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The Bamboo Pit Viper

The Bamboo Pit Viper

The bamboo pit viper has heat-sensing organs called pits between its eye and nostril that allow it to detect the location of its prey with amazing accuracy.

The soaking wet weather did not stop Rahul Alvares’ German client Frank from searching for snakes in Amboli.

This monsoon I had an unusual client. A tall young German by the name of Frank contacted me with an unexpected request. He wanted to spend 10 days only looking for snakes in India!

I do, of course, get the odd client wanting to go looking for snakes in the monsoons every year. But then it is usually a short trip that they are interested in. I always pick Amboli as it has always been the most productive in terms of finding reptiles.

Generally, we start looking for snakes around 9.00 p.m. and go on until about 11.30 p.m. After two to three hours of squinting around with a torch light in rainy Amboli, most clients are thoroughly exhausted! Time to return home!

But Frank was different! On our first day there, he went out looking for snakes in the day. Unusual indeed since most of my colleagues and I believe that there’s no reason to find anything besides a vine snake during the day. Tell that to Frank who after three hours of rigorous walking in the jungle came back having spotted two Malabar pit vipers and two vine snakes!

After an early dinner and a short rest, Frank was raring to go again. This time I joined him. I was well rested unlike Frank who had come back earlier soaking wet, shivering but overjoyed at having found those snakes. Two hours later I threw in the towel and returned to the car. Cold, wet, and bitten by leeches I was done looking for snakes. But not Frank. He stayed in the forest for another three hours. By the time he returned to the car, it was 2.45 in the morning. For the entire five hours he’d been out in the forest, he’d found only one vine snake.

You would think that the rains and the scarce reptile encounters would have dampened his spirits by now. But no, the next morning he was out in the forest again. Half an hour later I got a call from an unknown number. Frank was on the line, calling from someone else’s phone. In the excited babbling that ensued from his end I figured out that he’d found something interesting and wanted me to drive out to meet him.

Ten minutes later, I found him chatting excitedly with a local who was holding a tied up bag in one hand. Turns out that Frank’s new found friend had only just rescued a bamboo pit viper from someone’s house! I was overjoyed. I had been looking to photograph one for years. The first and only time I had seen one was at the Madras Crocodile Bank 18 odd years ago!

Frank’s new friend was willing to part with the snake on one condition: that we release it back into the wild immediately after we’d finished photographing it. Three hours later, after a very productive photography session, we did exactly that.

Bamboo pit vipers are arboreal (live on trees) and nocturnal (active at night) and are often found in bamboo groves and forested areas close to streams. Like other pit vipers, they can strike at prey with pin-point accuracy in pitch darkness. To execute this astonishing feat, they use their highly evolved heat sensitive pits. The pits are very obvious and easy to see, being located between the snake’s eye and nostril. Like all pit vipers, they are venomous and give birth to live young.

Author: Rahul Alvares, First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, November 2013.


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