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An Indian snake charmer plays his flute in front of a king cobra in Bhopal, India. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian snake charmer plays his flute in front of a king cobra in Bhopal, India. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)

India

Microchipping of snake charmer's cobras a sign of the times in Delhi Add to ...

Pali Nath believes his cobras are 1,000 years old. This may be a slight overstatement, but it speaks to his sense that his trade - snake charmer - is an ancient, integral part of Indian culture. He plies it at weddings and other auspicious occasions, and sometimes on the pavement at busy crossroads in Delhi.

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When he squats on his haunches and begins to plays his flute, then lifts the lid off a wicker basket of coiled snakes, the music and the swaying of the serpents has an other-worldly quality. He draws a crowd that, for a few minutes, falls still in this cacophonous city.

This is also, however, a modernizing city, and ancient though the practice of snake charming may be, it must keep up with the times.

Thus the municipal government of Delhi recently summoned Mr. Nath and a number of his confederates to have their snakes microchipped.

Yes. Microchipped.

Back in 2003, Delhi's wildlife department ordered all city residents with wild animals to register their beasts. Dancing bears, auspicious-occasion elephants, festive camels, performing monkeys, parrots who tell fortunes and rats that predict the future - this concrete jungle is rich in fauna.

The city hoped that by declaring an amnesty to register wild animals in the city, it would help to stop the wildlife trade.

Mr. Nath read about the amnesty in the newspaper, and signed up. It took the city eight years to work its way around to the snake charmers, but a few weeks ago, he got the call to bring in his snakes.

In a bare city office, he met Nitin Sawant, a herpetologist who is the director of the Goa office of the World Wildlife Fund India. The city brought Mr. Sawant north because he is one of the few people in the country with an expertise in PIT-tagging (that's Passive Integrated Transponder, for the uninitiated) snakes, a skill he picked up PIT-tagging pit vipers for his doctoral research in zoology.

Mr. Sawant took each snake in turn, popped its head and neck into a clear plastic tube to keep it still, and used a needle to insert the tag - smaller than a grain of rice - into the snake's skin, below the top layer that is shed. Each chip carries a unique identity number.

Then Mr. Nath was given a stamped, laminated certificate that records the species, length, weight and unusual identifying characteristics of his six snakes. And that changed his life.

"Before I was being harassed all the time by inspectors, but now when they stop me I show them this certificate," he said. Wildlife officers can use a handheld scanner to read the chip and confirm the snakes he is carrying are the ones he registered.

Snake charming, like any activity with a wild animal, was outlawed in the mid-1990s. Inspectors patrol for violators, seeking in theory to confiscate animals or, more typically, to demand bribes from the snake charmers to leave them alone.

Now, Mr. Nath said, his fellow charmers are left living in fear of inspectors, keeping to the shadows, while he can operate freely. He was reluctant to be too specific about what he earns, but he seemed prosperous enough, wearing crisp, bright-orange robes stretched over a firm belly.

Only 10 snake charmers, with a total of 43 snakes, came forward for microchipping, according to a wildlife official who declined to be quoted by name; he estimated there are at least 50 more snake charmers at work in Delhi. The initiative has been "very cheap," he said, at a cost of about 55,000 rupees, or $1,200.

Mr. Nath insisted none of his snakes came through illegal wildlife trading. Rather, he said, they were spotted in buildings around the city and he was called to remove them. "I have caught snakes in the Kuwaiti embassy, in the home of the minister of external affairs, in the railway museum," he said.

Once he catches them, he defangs the snakes, using a method he learned from his father that he declined to detail. Because they are defanged, his snakes cannot hunt, and he feeds them deboned chicken and fish, plus yoghurt in summer. He carries them around the city in a basket tied shut with string. And he loves them dearly. "In the winter, they sleep with me under the quilt, not my kids," he said in Hindi.

However, Mr. Sawant, a man with a warm-blooded passion for reptiles, was appalled at the state of the snakes he tagged.

"The way they are catching and treating the snakes is torture, and they were sluggish, they are not in good health," he said. "I told all of the [snake charmers]that they should leave this profession: 'If somebody puts your child in a bucket and makes them dance, you will not be happy.' They said, 'But, sir, we don't have any livelihood.' "

Mr. Nath said his snakes will live at least several hundred more years (unless bitten by a mongoose) and thus he will never need more. If he did, he said, he would keep a few eggs when his current snakes mate, but never trap a wild snake.

The herpetologist was skeptical. "Obviously these snakes are in bad health and they will die and they will go for new snakes."

The microchipping may help, he said, but it relies on a fairly high level of efficiency by wildlife inspectors. The king cobra and python species favoured by snake charmers are not yet endangered but are threatened, Mr. Sawant said.

Mr. Nath counters that he has a religious and near-mystical relationship with his snakes, that he and they are bonded through his music. (This idea is somewhat undermined by the fact that he has to jab and poke the snakes, which respond by striking furiously at his hands, in order to get them to "dance.")

"It's a talent, a work of art, and it's legalized with this certificate," he said.

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