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Target Species: Sri Lankan Russell’s viper, Daboia russelli russelli
Location: Anuradhapura, Anuradhapura District, Northern Central Province, Sri Lanka; Polonnaruwa , Polonnaruwa District, Northern Central Province, Sri Lanka; Nikaweratiya, Kurunegala District, North Western Province, Sri Lanka; Gampola, Kandy District, Central Province, Sri Lanka; Sigiriya, Matale District, Central Province, Sri Lanka
Director: Mark McMullen


Location: Sri Lanka is a tropical island, south of India in the Indian Ocean.

Mission Statement:

The Russell’s viper is a widespread venomous snake that is distributed from Pakistan to Cambodia and China, with island populations on Taiwan and some of the Lesser Sunda islands of Indonesia. Currently only two subspecies are recognised: Daboia russelli russelli in South Asia and D. russelli siamensis in S.E.Asia and the outlying islands. However, this simplicity is not reflected in the venom of this dangerous snake, the venom of Burmese vipers differing from that of Thai specimens and the venom of Sri Lankan Russell’s vipers being very different from that of the mainland Indian form. Obviously this situation has series ramifications when it comes to treating snakebites because victims can only be treated with the available antivenom. Russell’s viper antivenom is manufactured in Thailand and in India but not in Sri Lanka, which uses Indian antivenom to treat snakebites. Unfortunately the Indian antivenom does not address all the life-threatening aspects of the venom of the Sri Lankan race of Russell’s viper. Often Sri Lankan doctors are forced to administer large doses of Indian Russell’s viper antivenom, with all the inherent problems of hypersensitivity and allergic reactions which in themselves can be life-threatening, if the patient is to recover. Sri Lankan Russell’s viper venom can cause kidney failure and internal haemorrhages, including brain haemorrhage. Such a snakebite, especially in a rural situation, is a major medical emergency.

Snakebite is also a very common accident in Sri Lanka which, with a population of 19 million, suffers hundreds of snakebite fatalities each year and has earned the dubious reputation of being the country with the highest annual snakebite death rate, per capita, in the world. Many of these deaths are the result of people coming into contact with Russell’s vipers in the paddi-fields during rice harvest time or when walking around the village after dark. The region with the highest incidence of Russell’s viper snakebite is the northern dry zone area around Anuradhapura, where someone living to the age of 70 has survived a 1 in 80 chance of being killed by a snake, but this dangerous snake is also found throughout the island and deaths also occur in the wet zone central region too.

Mark visits the hospital at Anuradhapura in the company of snakebite experts Prof. David Warrell and Dr Ariaranee Ariaratnam, to see for himself the extent of the problem. He finds the hospital like a war zone with a continual stream of victims and patients sharing beds as the hospital staff fight to save their lives. Mark and Sri Lankan herpetologist Anslem de Silva then set out to capture Russell’s vipers from various locations across Sri Lanka for delivery alive to the new Herpetarium facility in Colombo. Here the ultimate aim is to produce a specific antivenom for Sri Lanka Russell’s viper bite from the venom of Sri Lankan Russell’s vipers, thereby increasing the efficiency of the available treatment and reducing the unpleasant side effects that resulted from large doses of Indian antivenom.

Mark also investigates the history of traditional treatment of snakebite in Sri Lanka, even undergoing the ‘medicine boat’ treatment himself. Anslem and Mark get a good look a the lie of the land, courtesy of the Sri Lankan Air Force who fly them around the primary snakebite areas in a bullet-ridden Huey helicopter gunship – an ambition come true for Mark.

[Along the way Mark and Anslem also encounter many other snakes, lizards and tortoises including venomous humpnose pitvipers, Sri Lankan cobras, large dharman ratsnakes, starred tortoises and the very rare scarce bridal snake. Mark finds this snake whilst road-cruising for Russell’s vipers. It is only the third specimen from Sri Lanka and the first recorded since 1888. From a personal standpoint Mark is also excited to find his first wild caecilian (a legless amphibian) and handle his first living shieldtail (a strange burrowing snake) but many of these species failed to make the final film. During filming Mark recorded 50 taxa of reptiles and amphibians.]


The Sri Lankan Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli russelli) is the snake at the centre of an epidemic. It’s venom is so complex that antivenoms from India do not address all of its life-threatening properties. On Sri Lanka, a jewel of an island in the Indian Ocean, this snake bites thousands and kills hundreds every year.

Species recorded during 'Venom'

Species Common Name
ICHTHYOPHIDAE SNAKE CAECILIANS
Ichthyophis orthoplicatus Sri Lankan plain caecilian
BUFONIDAE TRUE TOADS
Bufo melanostictus Common Asian toad
RANIDAE TRUE FROGS
Euphylyctis cyanophyctis Indian skipper frog
Euphylyctis hexadactylus Six-toed green frog
Hoplobatrachus crassus Sri Lankan bullfrog
Lankanectes corrugatus Corrugated-backed frog
Limnonectis limnocharis Paddi-field frog
Limnonectis kirtisinghei Kirtisinghe's water frog
Rana gracilis Sri Lankan wood frog
Sphaerotheca breviceps Banded sand frog
RHACOPHORIDAE FOAM-NEST TREEFROGS
Philautus hypomelas Webless pigmy treefrog
Philautus leucorhinos Striped pigmy treefrog
Philautus nasutus Sharp-snouted pigmy treefrog
Polypedetes maculatus Indian treefrog
BATAGURIDAE ASIAN HARD-SHELLED TURTLES
Melanochelys trijuga thermalis Sri Lankan black turtle
TRIONYCHIDAE SOFT-SHELL TURTLES
Lissemys punctata punctata Indian flapshell turtle
TESTUDINIDAE TORTOISES
Geochelone elegans Indian starred tortoise
GEKKONIDAE GEKKOES
Cnemaspis kandianus Kandy dwarf day gecko
Geckoella triedrus Spotted bowfinger gecko
Hemidactylus frenatus Common house gecko
Hemidactylus leschenaulti Bark gecko
Hemidactylus trihedrus lankae Sri Lankan termite-hill gecko
Lepidodactylus lugubris Mourning gecko
Lankascincus deraniyagalae Deraniyagala's litter skink
Lankascincus fallax Common Sri Lankan litter skink
Lankascincus gansi Gan's litter skink
Lankascincus taylori Taylor's litter skink
Mabuya carinata lankae Sri Lankan keeled grass skink
Mabuya macularia macularia Eastern bronze skink
Nessia monodactyla One-toed snake-skink
AGAMIDAE DRAGONS
Calotes calotes Green garden lizard
Calotes liocephalus Crestless garden lizard
Calotes versicolor Common garden lizard
Otocryptis wiegmanni Sri Lankan kangaroo lizard
VARANIDAE MONITOR LIZARDS
Varanus bengalensis Bengal monitor lizard
TYPHLOPIDAE BLINDSNAKES
Ramphotyphlops braminus Brahminy blindsnake
COLUBRIDAE TYPICAL SNAKES
Ahaetulla nasuta Long-nosed vinesnake
Amphiesma stolata Buff-striped keelback
Boiga ceylonicus Ceylon catsnake
Dryocalamus gracilis Scarce bridle snake
Elaphe helenae helenae Trinket snake
Lycodon aulicus aulicus Common wolfsnake
Oligodon arnensis Common banded kukri snake
Oligodon taeniolatus ceylonicus Variegated kukri snake
Oligodon taeniolatus fasciatus Russell's kukri snake
Ptyas mucosus Dharman ratsnake
Xenochrophis piscator Chequered keelback
ELAPIDAE COBRAS & THEIR KIN
Naja naja Spectacled cobra
VIPERIDAE VIPERS & PITVIPERS
Daboia russelli russelli Indian Russell's viper
Hypnale hypnale Hump-nose pitviper


Location: Our searches for Russell's vipers were spread over the centre and north of Sri Lanka from Gampola in the Wet Zone to Anuradhapura in the Dry Zone.

 


Mark O’Shea and Anslem de Silva, an herpetologist with years of experience of studying Sri Lanka’s reptiles and international respect for his fieldwork and writing. Mark and Anslem are old friends.

 

 


High-risk occupation: everybody in the family goes into the paddi-fields to harvest the rice, regardless of usual occupation. Anybody can become a snakebite victim.

 

 


Anuradhapura Hospital, the hospital in the centre of the snakebite-ridden Dry Zone where Russell's viper bites are daily occurrences and resources are stretched to the limit.

 

 


O’Shea with Professor David Warrell (Oxford University), a world authority on tropical diseases and snakebite treatment and also O’Shea’s mentor, and Dr Ariaranee Ariaratnam (Colombo Faculty of Medicine), a Sri Lankan doctor with vast experience of saving the lives of snakebite victims.

 

 

 

 


O'Shea and his crew prepare to board a Sri Lankan Air Force Huey helicopter to survey Russell's viper habitats in the north.

 

 

 

 


Russell's vipers are not the only highly venomous snakes in Sri Lanka. O'Shea also caught two Sri Lankan cobras (Naja naja).


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