Birth of a symbiosis between snake catchers and herpetologists
The expertise possessed by Cocullo’s snake catchers is a precious resource to be preserved and cherished. It is astonishing that the practice of capturing snakes in their natural habitat has survived so many centuries and so many changes in the way people live. Snakes and similar animals are usually avoided, even by those who come across them while working the land or tending livestock. Here in Cocullo, it is the exact opposite.
The acuity developed over the centuries continues to be present among today’s snake catchers, and shows no signs of waning. However, we have reached a point in our history in which society’s negative impact on the natural environment can be seen everywhere. This has made it necessary for the government to pass a series of laws designed to regulate human activity, including the capture of wild animals. Given the high cultural value that has traditionally been attributed to Cocullo’s snake ritual, the town made an official application to the ministry of the environment to have its snake catchers exempted from these laws, and the exemption was granted. The town, however, decided to do more. In addition to keeping the snake tradition alive, it undertook to protect these animals, which are so important to everyone who lives in the town.
In 2007, then, Cocullo established a conservation program that brought herpetologists and snake catchers together for a reciprocal exchange of information. The former left their books and took to the fields, and the latter did the opposite. Snake catchers are repositories of vast amounts of information, drawn from their direct experience while scouring the rocky patches of Abruzzo’s mountains. The herpetologists take this information, organize it, and present it in a way that makes it meaningful from a scientific standpoint.
The purpose of this initiative is to increase the data available on the species of snakes used in the Feast of San Domenico. It is hoped that the findings of this research over the coming years will not only make it possible to protect these animals in the immediate area, but also offer up solutions for preserving snake populations at the regional and national levels. The fundamental principle to keep in mind is that an environment is healthy when all its components are in equilibrium. Snakes play a key role in the food chain; their presence is a positive sign, and their absence is the opposite.
The myth of Cocullo
Cocullo is a small hilltop town with a population of about 300. It is part of a group of local mountain municipalities known as the Comunità Montana Peligna, and is surrounded by a network of national parks (the Parco Nazionale della Majella and the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise), nature reserves (the Riserva Naturale Gole del Sagittario and the Riserva Naturale Sirente-Velino), as well as EU-designated sites of community importance (SCIs) and special protection areas (SPAs).
Cocullo is known world-wide for its festa dei serpari, a snake ritual associated with the town’s patron saint, San Domenico. The origins of the ritual date back about 2000 years, when the region was inhabited by the Marsi, an ancient Italic people skilled in handling poisonous snakes and knowledgeable about herbs, magic potions and incantations. The Marsi were supposedly capable of healing people who had been bitten by poisonous snakes and rabid dogs.
In the 16th century, a Christian religious figure entered the picture: San Domenico, a Benedictine monk who, it is said, made his way on foot from Umbria to Abruzzo between the 10th and 11th centuries and, through a series of miracles, demonstrated the power to protect the local populations from poisonous snakes. Until a few decades ago, the inhabitants of Cocullo made their living by farming and herding animals on the surrounding hills and mountains, and consequently were exposed to a variety of natural dangers such as the bites of poisonous snakes and rabid dogs. They sought protection not only from these, but also from painful conditions such as toothaches and from disasters that could destroy their crops.
How many snakes are there in Italy? In Abruzzo? In Cocullo?
Italy’s biological and topographical diversity is among the highest in Europe and the Mediterranean region; Abruzzo, which boasts a large number of parks, is home to a vast variety of plants and animals; and Cocullo is surrounded by parks, nature reserves, and EU-designated Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Sites of Community Importance (SCIs).
In Italy, there are 18 species of snakes, some of which are endemic to or found exclusively in this country (e.g. the Italian Aesculapian snake), some of which are very localized (e.g. the false smooth snake on the island of Lampedusa or the horseshoe whip snake in Sardinia), and some of which are very widespread (e.g. the western whip snake, the grass snake and the asp viper).
The area around Cocullo is close to ideal for conducting research on the protection of these animals. The Abruzzo region has nine species of snakes, and seven of them are found in the Cocullo countryside: the four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata), the Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus), the western whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus), the grass snake (Natrix natrix), the dice snake (Natrix tessellata), the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), and the asp viper (Vipera aspis). The two species that are absent are the southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica), which is rare almost everywhere, and Orsini’s viper (Vipera ursinii), which is found almost exclusively at altitudes above 1400 metres.
For additional information on the reptiles of Abruzzo, please consult SHI (Societas Herpetologica Italica) website: http://www-3.unipv.it/webshi/
For information on snakes of Abruzzo and in the whole of Italy, we suggest consulting the Atlante dei Rettili d’Abruzzo, published by Ianieri (Naturaviglia series) and the Atlante dei Rettili e Anfibi d’Italia, published by Polistampa.
Snakes used in the Feast of San Domenico
Five types of snakes are generally on display in Cocullo. The star of the show is the four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata), for two reasons: it is the one used to “dress” the statue of the saint before it is carried through town in the procession, and it can grow to a length of more two and a half metres (it is the largest snake in Italy, and one of the largest in Europe). A snake of this size is bound to give rise to myths and legends, even though it is completely harmless, and is in fact quite useful in that its prey includes rodents of various types. The other types used are the Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus), which is the one wrapped around a rod (the caduceus) in the symbol representing the medical profession; the western whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus); and the grass snake (Natrix natrix). One that is rarely displayed is the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), which is smaller than the others.
The snake catchers begin their hunt in mid-March, when the reptiles are awakening from hibernation and starting to emerge from their lairs. (In Cocullo there is a saying, “San Giuseppe, prima serpe”, meaning that you can expect to find your first snake on Saint Joseph’s Day, which falls on March 19.) When the Feast of San Domenico is over, the snakes are returned to the area where they were captured, and there they are released.
Additional information and little known facts about the snakes and other reptiles and amphibians found in the area around Cocullo are provided in the herpetological exhibit located in the town hall. The building also houses a multimedia exhibit on the Feast of San Domenico.
Italian and European legislation for the protection of wildlife
One of Italy’s most important pieces of wildlife protection legislation is presidential decree 357/97, which reprises EU directive 92/CEE (the so-called “habitat directive”) and governs most of the country’s snake populations. For some species of snakes, including the four-lined snake, individual countries must identify areas in the national territory (special conservation areas) where it is essential to maintain their population at a healthy level. One of the conservation measures put in place for the protection of wildlife species prohibits the removal of specimens from their natural habitat. In specific cases, however, the ministry of the environment can grant an exemption from this requirement, if there are valid reasons to do so.
Cocullo has obtained such an exemption in recognition of the social and cultural value attributed to the Feast of San Domenico.
Aware of the opportunities that this exemption provides, the snake catchers and the town’s administrators, with the support and assistance of two herpetologists, have decided to launch an ambitious conservation and development program.
Additional information on the legislation and related subjects can be obtained from the website of the Societas Herpetologica Italica (SHI): http://www-3.unipv.it/webshi/. The SHI is a scientific association that promotes basic and applied herpetology research, the dissemination of information on herpetofauna, and the protection of amphibians and reptiles and their habitats.
Monitoring the health of snakes
How many people would support a program for the conservation of snakes, animals that have been the object of neglect, fear, and often hatred? Probably not many. In Italy, the new awareness of the need to protect nature has given rise to numerous initiatives to increase animal populations that show signs of decline. Wolves, bears, lynx, the Abruzzo chamois, and large birds of prey have all received attention, and have been excellent symbols of the shift in wildlife management policies. Most of the efforts have targeted mammals and birds, animals that hold considerable appeal and are therefore useful in drawing public attention to conservation issues. However, the importance of snakes in nature and the environment is indisputable, although it tends to be underestimated or disregarded. In Abruzzo, where many of the conservation efforts are concentrated, one town, Cocullo, has spearheaded a program for the protection of snake populations. These animals, critically important in nature, are also key to the preservation of the town’s most important cultural tradition and to the sustainability of the town’s future development.
Many snake populations, in some cases entire species, are at risk or are even threatened with extinction. Recently there have been warnings of a presumed global decline in these populations, including some Italian species. A study published in 2011 in Biology Letters, one of the scientific journals of the prestigious and authoritative Royal Society, reported some alarming danger signs, and raised such serious concerns that it was reported in other media sources, including BBC News and New Scientist.
According to a study published in 2000, well over 50% of the snakes in Italy are seriously threatened and could go into a dangerous decline.
Snakes are coming under increasing scrutiny from scientists and conservationists, because they are considered excellent indicators of the health of various land and freshwater habitats and are therefore extremely important for the management of wilderness areas and protected areas.
Cocullo’s innovative conservation program is among the first of its type in Italy and Europe.
The monitoring has two objectives:
- To conduct an annual assessment of the health of the animals captured and used in the Feast of San Domenico.
- To undertake environmental field research in order to determine the distribution of snake species in the Cocullo countryside and their conservation status. The research will provide essential data for the regional monitoring of Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), as required by the EU.
A more indirect objective is to optimize the conditions under which the snakes are housed, by identifying the best terrarium management techniques and by purchasing high-quality terrariums so that the animals will stay healthy and relatively stress-free during their captivity. This will ensure that they are in the best possible physical condition once they are returned to nature.
In 2016, the German company Rifcon funded the purchase of professional-grade terrariums that were donated to some of the snake catchers. The terrariums were from the Playreptile store, which also contributed some of the accessories and provided invaluable advice on how to improve conditions for snakes kept in the terrariums.(http://www.playreptile.com/opencart/index.php?route=common/home)
Educational exhibit on snakes
The snake exhibit was created by the Town of Cocullo in 2010 with funds that the Abruzzo region received from the European Union (Single Programming Document [SPD] 2000/2006). It was part of a conservation program designed to monitor the health of the snakes gathered for the Feast of San Domenico. The snakes, which have adorned the statue of the Saint every year for centuries, are threatened not only by changes in their natural habitat, but also by false beliefs perpetuated by rural legends and folk tales that have survived to this day.
The purpose of the exhibit is to preserve through education; in other words, to provide visitors with information that will increase their knowledge of a group of animals that are crucial to ecological balance. The conservation program was created in response to a global appeal to arrest the loss of biodiversity by taking tangible, concrete steps at the local level.
The exhibit is divided into four parts that focus on different subjects:
- general information on snake biology, with special emphasis on poisonous snakes;
- the five species of snakes most common in the Cocullo countryside;
- other reptiles and amphibians present in Cocullo and the surrounding area; and
- the conservation program that unites the efforts of snake catchers and herpetologists.
In 2011, the exhibit was expanded to include a space for terrariums where snakes used in the Feast of San Domenico can be exhibited each year. This allows visitors and school groups to observe species such as the four-lined snake in terrariums, and thus gain a better knowledge of this group of vertebrates.
The snakes are kept in the terrariums only in the spring (late March to early May), and are released in the days following the Feast of San Domenico.
Administration of the Town of Cocullo
Alfonso Di Nola Cultural Association
Pro Loco of Cocullo
Scientists in charge of the project: Dr. Gianpaolo Montinaro (biologist) and Dr. Ernesto Filippi (environmentalist)
Veterinary expertise: Dr. Pasquale Piro (veterinarian), in collaboration with the Teramo and Avezzano offices of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale dell’Abruzzo e del Molise “Giuseppe Caporale” [local branches of a national institute for the study of animal health]
Photographs: Adriano Savoretti (nature photographer – www.adrianosavoretti.com) , Gianpaolo Montinaro and Ernesto Filippi