hands, but I learned a great lesson; fear is our greatest enemy in any situation.