Experiments in (not) importing snakes

I’ve been working on the history of forensic toxicology in colonial India, and keep getting lured into the history of venomology. Here’s a bizarre episode I stumbled upon at the National Archives of India last summer. It’s the story of a global experiment in serpentine transfer that never happened.

In the 1910s and 20s, colonial officials in British India toyed with the idea of importing a Brazilian snake called the mussurana to help prevent deaths due to snake bite. The famous figure for India was “20,000 deaths per year due to snake bite,” with a disproportionate number in Bengal.

Image result for mussurana illustration
The mussurana at work, from Theodore Roosevelt’s Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914) (credit)

Then came news of a huge black snake in Brazil: it was not poisonous to human beings, but it killed and ate poisonous snakes! Why not bring the mussurana to India and let it do its work? One colonial official gushed to his colleagues:

At a ‘snake farm’ in Sao Paulo a large non-poisonous snake known as a ‘Massurana’ one day accidentally got into the enclosure of the poisonous snakes. The consternation of the officials quickly turned to amazement as they watched the Massurana attack and devour, head first, a deadly poisonous specimen. Suffering repeated venomous bites with immunity, it subsequently attacked and ate another. Others of the same species were put in with the poisonous ones, and they each in turn attacked and devoured one.

That chance discovery has saved many thousands of lives in Brazil. The Government are now busily engaged in breeding the Massurana for distribution to all parts of the interior, where its appetite for its poisonous brethren will have unlimited scope—to the benefit of the inhabitants.

A Brazilian postal stamp of this snake swallowing another was even in the works. The Haffkine Institute in Bombay was busily pumping out research on venomology from its snake farm (alongside its research on the bubonic plague). Some officials may have thought that British India already had the infrastructure to manage such an experiment.

But not everyone liked the proposal. The secretary of the Zoological Society of London was nervous: “On the whole experiments in the transplantation of animals from one part of the world to another have either been unsuccessful, because the animals have failed to live in the new region, or have been harmed in some quite unexpected way.” A committee of the Bombay Natural History Society was similarly uncomfortable. And then there were the bureaucratic headaches. “We shall presumably have to put the whole India Office, Foreign Office, Rio de Janeiro legation, Brazilian Minister of the Interior, etc. machinery into motion,” sighed one worn-down official to another.

The message was clear: let’s not dabble in the global transplant of large reptiles. You never know what could happen. And it would be *such* a hassle to get the permissions…

And with that, a zany (perhaps great, probably not so great) proposal remained confined to the yellowing pages of the India Office records.