Published in The Bangkok Post on 13 October 2013

With nearly 12,000 people bitten last year by deadly snakes, the laws protecting them may be the last thing on people’s minds 

A common cobra at Yangon Zoo.

A common cobra at Yangon Zoo.

Sein Thein is a busy man: he works a minimum 10 hour shift at Yangon Zoo’s reptile department and is often called back to duty on his only day off.

“All I want to do is sleep on my rest day, but someone from the zoo invariably phones me up and says something like, ‘The crocodiles are fighting, you have to come and sort it out,’” the 55-year-old tells Spectrum.

He also receives calls via the zoo from people who have found a deadly snake in their home or garden.

He told Spectrum that he receives about three phone calls a month from Yangon residents who have discovered his favourite animal inside their home – a cobra.

“Three months ago I was asked to catch a cobra after it was found in a toilet in Yankin township,” he said.

Sein Thein with the King Cobra he caught in August.

Sein Thein with the King Cobra he caught in August.

Sein Thein said that the majority of calls he gets about spitting cobras and common cobras are from residents in Insein Township, North and South Dagon, and Bahan, the latter of which is just five kilometres from the downtown area and the most popular area to live among expatriates.

Krait snakes, which are considered a sub-species of the cobra because their venom is almost identical, are a “city snake,” said San Pya Hospital’s Professor Khin Thida Thwin, who heads up the national Snake Bite Control Project, which is a joint undertaking with the World Health Organisation.“Kraits prefer areas inhabited by humans rather than forests. While it’s unusual for someone to be bitten by a cobra in the downtown area, this cannot be said of craiks,” she said.

Kraits and cobras accounted for approximately 30% of hospital admissions for snake bites last year, according to data from the Ministry of Health.

And there is at least one cobra dwelling downtown: it lives under a Hindu shrine at Sri Hanuman Temple opposite Aung San Stadium on Kanyeiktha Lane. The temple caretaker, 35-year-old Madee, told Spectrum, “It is our god snake. We feed her eggs and milk every Tuesday and Thursday, and devotees come here and pray to her before job interviews, or if they are facing problems in their life.”

Madee at Sri Hanuman temple in Yangon.

Madee at Sri Hanuman temple in Yangon.

The entire country is renowned for its plentiful snake population – of the 14 states and divisions, Yangon is considered the fourth highest snake bite endemic area, after Magway, Mandalay and Bago. According to the Ministry of Health, almost 12,000 people were admitted to hospitals for snake bites in 2012.

With much of Yangon undergoing development by foreign investors and the like, the city’s snakes are being forced to find new habitats and to seek out food sources in residential areas, Sein Thein said.

Cobras have been found lurking in luggage “many times,” as well as between houses and even in kitchen sinks, he said.

Sein Thein explained that food scraps left in the home will attract frogs and rats, which in turn are pursued as the snakes’ natural prey.

Most terrifying of all have been the instances when families have returned from a month or so abroad and discovered a cobra lying under the blankets of their bed.

“So long as you don’t touch a cobra, if you accidentally get into bed with one, it will just slip out quietly,” he said.

Professor Khin Thida Thwin with specimens at San Pya Hospital.

Professor Khin Thida Thwin with specimens at San Pya Hospital.

By way of illustration, Sein Thein said that he once turned a trick at the zoo that involved him feigning sleep while four cobras slithered across him. None bit him on that occasion, however he has been bitten 12 times by cobras in the past 20 years – mostly recently on his head.

Despite the threats posed to humans by cobras, whose venom causes death by respiratory arrest, Myanmar people will generally go to great lengths to repel snakes from residential areas without killing them. Although snake bites are feared, it is considered lucky to dream of a snake or even to see one cross your path.

Shwe Yee Saw Myint, 23, from North Dagon said that although it has been about two years since she since last saw a cobra in her local area, her family and neighbours opt to frighten cobras away by shouting and throwing sticks at them.

Zaw Myint, a father of two and a resident of Insein township, said he fends off cobras by drizzling lemon juice around the outside of his home, as he believes the acidity hurts their eyes.

“I’ve had to fend some off with sticks, but I never kill them,” he said.

Yangon Zoo

Yangon Zoo

When Charles Anthony used to live in a cobra endemic area in the outskirts of Yangon, his mother taught him to throw a special type of stone fruit thought to be disliked by cobras. She warned him that if he tried to kill a cobra but failed, the cobra would return and kill the aggressor – a common belief among Myanmar people.

Sein Thein said another traditional method used to repel deadly snakes involves stirring gold jewellery in a pot of boiling water and then throwing the water (minus the jewellery) on the ground around a home.

“None of these methods actually work,” he tells Spectrum.

What Sein Thein does believe in are the prayers he says inwardly while handling snakes, and the tattoos that cover his torso, arms and legs.

“My tattoos make me immune to cobra bites,” he said.

Most of the tattoos depict cobras with widened hoods. The ink was mixed with cobra venom and tree leaves thought to have medicinal properties. He has the tattoos re-inked three times a year, on the days of a full moon. Protective tattoos are an ancient Myanmar belief and are also used to protect people against other causes of death, such as being stabbed by a knife.

“If a normal person has one hour to live [after being bitten by a cobra], I have 10,” he said.

Following the most recent bite, Sein Thein lost his vision for about three minutes and was drenched in sweat. The zoo’s management sent him to hospital, but he was back at work the following day.

When asked about the effectiveness of Sein Thein’s tattoos, Dr Zaw Thun from San Pya Hospital’s renal medical department said, “It’s impossible. However the human body develops immunity to venom from repeated bites, which is how he survives.”

Snake keeper Sein Thein believes his tattoos make him immune to snake venom.

Snake keeper Sein Thein believes his tattoos make him immune to snake venom.

In addition to under-reporting snake bites, which WHO estimates is around 12% across South East Asia, Professor Thwin said that traditional methods of treating a snake bite in Myanmar increase fatality rates.

She has seen devastating infections caused by rubbing a slaughtered chicken on the wound, spreading a mixture of “special leaves” and performing acupuncture on the entire body, which causes the venom to spread more quickly. Other treatments include making an incision across the bite area and having someone suck the blood out (which endangers everyone involved), swallowing the snake’s tail or applying an extremely tight tourniquet, which can lead to gangrene if left too long.

Dr Zaw Htun said that while most people in Yangon opt for either Yangon General Hospital or San Pya Hospital (the only two facilities with renal departments), educating the public in hard to reach areas remains a challenge.

“We are telling people not to use traditional medicines, especially for the treatment of snake bites,” he told Spectrum.

A snake bite prevention poster by WHO and Myanmar's Ministry of Health.

A snake bite prevention poster by WHO and Myanmar’s Ministry of Health.

San Pya Hospital’s consultant nephrologist, Kyaw San Lwin, said that cobras move so swiftly that most of his patients don’t realise they’ve been bitten by one, so “late referral is a problem.”

If the cobra’s venom directly enters a vein, a victim will die within an hour, he added.

Professor Thwin said that Myanmar imports anti-venom from Thailand and India because it is unable to produce sufficient quantities of the life-saving medicine.

Sein Thein said he’s the only person in central Yangon with the agility (and sheer fearlessness) to catch a cobra. However he knows of people living on the other side of Hlaing River, such as in Thanlwin, who catch cobras as a livelihood. They too have venom-infused snake tattoos, albeit smaller and usually just on their hands.

“After 10 or 20 cobras are caught, these people bring them to Yangon and sell them to Chinese restaurants,” he tells Spectrum.

Sein Thein said there are at least four restaurants in Yangon which have cobra on the menu, as people who adhere to traditional Chinese beliefs regard the ingestion of cobras as a health boost.

“It makes me sad and I pray for the cobras. But these people [supplying the cobras to restaurants] are poor and need the money.”

Sein Thein has been told that a restaurant will pay just K3000 for a cobra, “even if it’s the width of my arm.”

At San Chuan Restaurant in upmarket Bahan township, cobras don’t appear on the menu but are nevertheless available on request. So are large turtles that a waiter said “can feed 20 people”, and the endangered pangolin, whose scales are thought to cure cancer.

The waiter at San Chuan Restaurant told Spectrum said that 10 cobras were being stored alive in petrol barrels, along with a couple of vipers. He retrieved a cobra from a barrel using a long stick and took it to the nearby kitchen, where its head was cut off and its blood let into a drain on the floor.

A cobra selected for the kitchen at San Chuan Restaurant in Yangon.

A cobra selected for the kitchen at San Chuan Restaurant in Yangon.

If Sein Thein’s figures are correct, the restaurant makes a 300% profit on every cobra – a meal of cobra meat soup, kidney wine and fried skin cost K30,000.

He said that police patrolling highways will arrest anyone caught smuggling cobras to restaurants, although cobras aren’t protected by Myanmar’s wildlife laws.

In 2001, the Bangkok-based Burma Lawyers Council published a paper that said that “the Wildlife Protection Act [1994] is not very effective, especially in terms of protecting wild animals and plants.” One of its criticisms is that the first mammal listed as being protected is the Javan rhinoceros, has been “extinct for decades.”

A waitress carrying a pangolin to the kitchen at San Chuan Restaurant.

A waitress carrying a pangolin to the kitchen at San Chuan Restaurant.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, Myanmar’s common cobra (also known as the monocled cobra) faces a low risk of extinction, but notes that its population across South East Asia and South Asia is decreasing. The black and white spitting cobra also found in Myanmar, is listed as vulnerable to extinction.

With inadequate laws, rapid urban development and a free-for-all trade in consuming cobra meat, the fate of these terrifying yet majestic creatures in Myanmar remains uncertain.