Snake Shyam - Mysore’s snake 911
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
M.S. Balasubramaniam, popularly known as Snake Shyam, a snake enthusiast, wildlife conservationist and lecturer in Mysore, India. Not a trained herpetologist, he is known throughout Mysore as a "naturalist on wheels". Shyam rescues, rehabilitates and educates the public about the importance snakes to the natural ecosystem. He is also sometimes consulted by local hospitals to identify a species of snake prior to treating a snakebite victim.
Shyam has been widely recognized for his work, featured in National Geographic’s Croc Chronicles: Snakes, Karma, Action special. Mysore city has named a street for him and has dedicated its first "urban forest" to him and fellow environmentalist Hyder Ali Khan.
Shyam is also known for his personal flamboyance and has been described by The Hindu newspaper as "easily the most recognizable characters [sic] of Mysore, complete with his sun hat, overflowing beads and multiple rings that adorn his fingers".
By profession, Shyam was a driver, transporting children to school, but beginning in 1982 he began to be frequently called upon to retrieve snakes that had encroached on people's properties, a job for which he receives no pay. Called multiple times each day, Shyam uses a pillowcase and a badminton racquet to net wayward snakes, which he then releases into the forest well outside Mysore city. Despite his one man conservation efforts for snakes has cost him considerable expense, Shyam continues to see these snakes released rather than killed. Recently, authorities in Mysore have offered to defray some of Shyam's expenses by paying his telephone bills.
In 2004, he estimated that he may have caught and released over 40,000 snakes since he began in 1982; as of February 2008, the official record, which he began in 1999, was 11,755. Though Shyam has only been bitten four times in his rescue work, he has developed an allergy to antivenin, which requires that he exercise great care in handling snakes.
He has an extensive knowledge of snakes and can identify 28-30 local species founded on personal experience, but supplemented by reading the works of or speaking to professionals such as Romulus Whitaker, J.C. Daniel and faculty at Mysore University. Shyam's van features paintings depicting snakes and also displays his slogans: "Snakes are not as poisonous as human beings" and "Care for the rare".
Snake Sham was elected to Mysore City Corporation from ward number 17 in elections held in March 2013.