As a gesture to mark the contributions of eminent herpetologist Neelimkumar Khaire (65), who founded the Katraj Snake Park in Pune and the Indian Herpetological Society (IHS), a team of scientists from India and UK has named a snake after him. The new species of burrowing snake was discovered from the biodiversity hotspot – northern western ghats,

In fact, the burrowing snake from the genus Melanophidium has been discovered from the northern western ghats after a gap of 144 years. Dr Varad B Giri, post-doctoral fellow from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, who played a key role in the discovery, said the snake’s scientific name is Melanophidium khairei and the common name is Khaire’s Black Shieldtail. He also said the snake is distinct from the other three species.

“This discovery is a result of 15 years’ meticulous efforts by Dr David Gower from the Natural History Museum (NHM) in UK, who observed the first specimens of this species in the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) collections during his visit in 2001. He, however, found that they were wrongly identified as what is commonly called the Pied-bellied Shieldtail, owing to its black and white colour on the belly,” said Giri, adding that he soon realised that the BNHS specimens were a different species.

According to Giri, as soon as this information was shared, work to identify the species was taken up. With the help of additional contributions based on fresh field surveys by him and IHS’ Ashok Captain, as well as inputs from NHM’s Dr Mark Wilkinson, it was finally proved that this was indeed a distinct species.

The findings were soon submitted to scientific journal Zootaxa, and the paper was published recently. “Not much, however, is known about the non-venomous Khaire’s Black Shieldtail. It’s a highly iridescent burrowing snake that inhabits evergreen forests and is rarely seen above the ground. It eats earthworms and is believed to bear live young. The largest known specimen found was around 1.8 feet long,” informed Giri, adding that at present, it is known from a few locations in areas such as Amboli, Radhanagri Wildlife Sanctuary from southern Maharashtra, Goa and northern Karnataka.

Speaking to dna, a delighted Khaire said, “I am extremely happy and feel like this is gurudakshina from Giri and Captain, who have been doing some amazing work in the field. I have been working in this field for the last 50 years and it is a big recognition to have a species named after oneself.”

Khaire, however, said his biggest worry at the moment was conservation of these reptiles. “I am really worried about this whole ‘rescue’ of snakes being carried out. Unfortunately, time has come that snakes needs to be rescued from the rescuers themselves, as most of these ‘Sarrp Mitras’ are indulging only in barter of snakes. Reptiles from deep bio-diversity hotspots across the country are ending up in cities such as Mumbai, which is not only unethical but also a matter of grave concern,” he said.