x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Wildlife enthusiast urges workmen to avoid killing snakes

A self-taught wildlife enthusiast educates workers in remote areas about how to distinguish venomous creatures from the harmless. His objective is to protect desert species by moving preventing them from being killed on sight.

Ajmal Hasan studies a desert shrub for insects on an early-morning walk through the dunes around Sharjah.
Ajmal Hasan studies a desert shrub for insects on an early-morning walk through the dunes around Sharjah.

SHARJAH // Ajmal Hasan has launched a one-man campaign to keep the country's snakes alive.

Armed with survival skills and a keen tracking sense, the academic co-ordinator at Khalifa University in Sharjah spends most Fridays striding across the country's deserts identifying and photographing reptiles and other wildlife.

On his travels, the wildlife enthusiast calls at remote building sites and farms, where he is often disturbed to meet workmen who routinely kill the snakes they come across - sometimes on a daily basis.

Mr Hasan has started to explain to them how they can tell which species are harmless, and how to deal safely even with venomous varieties whose bite can kill.

"My goal is to spread awareness, to let people know what is poisonous and what is not, especially when it comes to construction workers," he said. "When I go out in the desert I come across camel farms where there's only three or four people to take care of all the camels.

"These people are mostly from Pakistan. I'm from India but I speak Urdu, so I can converse with them. I have a sheet, which has pictures of the snakes, and I bring it out and say, 'which of these do you see out here?' and usually they point to the picture of a saw-scaled viper.

"I ask them what they do with such a snake if they find one, and they say, 'we kill it'. They ask me what they should do, and I say ideally they should try to relocate it."

The saw-scaled viper is the deadliest species of snake found in the UAE. A bite victim needs medical treatment within 20 minutes, so any delay reaching hospital could be fatal.

But Mr Hasan said the snake would, whenever possible, avoid confrontation and slip away into a hole when it sensed someone approaching. If it could not avoid contact it would produce a warning sound and make false strikes.

"There are very few bites from such snakes because they are very wary of humans," he added. "I tell the workers to back off and try their best to move the snake away. If it's near their doorstep, use a long stick and just fling it away. They're very receptive and ask a lot of questions."

At one construction camp in Sharjah Mr Hasan had a good discussion with a group of labourers. "I showed them a picture of the viper and they said they killed one every day. That was scary, because if that's true you can just imagine the numbers that are being killed.

"It's not endangered, but if there's a huge construction site in their territory and you kill them all, then they're gone, they're extinct in that particular area, and there's no way you can bring them back."

One of the non-venomous varieties Mr Hasan points out to the workers is the Arabian sand boa.

"One of them told me he had captured one of these and kept it as a pet. He found it and realised it wasn't poisonous. These don't readily bite; they tend to try to find a way to escape."

He said the saw-scaled viper and the sand boa were the two most common UAE desert snakes, while another venomous species, the Oman carpet viper, was a mountain dweller. His illustrated sheet of UAE snakes lists 15 of the most-common varieties.

There is only one circumstance in which Mr Hasan would recommend killing a snake. Anyone unfortunate enough to be bitten should take the reptile's body with them to hospital, where medical staff would be able to identify it and administer the correct anti-venom.

Mr Hasan, a 36-year-old father of two who is self-taught on the subject of desert survival as well as snakes, has had a passion for insects and reptiles since childhood. He photographs many species during his weekly excursions into the deserts of the UAE. Usually a friend drives him to a particular spot and drops him off, and he then sets across sand on foot. He prefers to walk alone so he is not held back by someone else, and said he sees many more specimens than he would from a car.

"I head off way into the desert and find stuff," he said. "I have learned from experience what to find where and how to find my way back to the highway. I take pictures of wildlife for my own sake. I don't claim to be an expert."

Mr Hasan is able to walk in the desert safely on his own because he has years of experience, is familiar with the geography and knows his limitations and never exceeds them. He carries plenty of water, sets off at 4.30am so his field trip is completed by the time temperatures reach their peak, tells his wife where he is going and calls her regularly so she know he is OK. He never ventures too far from the highway and always knows the way back.

The desert is a harsh, dangerous and potentially deadly environment, and people lacking Mr Hasan's experience and expertise should not venture into it unless accompanied by a skilled guide.

Mr Hasan moved to the UAE in 1998. His wife, Asma, supports his passion for insects and reptiles but does not share it.

"She has no interest in it whatsoever," he added. "She shies away from cockroaches, let alone other insects."

csimpson@thenational.ae