Film 4
(one hour special)

March 4th-March 29th 2002

Location of OBA film3:4
Sri Lanka

(mouse-over for view of Sri Lanka)


Daboia russelii

The Russell’s vipers are widespread medically important venomous snakes found in South and Southeast Asia. Originally a single species was recognised with up to seven subspecies which exhibited an extremely disjunct distribution (see below) from Pakistan to Taiwan and Indonesia (but excluding the tropics of Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra).

The species was named in honour of the East India Company surgeon and naturalist Patrick Russell (1726-1805). The spelling russelii is favoured over russellii since not only was that the original spelling when Shaw and Nodder described the viper in 1797, but Russell usually spelt his name with a single 'l'.

D.russelii russelii - Pakstan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh
D.russelii formosensis - Taiwan
D.russelii limitis - Indonesia (Java, Lesser Sunda Islands)
D.russelii nordicus - India (north), Nepal
D.russelii pulchella - Sri Lanka
D.russelii siamensis - Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, China (south)
D.russelii sublimitis - Indonesia (Java)

A relatively recent paper* elevated D.r.siamensis to specific status while at the same time sinking all remaining subspecies into synonymy: D.r.pulchella and D.nordicus into D.russelii, and D.r.formosensis, D.r.limitis and D.r.sublimitis into D.siamensis. The two species are separated by a narrow strip caused by the mountains of northwest Burma, to the north of the Bay of Bengal: the Southeast Asian Russell's viper (D.siamensis) to the east and the South Asian Russell's viper (D.russelii) to the west (see map below). The two species are easily recognised by the presence (siamensis) or absence (russelii) of an extra row of distinct but smaller spots located between the large dorsal and lateral rows of characteristic blotches.

* Thorpe, R.S., C.E.Pook & A.Malhotra 2007 Phylogeography of the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) complex in relation to variation in the colour pattern and symptoms of envenoming. Herpetological Journal 17:209-218.

Identifying Russell's vipers
South Asian Russell's viper,
Daboia russelii
Southeast Asian Russell's viper,
Daboia siamensis
A = dorsal blotches, B = lateral blotches, C = intermediate spots


Distribution of the South Asian Russell's viper, Daboia russelii, (blue) and
Southeast Asian Russell's viper, Daboia siamensis, (red) in South and Southeast Asia

The subject of the film was the South Asian Russell's viper (Daboia russelii), more precisely the Sri Lankan population of this taxon.

The differences between the various species and populations of Russell's vipers is not limited to their molecular phylogenies or simple features like patterning, they also exhibit considerable variation in venom composition. The venom of Burmese D.siamensis can differ from that of Thai specimens of the same species and the venom of Sri Lankan D.russelii is quite different from that of the mainland Indian form of D.russelii. Obviously this situation has series ramifications when it comes to treating human snakebites because victims can only be treated with the available antivenom and antivenom may not exist to treat the bites from the population concerned.

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 symptoms caused by 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. 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 20.3 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. This island nation is home to eleven species of terrestrial front-fanged snakes (five elapids, six vipers) but only three are main players in the snakebite mortality of the country (Naja naja - Common cobra; Bungarus caeruleus - Common krait, and Daboia russelii - Russell's viper).

The Russell's viper is found on all of Sri Lanka's 'peneplains' in all three climatic zones. It averages a length of 0.9m but specimens exceeding 1.0m are not unknown. Being live-bearing and producing up to 65 neonates once a year, the population of Russell's viper can rapidly increase when the conditions are condusive, such as occurs when areas are given over to intensive rice farming, with the large rodent population that accompanies such developements providing abundant prey.

Many of the human 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 Province in the Dry Zone around Anuradhapura, where someone living to the age of 70 has survived a 1 in 80 chance of being killed by a snake.

South Asian Russell's viper, Daboia russelii



Map of Central & North-Central Sri Lanka showing primary and secondary locations
in four of Sri Lanka's eight provinces.

(click on map for enlarged view)

Facts about Sri Lanka
(sources Wikipedia and others)

Sri Lanka is an island nation in the northern Indian Ocean to the south of India with a population split between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils. Although a popular tourist and honeymoon destination Sri Lanka was at the same time experiencing one of the longest running civil wars of modern times, lasting 26 tears and costing 100,000 lives, as Tamils from the north (the LTTE, Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam aka the "Tamil Tigers" for short) strove for independance. Sri Lanka also suffered savagely in the 2004 Asian tsunami when at least 35,000 lives were lost.

The Sinhalese governed Sri Lanka since the 4th Century BC, until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th Century and established their power over the island. After 153 years the Dutch took over from the Portuguese and they ruled for a further 140 years, until they were replaced by the British, nervous that if Napoleon were successful in Europe he might seize the Dutch colonies for France. The British incorporated the island they called Ceylon into the greater British India, which already contained modern day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Ceylon finally received independance in 1948 and became Sri Lanka in 1972.

Sri Lanka comprises nine Provinces spread over three Peneplains (1st Peneplain 0-270m, 2nd Peneplain 270-910m, 3rd Peneplain 910-2420m) and three Climatic Zones: Dry Zone (in the north and east), Intermediate Zone (in the centre, west and south) and West Zone (in the southwest).

Herpetologically Sri Lanka is rich and fascinating with almost 220 species or reptiles and 110 species of amphibians. Not only are many mainland Asian families, genera and species well represented, but Sri Lanka is also home to nunerous specialities and exhibits a great deal of endemicity. Many Indian species are represented by Sri Lankan subspecies, while at the specific level there are also numerous examples of endemicity: Sri Lankan pitviper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus), Sri Lankan krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Blood-bellied coralsnake (Calliophis haematoetron), etc. Sri Lanka shares the curious earthsnakes and shieldtail snakes (Uropeltidae) with southwestern India with 18/51 species occurring in Sri Lanka, with 17 of those being endemic. Two of the three Humpnose pitvipers (Hypnale spp.) are also endemic to the island.

Endemic genera include the agamid genera Ceratophora, Cophotis and Lyriocephalus, the gecko Calodactyloides, the skinks Chalcidoceps, Lankascincus and Nessia, and the snakes Pseudotyphlops and Aspidura. Sri Lanka is also home to a species of Cylindrophis, a genus otherwise confined to Southeast Asia.

Sri Lanka also offers a great diverity of other wildlife from langur monkeys to elephants and leopards, but no tigers, not since the LTTE.


The Film Crew and Expedition Participants

From the UK:
Mark McMullen (Director)
Matthew Catling (Associate Producer)
Mark O'Shea (Presenter)
Mark Stokes (Camera)
Jon Pinkney (2nd Camera)
Terry Meadowcroft (Sound recordist)

In Sri Lanka:
Raj Perera (local fixer)

Prof David A.Warrell (Oxford University, Dept of Clinical Medicine)
Dr Ariaranee Ariaratnam (Anuradhaura Hospital and Colombo University)
Anslem de Silva (Sri Lanka's premier herpetologist)
Dr Sam Kuluratne (University of Perideniya)
Dr Aroona Abdulla (Anuradhapura Hospital)


The Crew: (l-r back)Terry Meadocroft, airman, Mark Stokes;
(front) airman, Anslem de Silva, co-pilot, Mark McMullen, Mark O'Shea, pilot, Matthew Catling.
click to enlarge
The Doctors: (l-r) Ariaranee Ariaratnam, Mark O'Shea,
David A. Warrell.

The Expedition

The idea for this film arose from a discussion between Mark McMullen (YAP Films), Prof David A. Warrell (Oxford University) and myself at the 4th World Congress of Herpetology, as Bentota, Sri Lanka in December 2001.

We hit the ground in Colombo at the start of March 2002 and visited the hard-pressed hospital in the centre of the heaviest snakebite zone, at Anuradhapura, to see the extent of the problem caused when a large population of poor people lives in close proximity to an equally large population of extremely dangerous snakes. We also set out to investigate the methods of traditional snakebite treatment, as practiced by Ayurvedic physicians for hundreds of years.

Our quest was to capture live Russell's vipers (Daboia russelii) for a planned antivenom production program at the University of Colombo, but along the way we hope to encounter many more of Sri Lanka's amazing herpetological denizens and explore some of its most ancient and scenic sites.

This was my second visit to Sri Lanka, my first being in 1996 for a symposium and to make a film about the Spectacled cobra (Naja naja) and its relationship with humans. Curiously, our driver on the 1996 visit turned out to be my personal driver on the 2002 trip. We even had decals prepared to warn people we would have dangerous snakes in the vehicle.

The decals produced for Mark's vehicle, in English & Sinhalese

The primary locations around Sri Lanka visited during filming in 2002 were:

1. North-Central Province:
a) Anuradhapura
b) Polonnaruwa

2. Central Province:
a) Sigiriya
b) Helicopter flight
c) Kandy
d) Aluthnuwara

3. North-Western Province:
a) Nikaweratiya
b) Ambanpola & Tambuttegama

1. North-Central Province:
c) Anuradhapura
d) Habarana
e) Eppawala
f) Galnewa

4. Western Province:
a) Colombo

Filming schedule & itinerary:
Monday 5th March - Depart UK, arrive Colombo, Western Prov.
Tuesday 6th March - Colombo, Western Prov.
Wednesday 7th March - Colombo & Anuradhapura, Western to North-Central Prov.
Thursday 8th March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Prov.
Friday 9th March- Anuradhapura, North-Central Prov.
Saturday 10th March - Anuradhapura & Polonnaruwa, North-Central Prov.
Sunday 11th March - Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya, North-Central & Central Provs.
Monday 12th March - Sigiriya, Central Prov.
Tuesday 13th March - Polonnaruwa & Kandy, Central Prov.
Wednesday 14th March - Kandy, Central Prov.
Thursday 15th March - Gampola, Central Prov.
Friday 16th March - Peradeniya, Central Prov.
Saturday 17th March - Gampola, Central Prov.
Sunday 18th March - Nikerawatiya & Anuradhapura, North-Western & North-Central Provs.
Monday 19th March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Provs.
Tuesday 20th March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Provs.
Wednesday 21st March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Provs.
Thursday 22nd March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Provs.
Friday 23rd March - Anuradhapura & Eppewala, North-Central Provs.
Saturday 24th March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Provs.
Sunday 25th March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Provs.
Monday 26th March - Anuradhapura, North-Central Provs.
Tuesday 27th March - Anuradhapura & Colombo, North-Central to Western Prov.
Wednesday28th March - Colombo, Western Prov.

At the end of each expedition of Season Three the Directors were asked to write a short "director's take" on the project. They were called "Director's Notes". Read the contribution from "Venom" Director Mark McMullen here.


Expedition Results include a full life-list for the 2002 expedition to Sri Lanka.