Phookani Bala on the loose! Hold your breath Tharis

One of the most ecologically diverse areas in the country, the Thar desert is home to several exotic species of wildlife, especially Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Chinkara (Gazella bennettii), hog deer (Hyelaphus porcinus), nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), apart from quite a few other members of the canine family, birds of prey and reptiles.
But among the many wildlife species, a typically shy resident of the desert area is grabbing all the attention these days.
Of the many snakes, including the famed Indian cobra (Naja naja) and the dreaded vipers (locally called Lundi), the nocturnal Sindh krait (Bungarus sindanus) is sowing fear in the hearts of the desert dwellers this time round.
Locally referred to as the ‘Phookani Bala’, myth has it that the snake sucks the air out of its victim during his sleep and breathes out its toxin-laced breath inside the prey.
The locals believe that the snake sits near the mouth of a sleeping person and sucks in its breath while returning its own poisonous breath inside the victim. The throat of the victim swells to such an extent that he dies within a few hours.
As a snake repellent, the people of Thar eat onion at night and spread pieces of onion around their sleeping places.
Experts say that the Sindh krait does actually bite the victim but the bite is so light that the victim seldom comes to know of it as he may be dead even before he wakes up.
Kraits are highly nocturnal and often hide in rodent holes, loose soil, beneath debris and are rarely seen during the day. During the rainy season, the snake often comes out of its hiding place to find dry refuge and enters houses.
Kraits are many times more poisonous than cobras or vipers while the Sindh krait is the most dangerous of the Bunguarus species. Its venom is highly toxic and causes haemorrhage of capillaries. When bitten, a person can feel violent abdominal pains, as breathing becomes difficult and paralysis sets in, which is followed by death.
The Phookani Bala varies from a dark steely blue black to a pale bluish grey with narrow white bands across its body. The average length ranges between two and three feet but some have been reported to have reached lengths up to five feet.
Snake bites are a routine in Sindh, but this year due to more than average monsoon rains, Sindh krait bite cases are on the rise.
According to figures collected by Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE) – a non-governmental organisation working in Thar Desert, 27 bite cases of Sindh krait have been reported from six villages in the Chachro taluka during the past two months.
Talking with Pakistan Today, AWARE Executive Director Ali Akbar Rahimoo said that this year the area has seen an unusual rise in the number of people being bitten by the snake. “Sindh krait bite cases in Thar have risen by almost 200 percent as compared to the previous years.”
“Absence of anti-venom and the required medicines [for treatment] at the state-run healthcare facilities is resulting in immense inconvenience,” he said. “Many people have died after falling victim to this poisonous snake.”
Rahimoo urged the provincial government to take the issue seriously and help the people of Thar Desert on humanitarian grounds.
“We have contacted several international snake experts, who recommended a special powder that is used as a krait repellent across the world,” he said. “We cannot afford the repellent and therefore request the Sindh government to import it and also arrange anti-venom for the treatment of Tharis.”
Sixty percent of Sindh’s total livestock population is scattered across the vast Thar Desert, spread along the Indian border. The area has a long history of suffering from severe droughts, acute water shortage, epidemics, lack of civic facilities and seasonal migrations.
Without basic healthcare facilities, many people die every year as snake bite cases are widespread in the area.
World Health Organisation (WHO)’s surveillance officer at Mirpurkhas, Dr Wali Mohammad, thinks that most people believe it is the Sindh krait but it is difficult to confirm the exact type of snake from the bite.
“No official data is available on how many people are bitten by the Sindh krait or how many of them die every year,” he said. “Even then, this is a serious matter and should be taken seriously.”
Mohammad said that anti-venom is not available locally and a detailed study is needed on this particular snake to determine the exact treatment of its bite.

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