There is a “deadly ghost” stalking the locals in the Sayed Dakheel district in the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar. This is the nickname locals in the area, which is about 25 kilometres from the provincial capital of Nasiriya, give to the snakes that plague them almost every summer. And the number of snake bites and snake attacks seem to be rising – higher temperatures and water scarcity have driven the snakes closer to inhabited areas.
There are two kinds of snake to blame for the deadliest incidents in the district: desert cobras and the saw-scaled viper which locals call Umm al-Salib, or mother of the cross, because of the cross or arrow shape on its head.
Between March and September there have been 44 cases of snake bites, says Dakhel Radi, a member of Dhi Qar's provincial council. But that doesn't include all snake attacks because some locals would have taken victims to private hospitals or to hospitals in other provinces.
A visit to the towns and villages in the Sayed Dakheel district – home to around 70,000 people - shows just how consistent the snake attacks have been. Nearly everybody has a snake bite story.
Amin al-Sahlani, a 24-year-old from Al Juma village said he knew of 60 snake bite incidents and a handful of deaths. He himself had been bitten, about two years ago, while he was working as a farm labourer. Most of the snake bite incidents occur in more rural settings and often at night.
“I was taking a rest from the farm work and while I was sitting down a snake bit my hand,” al-Sahlani recalls. “I had blurry vision and my urinary system was badly affected.”
In Albu Janah village, the uncle of a toddler named Nour Mushtaq says his niece was bitten while she was playing on a nearby farm. “Her tiny body couldn't defeat the deadly poison,” he says sadly. “The Bint Al Huda hospital [in Nasiriya] couldn't save her and she died after three days.”
One of the strangest stories is that of Fahd Saheb Nayef who was bitten by a cobra while he was training at a police camp near Nasiriya. The snake bit him four times and although he suffered blurred vision and other symptoms, he somehow became immune to the venom. There are a number of famous snake handlers around the world who have managed to become partially immune to snake venom through continued exposure – one American, Bill Haast, was famous for donating his own blood for transfusions to save others - and somewhat miraculously, this also happened to Nayef, who was treated at a Baghdad hospital.
Although he is pale and thin, Nayef has donated his blood to 11 other snake bite victims and locals have nicknamed him Abu Hayeh, or father of the snake, for his heroism.
The increase in the number of snakes is due to lack of water and desertification, says Haider Aziz, the mayor of the Sayed Dakheel district. Aziz says he's heard of between six and nine snake bite injuries every month this summer.
“There is only one clinic in the district and they don't have the required anti-venoms. So most of the victims are taken to the capital for treatment and that is about 25 kilometres away,” Aziz complains. “Such a long distance poses a major threat to their lives. It is also difficult for the families of the victims to travel to see them because it's so far away.”
Aziz called upon the central government and the provincial authorities to do more about the annual summer plague of snake attacks. And he is not alone; in mid-2014 a group of local activists launched their own campaign to try and combat the snake attacks.
“The campaign was a voluntary one and developed together with the people of the district,” explains Hassan al-Tai, one of the activists involved. Al-Tai says they were able to access protective clothing and tools and managed to cut down some of the groves where the snakes were living. “We managed to kill around 370 snakes and we sent them to the university so they could be studied and hopefully, so laboratories could come up with some radical solutions,” al-Tai says.
“The relevant departments have not been able to provide the necessary vaccines and pesticides and other means to fight the snakes because of a lack of funding,” says Mohsen Aziz, who heads the provincial Department of the Environment in Dhi Qar. “And the health departments don't have the funding to send the snakes to other laboratories outside of Iraq for study, so that new methods of controlling the snake population, or of treating the bites, can be created.”
A senior official at the local Department of Agriculture, Imad Ali Hayif, suggested using poison in the snake's burrows during winter. Local farmers have expressed concern about this; they fear the poison may end up in the food chain or that children or animals may accidentally consume it.
“It's not bad for the environment or the food chain,” Ali insists, “and it is necessary because there are so many snakes and they are everywhere in this district.”
Unfortunately for the locals, it seems that for the time being the only thing that the people of Dhi Qar can do is to wait for winter to come to their district – as the weather gets colder, the snakes will hibernate.