Meet The Saw-Scaled Viper, One of India’s Four Deadliest Snakes

We have written quite a bit about India here. The seventh largest nation in the world it has 1.4 billion inhabitants. It is also the home of many iconic wild animals, many of whom are endangered. It is also a home for very deadly snakes, including the relatively unfamiliar saw-scaled viper.

The saw-scaled viper has a very deadly venom and usually injects enough to kill two people. Photo

India is a world leader in many areas. Unfortunately snake bite deaths is one of them. The World Health Organization estimates 58,000 people die annually in India from snake bite. By contrast, only about 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes in the United States annually. In an average year, 5 die. India accounts for about half of the world’s fatalities.

The disparity between the two countries is an indication of who is in danger. Americans with an urbanized nation and medical infrastructure are far less likely to be bitten or die. Rural Indians in seven of the nation’s 28 states are far more likely to be bitten. Many of the Americans bitten are intoxicated young men playing with snakes. Many of the Indians are impoverished people working for a living. A drunken American is far likely to get to a hospital than an impoverished Indian. The World Health Organization has targeted snake-bite death (The African continent has nearly as many bites) as a health priority.

a person touching a cobra
Cobras are perhaps the most familiar of India’s deadly snakes. Young American men aren’t the only ones who take risks with snakes. Photo by Anil Sharma on

India has about 300 species of snakes. About 180 species are not venomous. The others have venom ranging from mild to deadly.

Herpetologists recognize a “big four” in India, the snakes responsible for the most venomous bites. They are: Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli), the common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) the Indian cobra (Naja naja) and the afore-mentioned Indian saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus).

The above list puts the snakes in order of frequency of bites. Russell’s viper accounts for more than 40 percent of all bites. The saw-scaled viper under 5 percent. They may account for a full 10 percent of deaths.

The Indian saw-scaled viper is the smallest of the four, under three feet long. Brittanica says that although small they are not to be taken lightly.

Russell’s viper accounts for at least 40 percent of Indian snake bites. Photo

“Saw-scaled vipers are small, but their irritability, aggressive nature, and lethal venom make them very dangerous. When alarmed, saw-scaled vipers will move slowly with the body looped into S-shaped folds. The oblique scales are rubbed against each other to produce a hissing sound, which is a defensive alarm used to warn potential predators. These snakes are, however, quick to strike, and mortality rates for those bitten are high. In the regions where they occur, it is believed that saw-scaled vipers are responsible for more human deaths than all other snake species combined.” Links in original.

As mentioned, the World Health Organization is taking snake bite seriously and aims to halve the deaths by 2030. The Regional Action Plan aims to look at many of the contributing factors to snake bites and envenomation. Many snake bites are “dry” with no venom injected. But the bite itself carries risk of disease and infection.

Factors to be addressed are complicated. They involve alleviation of poverty, access to medical care and first-aid training. Annual seminars are already being held during which survivors and experts share treatment and prevention tips.

The United States is not particularly rich in snakes, with about 150 species. Of these, 22 species are poisonous, and 15 of these are types of rattlesnakes (Crotalus). Of far more concern in the United States is the invasive Burmese python (Python Bivittatus).

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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