March 14, 2008
A snake is a creature that evokes fear in most people so much so that the mere thought of the slimy reptile sends shivers up their backs. Few know the significant role of snakes in maintaining and balancing the energy flows inside shade grown coffee.
Shade grown eco-friendly Indian coffee has many unique distinctions. The rare assemblages of flora and fauna in the coffee forests make it one of the most important biodiversity hotspots of the world. Lurking in the forest one can find a bizarre collection of snakes. The presence of different snake species speaks volumes about the fertility status of the coffee forests. In fact for hundreds of years snakes have acted as powerful symbols to the village folk in balancing the energy flows inside shade grown coffee forests.
Coffee farmers living in and around the forest corridor are known for the conservation of forest wealth. In the early days of farming, farmers had great respect for the forest resources and worked in close cooperation with nature. They were aware of the beneficial role snakes played in the coffee ecosystem, eating rodents and smaller prey. However, modern day practices of using powerful, result-oriented chemicals have put undue pressure on land and toxic chemicals have found their way into food chains.
The inborn fear among farmers regarding the toxic venom of snakes plays a key role in killing most snakes, irrespective of whether they are poisonous or nonpoisonous. An interesting fact is that only 150 out of 2000 species of snakes are poisonous.
The coffee forests provide a perfect micro habitat for the proliferation of various snake species. Three important species of venomous snakes, namely the spectacled cobra, Russell’s viper and common krait are commonly observed inside coffee forests and often come face-to-face with coffee farmers.
All the three snake species occupy a variety of habitats, from densely wooded forests to the open wetlands bordering the coffee farms. They are often found under the biomass or on coffee bushes. The fact of the matter is that these three species of snakes are known to use venom only as self-defense.
Various reasons such as expansion of coffee forests into lowlands and wet lands, loss of virgin forests due to new clearings, increasing biotic pressure, both from within the coffee mountain as well as from the fringes, indiscriminate use of pesticides, weedicides and chemical fertilizers, nitrate pollution of water sources and setting up of animal traps have hindered conservation and multiplication of snakes.
Conservation at Joe’s Sustainable Farm, Kirehully Estate
The translocation of poisonous snakes to safe habitats is a common practice for managing human snake conflict at Joe's eco-friendly coffee farm. Most importantly, when poisonous snakes are sighted on the farm, especially during the mating season, the staff and workers are brought to the site and enlightened on the importance of snakes in maintaining a healthy eco system.
The impact of this management has yielded tremendous response. Today, if any snake is sighted in the Kirehully village, word is sent to Joe’s farm so that the snake is either translocated to safer habitats if it is poisonous, or else simply allowed to go its way, if it is non-poisonous.
Due to the conservation efforts many coffee farmers are in a good position to identify the poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. This is especially true when it comes to the common rat snake and cobra. Both look alike and often the rat snake is mistaken as a cobra.
The rat snake is in fact longer and thinner with a pointed head and prominent eyes. The cobra has a more roundish head. The more information people have about snakes, the less they perceive them as threat.
The large number of diverse trees provides adequate shelter, shade and biomass for both prey and predator but the rise in logging inside the coffee forests has reduced the habitat for both prey and predator. The rate of deforestation is accelerating and there is a growing threat of further degradation and fragmentation of the coffee habitat. The resulting loss of habitat has badly affected the flora and fauna of the region.
The second important factor responsible for the declining snake population is the relentless use of pesticide and chemicals which has wiped out most of the prey species (frogs, toads, lizards, rodents, geckos).
Two interesting facts have come to light after two decades of work on coffee ecology. Firstly, snake species are decreasing at an alarming rate and secondly, the snake species surviving are the ones that belong to the non-poisonous species. Due to shrinking habitats, venomous snake populations are disappearing right in front of our eyes. Some rare species are in the fear of dying out.
The coffee forests are unique and we need an urgent action plan to protect the flora and fauna of the region. If nothing is done soon, some of the rare species could disappear from the face of the earth.