Living in the dense coffee forests of the Western Ghats, we have always been on the lookout for spotting amusing species. In the Poomaale Estate in Coorg, when we found a Common Krait and a couple of Vipers around the manager’s house, amusement was an understated emotion. Sighting two of the big four snakes of India instilled a wave or alert among us.
With the onset of winter in November, mating season for our lethal mates had begun. As we anticipated more sightings of vipers, kraits and even the Indian cobra, we set to action. To ensure safety, we cleaned the areas around all our living spaces and further advised everyone to wear sturdy footwear while stepping out, especially in the early mornings and late evenings, and use a torch while moving in unlit areas. The presence of these snakes not only gave us a new learning experience but also assured us that our coffee forest was significantly healthy.
Growing Coffee in the Serpents’ Abode
The most beautiful and unique snakes have been found to dwell in coffee forests, most of which are being converted into commercial coffee plantations today. The unique ecosystem of animals and plant species in a coffee forest provides a fertile ground for snakes to thrive. One can find a wide-ranging species of snakes in a coffee forest – from 10 cm long worm snakes to 7 m long King Cobras. As reptiles, snakes need to regulate their body temperatures and the combination of shade and sunny areas of a healthy coffee forest allows them to do that with ease. In the Poomaale estate, both Arabica (dense shade providers) and Robusta (scattered shade providers) varieties are being grown leading to a thriving snake population.
Malabar Pit Viper sighted in the coffee forests of Poomaale Estate in Coorg
Why You Should Protect the Snakes of Your Coffee Forest
Simply because they keep your coffee forests healthy.
A variety of snakes are extremely well adapted to coffee plantations from common rat snakes to vipers, kraits and cobras. They prey on several rodents and smaller pests in the coffee plantations. They are mid and top-level predators in coffee forest ecosystems. They form integral members of the food chain and balance the energy flows.
This unbreakable relationship between snakes and coffee makes us wonder.. Do snakes make coffee plantations their home? Or are we growing coffee in their natural homes?
Spotting Vine Snake in the rainforest of Poomaale Estate in Coorg
Over the past few decades, the population of snakes in coffee plantations has been on a decline. One of the main reasons for this is fear among humans and the inability to differentiate between venomous and non-venomous snakes. Killing snakes out of fear and producing commodities like belts or purses has been a common practice. Furthermore, the unnatural/ unsustainable growth of coffee by clearing wetlands and excessive use of pesticides has led to a degradation of their natural habitats. Human-made habitats also attract lizards and rodents upon which snakes largely prey. The boundaries between the habitats of both living beings get blurred.
This only starts a cycle of using more unhealthy systems to control a disturbed ecosystem created by eliminating the required elements and introducing harmful ones.
Curbing the Conflict
Awareness and Education
The first step to reducing the human-snake conflict is by educating ourselves about the value they bring to the coffee forest ecosystem. Distinguishing between venomous and non-venomous snakes is the first lesson. Among all the snake species, a very small percentage of species are venomous. Even venomous snakes inflict venom through bites only in case of self-defence. Once the team on the ground is well-educated about the nature of snakes in the region, the next step is to take precautions.
Shed skin of the Indian Cobra (Naja Naja) found in the coffee forest of Poomaale Estate in Coorg
Precautions in a Coffee Forest
As soon as we spotted two of the big four snakes at the Poomaale Estate, we started to take strict precautions as Viper and Kraits fall under the venomous category. The safety measures included a thorough cleaning of living areas and surrounds and adequate lighting in and around living spaces. We also advised our team members to wear sturdy footwear while stepping out, especially in the mornings and late evenings.
Other precautions include keeping essential antidotes in case of emergencies and training our staff to handle encounters with snakes sensitively. Snakes tend to hide in wood piles, hay stacks, bricks, stones and tree holes. Carrying torch lights at all times and carefully inspecting dark areas before entering is extremely important.
Let the Wetlands Flourish
The wetland ecosystems attract a variety of species and house complex interdependent ecological systems. They also act as a breeding ground for these species. Clearing the wetlands to make room for larger amounts of commercial coffee can disrupt the local ecosystem and harm biodiversity. Growing coffee sustainably, without altering the indigenous landscape works in the favour of all life.
Coffee forests and the lives of snakes are codependent. They help each other stay healthy and grow. Being aware of the native snake species, their movement patterns and their behaviour is essential for peaceful coexistence. Coffee forests thrive if they thrive.
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