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India snake charmers have identity crisis

Pali Nath has a high-tech advantage in performing an ancient ritual. The snake charmer's cobra is computer chipped and ready to dance. Well, almost. It's winter in northern India, and the beast isn't terribly energetic.

So as Nath waves his flute, striking up a brisk tune, a listless Reshma briefly lifts her head before retreating into her basket and semi-hibernation.

Nath, 52, is one of only 10 Delhi-area snake charmers whose serpents have semiconductors embedded under their skin by the Delhi government. The chips act as name tags that legalize ownership and help ward off officials threatening to fine, extract a bribe or jail Nath under laws designed to protect wildlife.

This gives Nath a big advantage over competitors. "I'm sure they're jealous," he says in this dusty community half an hour from the capital. Dressed in a traditional saffron robe and cap, he says, "They're unemployed, and I'm making money."

Which should make him happy. But working in a profession that's as endangered as some of its snakes weighs on him. Tastes are changing as India's middle class explodes. Children who once followed the sound of his flute, Pied Piper fashion, now barely glance up from their portable Game Boy consoles.

"We're losing our culture," says Nath, whose sixth-grade education puts him ahead of his mostly illiterate compatriots, arguably why his four cobras, rattlesnake and king cobra are on the right side of the law.

Bureaucrats didn't really publicize the snake-chip program, in effect a one-time amnesty for a lucky few because all snake charmers are technically in violation of the country's wildlife act. And, truth be told, the authorities wouldn't mind if the charmers gave up their snakes for good.

Charmers have long been suspected of using their art as a cover for selling snakes to smugglers who supply the lucrative Chinese traditional medicine trade.

The microchips — which cost the government about $20 per snake, including implanting — are embedded below the skin to survive the snake's molting process. The idea is to ensure that a specific snake actually belongs to a charmer.

Nath learned of the program only after reading a newspaper article two days before the deadline to comply. He rushed to Delhi's Department of Forests and Wildlife office with his six snakes in a bag, where a worker took them into another room to be chipped and gave him a document attesting to his legal status.

Media, animal lovers and the government criticize charmers like Nath for confining the snakes to tiny baskets and ripping out their fangs — done periodically because they grow back — leading to infection and death. But Nath strongly disputes this, arguing that his snakes sleep with him and eat better than he does.

"We treat them like our children," he says, jamming 5-foot-long Reshma into a basket the diameter of a dinner plate.

India had about 800,000 unlicensed snake charmers in 2007, according to a recent survey by the Snake Charmers Federation of India. Those now caught without a license face up to seven years in jail under Indian laws that aim to safeguard biodiversity by banning the possession, sale or trading of wild animals. Among the most affected, other than smugglers, have been traditional showmen: charmers, monkey grinders and trick-bear keepers.

In reality, though, enforcement is spotty, and it's more likely that offenders' animals will be confiscated, which is still a huge deterrent.

Nitin Sawant, the zoologist at Goa University who implanted the microchips into the 42 now-legal snakes in mid-2011, has a dim view of how charmers treat their scaly moneymakers. "Almost all were defanged and they were kept in very small traditional containers," he says. "The health of all the snakes was very pitiful."

But it's the charmers who are seeking pity these days, as they recall a golden age when tourist officials directed wealthy foreigners their way to experience a cliche of Indian mysticism, alongside elephants and maharajah.

Even their simple presence on the streets was auspicious then, they say. According to Hinduism, the snake-loving god Shiva sent 12 devotees named Nath to all corners of India, which is why "Nath" is such a common name in the charmer community.

It is often noted that a biographer of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) mentions that Indians worshiped a 105-foot snake (an exaggeration, no doubt) with eyes "as large as Macedonian shields." At one point, snakes were even included in dowries.

But growing environmental awareness and exploitation — at the peak in the 1960s, India exported 10 million snakeskins a year to foreign fashionistas for belts and purses — led to passage of the 1972 wildlife law that authorities started to enforce only in recent years.

As the condemnation grew, charmers pushed back. Since the Snake Charmers Federation was formed in 2007, thousands have marched, pressured lawmakers and aired their plight to the news media, culminating in a 2010 show of force that saw 15,000 charmers take to the streets of Kolkata, snakes in tow.

Civic groups have proposed alternative work programs, including a "dial-a-snake-charmer" service to remove pests for homeowners. Others suggested using snake charmers to help educate people about conservation or to work on farms selling venom to the pharmaceutical industry. But the education gap — and caste-culture differences — was too great for any of the ideas to work.

"Most snake-charmer clans and individuals are independent thinkers, outside the mainstream, itinerant and allied to sleight-of-hand experts," says herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, who started India's first reptile park. "It's not easy to change their ways."

But clinging to the old ways seems to be a losing battle. Even prayers by thousands of charmers at their annual conference in Charkhi Dadri haven't reversed their sliding fortunes.

That's led to frustration. In December, one charmer, irate about alleged demands for bribes, sent bureaucrats scurrying when he released about 20 snakes in a wildlife office in Uttar Pradesh state.

Not surprisingly, Delhi's chief wildlife warden, Deepak M. Shukla, has had little sympathy.

Even though it seems only a few charmers heard about it, rules are rules, he says. The one-time amnesty won't be repeated despite the charmers' protests.

"They should've spoken up earlier," he says in his faux wood-paneled office with an anti-bribery sign in the stairwell. "Now they can't make excuses."

He also bridles at the hundreds of negative letters he's received from around the world. "They thought I was microchipping the snakes to legalize the trade, instead of trying to prevent abuse or illegal trading," he says. "I was shocked."

Nath makes a living performing at 10 to 15 weddings, birthday parties and school assemblies a month. His business card reads, "Famous in India and abroad, music and girl dancing, group snake charmer."

Others are not so fortunate.

Half an hour away in Molarband, Karma Nath, who is not related, sits in a tiny kiosk perched atop a canal reeking of dead animals and human waste. Nath, 30, has never been to school and plays drums for a few dollars at ceremonial events.

"We lost our last snake three years ago," he says. "We're seen as outdated. It's hard to keep a family going."

A few alleys away, retired snake charmer Durga Nath, 70, shows his five teeth as he smiles at a dirty, naked grandchild crawling underfoot.

"In my family, you didn't learn about snakes," he says. "You were born into and absorbed it."

Durga Nath takes out a battered suitcase filled with snake charmer memorabilia. He once traveled to Japan (a real "snakes on a plane") for a charmer publicity stunt, appeared in the 2010 Commonwealth Games' opening ceremony, and was summoned by authorities in 1999 when Hindu right-wingers threatened to release several slithery specimens during an India-Pakistan cricket match.

"They remember us when they need us," he says. "But abandon us the rest of the time."

Back in Tiplit, Pali Nath touts the benefits of secret herbal remedies as he points out the scars on his right hand where he's been bitten while capturing snakes in people's houses or when he's defanged some of his own.

Then he whacks a reviving Reshma down and closes the lid.

"These educated people are losing faith in India's 320 million gods," he says, "and gods and snakes go together.

"It's going the wrong way," he concludes. "I hear 2012 may be civilization's final year."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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