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Thursday, August 23, 2012

In Search of a Malabar Pit Viper

Sensing our presence - Malabar Pit Viper
 Inspired by Austin Stevens - a Herpetologist, a great photographer and film maker too, I admire him most for his famous documentary on Animal Planet “In Search of the King Cobra” that was filmed entirely in the Western Ghats, India.

Here I share my experience going after a very rare, venomous Snake known as the ‘Malabar Pit Viper.’  These are nocturnal snakes & mostly active in the night and is spotted only during monsoons. I had two choices to make for high probability of spotting these snakes, one at Agumbe and other at Amboli.  At Agumbe accommodation is available only at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station and one needs to book it well in advance, Unfortunately I didn’t make any bookings, so I had no option but to travel to Amboli.
Way to Heaven

Amboli, a biodiversity hotspot for some rare Amphibians and Reptiles is a hill station in south Maharashtra State. At an altitude of 690 meters it is the last hill station before the coastal highlands of Goa and a relatively unexplored one. Just an hour’s drive from Belgaum - my hometown, Amboli is Maharashtra’s Cheerapunji & the wettest place in the state. Historically, Amboli village came into being as one of the staging posts along the road from Vengurla port to the city of Belgaum, which was extensively used by the British to supply their garrisons in south and central India.

We had made are our stay arrangements at Whistling Woods, a small homestay run by Hemant Ogale, Owner cum Naturalist/Guide and a photographer too. The accommodation was quite comfortable and the food was awesome. We ordered Non-Veg Malavani Thali, a simple meal but very delicious that consists  of Sol Kadi a special konkan appetizer made of Kokam and Cocount milk and excellent for digestion, it also acts as strong antacid agent, Chapatis, Chicken Curry and Steam Rice. In addition we had ordered Fried Fish, a konkan style fry can't get any better.

Owl Eyed Moth

Our forest trail was on foot in search of these rare species, the trail began at 9:30pm and was expected to end at 2am. With dense mist around the visibility was down to less than 5 feet. I knew one wrong step during the forest trail could lead to fatal bite by one of these snakes of Western Ghats, so I was prepared with protective foot wear, in addition a powerful torch, rain gear for my camera equipment’s and most importantly a high intensity external Flash light for my Camera. The area is highly populated with Leeches so I had to be mentally prepared to lose a minimum 100ml of blood too. However I had applied Eucalyptus oil on my feet, it is believed that it works as a repellant to insects and leeches too.

Green Vine Snake
Our first encounter was a rare moth known as Owl Eyed Moth; I was amazed to see this one for the first time and managed to make some images. It is only now I realized how difficult and little I knew about photographing at night, of course one challenge was there was no natural sources of light. As we trekked further a Green Vine Snake was spotted, luckily a mildly poisonous snake, this guy was coiled & resting on a branch, waiting for a prey. This is typical strategy of the snakes that camouflage themselves and strike on tree frogs or reptiles once they are within the striking range of say 1-2 feet.

In a mood to strike - Malabar Pit Viper
We walked further deep into the forest, the mist was even denser, I was really nervous, my friend Prashant had almost decided to back off from this trail, he was not feeling too well. However I managed to convince him “We do it Now or Never”. We proceeded further, as we walked through the bushes water droplets fell on us and every time we felt as if some insect or a lizard jumped on us. 

Hitler Bug
We continued our trail and suddenly Hemant whispered Stop!,  he said he spotted a Malabar Pit Viper, my heart started beating fast, and I could barely see Hemant in the thick mist. I asked him where he spotted; he beamed his torch onto a small branch, I beamed my torch too on the same branch. Wow! What an amazing snake this is, he was nicely coiled to the branch. Without wasting any time I started taking some shots with my MACRO lens, in the excitement I moved in too close and this guy was getting edgy so started hissing with his tongue out. I was lucky to shoot this image as well, I didn’t back off and I could see him taking a position as if he will strike any moment. The normal striking distance for these snakes is 1-1.5 feet and I was about 4-5 feet. And also Vipers are quite intelligent and don’t unnecessarily strike on humans and lose their precious venom; instead save it for their prey like frogs or Gecko’s that can be part of their large diet.
There was another drama to this, due to excitement I moved in so close that I had to almost get in to the bushes and believe me my friend screamed that there is another snake right on top of my head. I stayed unmoved, in the meantime Hemant our Naturalist whispered that it is a Cat Snake and non-venomous, he requested us not to panic. I have some image of the Cat Snake but not that great as I couldn’t get him in the right focus.

The Bull Frog
It had rained quite heavily and was still drizzling but believe me we were sweating, I pulled out a water bottle from my bag pack, what a relief to sip up water in such situations. After a while we encountered a Bull Frog, he was quietly sitting in the water that was collected due to rains. I believe the Bull frog has the same status and given equal importance as that of a Tiger as regards to its conservation. It is listed in the highly 
endangered species.

Wrinkled Frog
Now Hemant wanted us to walk a few yards in a water stream, honestly in such pitch darkness walking in the stream was really dangerous. But he was very keen to show us another rare species of Frog known as the Wrinkled Frog. He said monsoon is high breeding season so chances of this frog near the water streams are extremely high.

Fresh Eggs laid by Wrinkled Frog
My friend Prashant refused to walk further; his feet were hurting, he was seriously having a shoe bite. However I pushed him hard and he agreed to move on. On our way we a saw a Crab Mating Couple, I was fortunate to get some good images. And as expected by Hemant, we spotted the Winkled frog, initially she was on the leaf and had laid fresh eggs and we could also see the tadpoles that would hatch anytime. When tadpoles have finished developing inside the eggs, they wriggle out of the egg-jelly and fall in the water below, where they develop further. I salute Mother Nature who has created such a wonderful Ecosystem.

We walked back from the water stream and continued our amazing forest trail in the wilderness, I was happy to learn about the Amphibians and was eager to come here again so I asked Hemant what is the best time to visit, he replied that end of June or 1st week July is ideal season for studying and spotting these rare species. 
Waiting for his prey - Bamboo Pit Viper
Triangle Head - Malabar Pit Viper
We walked further and spotted another rare species of a snake known as the Bamboo Pit Viper. I was so happy to see such beautiful species that too in pitch darkness, of course photographing them was a real challenge. I managed few decent shots of Bamboo Pit Viper and our luck continued as we spotted plenty of Green Vine Snakes, Cat Snakes and finally we again got a Malabar Pit Viper in the open.

Deccan Banded Gecko
This time this guy was resting on a small branch that had fallen due to heavy rains and as usual waiting for his prey, I managed few close head shots, as close as 1ft. Further there was another highlight of this trail; a Deccan Banded Gecko was spotted on the road. Again this is the first time ever I saw this species, I fell flat on the road to get some low angle shots, and this guy was very cooperative and gave me plenty of opportunities to shoot at a very close range.

Curious Gecko
Malabar Pit Viper
The time was almost 1:30am and we decided to head back to whistling woods, I thanked Hemant Ogale for being such an excellent guide but told him that we missed one more rare species to spot that is endemic to rainforest and this region; it’s the Malabar Gliding or Flying Frog. Hemant smiled at me and replied that it is difficult to spot it in the forest, however he said there is chance that we may see it within his property.

Malabar Gliding or Flying Frog
I was game for it, as it was our last and final chance to try our luck; we beamed our torches on the tree branches and bushes, no sight of this beauty. Finally Hemant took us to his backyard where he had natural water well, there was a diagonal branch leading from a tree lying low above the well and believe me friends the Malabar Gliding Frog was nicely perched on it. A vibrant green frog with red color between its toes, what a beauty she is, fortunately there was another one perched high up on the branches. The term “flying frog” refers to its ability to break their fall by stretching the webbing between their toes when making leaps down from the treetops. It can make gliding jumps of 9-12 meters, a maximum of about 115 times its length.

This was the first time ever I tried a forest trail at night that too on foot, it was just out of the world and an amazing experience of my life. I plan to do such trips again in future, if you are interested you may wish to join me, and also please do leave your comments, feedback and suggestions on the blog.

Disclaimer – If you wish to do such trails request that you take precautionary measures as advised by a qualified guide/naturalist, it is just not about venomous snakes but we have records of some frogs being highly poisonous too. Please do not venture into the forest on your own.


  1. Amazing images and fantastic write-up.

  2. Wow.........what a great shots with good description. thank you sir,

  3. This was one of the great trip with awesome experience! Fantastic write-up and images!

  4. Thank you friends for viewing my blog, appreciate your time and comments
    Best wishes

    1. Hi Sir,

      My name is Sachin.( Freelance Wildlife and amaeture photographer)
      I read your blogs n loved this one. I met u last saturday(16/01/2016) in bandipur if u remember. Ok coming to the point, at the end of this blog you have mentioned that if we r interested in suc expedition we can join you. Now is that real !! coz i would love to join you for such trips and as I Am from Dandeli (AmbikaNagar) I was grown up with these rare species and jungles and so I believe I can be a great companion for such trips for you.
      Please do reply me your thoughts and suggestions. Waiting for your reply :)

  5. Nice read! Thanks for sharing. I would like to suggest you another place to enjoy these beauties. Anshi Nature camp in Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve. It is one of the best places for western ghat beauties.


  6. Good write-up and imagesPraveen-enjoyed it.

  7. some really superb shots...and well narrated...would love to do a trip like this...let me know in case you plan anything in the near from Mumbai..


  8. amazing journey and also the picture

  9. First of all I am amazed by the photo graphs and then the way of explaining the situation..

  10. Amazing Pics Sir and very well narated!!

  11. Wow great Praveen...Loved the write up as well as the pictures