Aglen's Snake Master

In Aglen, a small village in Northern Bulgaria, the welcoming bridge crosses the Vit River and the valley around it. Horses graze over green pastures and limestone cliffs bath in the aroma of wild herbs and fresh water.

Beyond the beautiful scenery, one can’t help but notice the man standing over the edge of the bridge.  With a crazy Einstein haircut and a jean jacket, he looks like a rock’n’roll druid watching over the Vit River.

Tikata lying next to the dead skin of a big Aeusculapian snake. Yoan Bondakov for AUBG Daily.

From herbalism to preserving the wilderness, Trifon Trifonov, a 60-year-old man known as Tikata, has adopted a wide spectrum of occupations and hobbies to satisfy his desire to aid society and nature.

Born and raised in Aglen, Tikata is proud of his origin and happily acts as a guide to those who want to explore the secrets of the local fauna and flora. A main course in his adrenaline-rich lifestyle is the weird practice of walking on the handrails of the bridge in Aglen and catching wild animals, especially snakes.

Tikata walking on the handrails of a bridge in Aglen. Yoan Bondakov for AUBG Daily.

Tikata’s acrobatic stunts are a symptom of his young spirit and desire to get back in touch with his crazy youth.

“When I was young, I would do the craziest things,” Tikata says. “I remember climbing the top of the big pines and walking through the forest from branch to branch.”

In rain or under the tremor of passing trucks, Tikata is always finding his balance when pacing over the bridge’s handrails.

“Some days I traverse on the handrail 32 times, which is about three kilometers,” Tikata says.

Apart from his mastery of handrail walking, Tikata is also known for his ability to deal with one of the most infamous creatures in the animal kingdom – the snake.

Among the most ancient balancing acts is that between mammals and reptiles - a long and exhausting battle of creatures waving the banners of cold and warm blood. For the early primates, snakes were a constant danger tormenting them throughout their evolutionary climb to the modern man. The consequences of this conflict are still prevalent as most people exhibit fear and distress when encountering snakes.

Tikata, however, finds comfort in their company and doesn’t seem to even care much when they bite him. “I love catching wild animals, it’s a way of establishing contact,” Tikata says. “You observe them, feel them and see how they react to you.”

In his countless encounters with the snakes, Tikata has never been bitten by one unless he has willingly provoked it. According to him, snakes are wildly misunderstood and their reputation as cold-blooded killers is built on blind fear - not facts.

“Snakes are not aggressive, they rarely attack people,” Tikata says. “When that happens it is usually self-defense. The first thing snakes do when they see a person is to flee.”

Water snake biting Tikata’s finger. Yoan Bondakov for AUBG Daily.

Tikata held a snake for the first time at the age of six. Since then, handling these creatures became his hobby. From the infamous viper to the awkward wiggle of a worm snake, Tikata has had his fair share of snakes crawling through his hands. Depending on the species and its location, Tikata might use a stick or a snake tong to catch his target. However, Tikata is most confident when using his bare hands.

Slowworm sticking its tongue. Yoan Bondakov for AUBG Daily.

Tikata’s abilities are not a mere tourist attraction. They serve a vital role within Aglen’s community. Snakes often crawl in a person’s house or yard, which causes trouble. When this happens, Tikata is the one catching the animal and releasing it back into the wild.

“Upon entering a house I ask for complete silence, Tikata says. “That way I can hear the snake’s scales popping. I quickly locate it and catch it.”

Water snake crawling in between Tikata’s fingers. Yoan Bondakov for AUBG Daily.

Tikata’s contact with the snakes is not confined within the village. He often roams around Vit’s canyon and observes the reptiles’ behavior. Tikata recounts how he would climb up the willows along the Vit River and pick up snakes off the branches like ripe fruit.

When enjoying the local landscape, one might also see dead snake skins sticking out from the cliffs like white transparent flags, as if signaling the reptiles’ retreat from the approaching cold. Snakes gather inside the many crevices along Aglen’s canyon and curl up together in big lethargic balls to sleep away the winter.

Tikata started exploring the local cave system when he was 15.

“I would wait for my parents to fall asleep, get my backpack and go out in the night to explore the caves alone,” Tikata says.

With so many years of experience, Tikata works as a cave guide with lots of interesting stories to tell. Such as the legend about the Romans introducing crocodiles into the cave “Parnicite” and how these beasts are still believed to inhabit the underwater system of the canyon.

The exit of the cave “Parnicite”. Yoan Bondakov for AUBG Daily.

Tikata expresses worries that agricultural malpractices and poaching are gradually destroying the surrounding ecosystem.

According to him, the decline of Aglen’s biodiversity started with agricultural malpractice. The pesticides used in farming killed off key species like mice and rabbits which left animals higher in the food chain to seek prey elsewhere. Ravens, birds considered once as pests for eating the crop seeds, are now an endangered species and are rarely seen in Aglen.

Baby tortoise covered in ash from the burning of pastures. Yoan Bondakov for AUBG Daily.

As an active member of the community, Tikata often cleans the trash thrown around the Vit River and on several occasions has sought the help of the Bulgarian media to cover the illegal logging taking place around Aglen. Tikata speaks openly about the importance of preserving nature and tries to share his legacy with the people participating in his tours.

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