Respected Indian herpetologist Neelam Kumar Khaire has a very interesting record to his name. In his youth, this reptile lover spent 72 hours in an enclosure with 72 venomous snakes for company. He proved that the snakes only bite when provoked, and set a Guinness record in the process.
Khaire’s legendary feat dates back to 1980, when the then 28-year-old receptionist at a hotel in Pune decided to challenge the record set by South African Peter Snyemaris, a year before. Snyemaris had spent 50 hours with 18 venomous and six semi-poisonous snakes in Johannesburg, South Africa, but Neelam believed that an Indian deserved the world record more, seeing as India was known as a land of snakes.
Despite opposition from local authorities like the police, which would neither take him seriously nor permit him to go ahead with his plan, on January 20, 1980, Neelam Kumar Khaire stepped in a glass enclosure with 72 venomous snakes.
Neelam Kumar Khaire fell in love with snakes in his early 20s, while working as the manager of a holiday home at Matheran, near Bombay. Snakes were frequent visitors of that place, and even though the other members of the staff simply killed them on sight, he could never do the same.
“Reptiles were frequent visitors at my place in Matheran,” Khaire told India Today. “I hated killing such beautiful creatures – most of them were harmless. So I started catching and releasing them in the Sahyadri hills. I once caught a snake and took it to the Haffkin Institute in Bombay. I was told that it was poisonous and too risky to be carried in this way. The incident boosted my courage and so began my obsession with snakes.”
The young snake lover had since set up a small snake park in his backyard, and made plans to establish a true snake park complete with a research center, and setting a new Guinness record was just the kind of feat necessary to attract the needed investors.
Although Guinness Records had written to Khaire detailing the ruleset for his attempt, clearly specifying that his record would still be considered valid even if he spent half an hour outside the glass enclosure every day, the 28-yeear-old refused to leave his cage at Pune’s B.J. Medical College sports ground, during the 72 hours.
Neelam and the 72 snakes (27 monocellate cobras, 24 Russell’s vipers, nine binocellate cobras, eight banded kraits, and four common snakes), got along perfectly over the three days and nights in the glass enclosure. The Indian snake man had to occasionally pick them up gently at set them on the ground, if they got too curious and started climbing on him, but he never once got bit.
At the end of the 72 hours, Neelam Kumar Khaire had demolished the old record and got his name into the Guinness Book of Records. But it was only the beginning of his adventure. The feat made his plan to build a snake park a reality. In 1986, with assistance from the Pune Municipal Corporation, he created the Katraj Snake Park, which later became known as the Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park.
Neelam Kumar Khaire was the first Indian to start an Animal Orphanage, and has dedicated his whole life to animals. He is now trying to inspire a new generation to respect nature and the environment, and to that end he founded the Uttara School of Environment, Rural Development and Extension.