They find it in the middle of a vast open ground, under an old piece of cloth. It’s tiny and tightly curled, its back a jigsaw of white, brown and black scales. My first question is if it’s venomous. S. Masi and G. Vadivelu, the two Irula (adivasi) men crouching next to it, assure me that it is. Very. My next few questions – and this despite it being so small and fast asleep – are insipid, but they answer me patiently. “This is a Suruttai viriyan (Saw-scaled viper), and we can’t catch it now. We need a license for that.” They remain – though they are inches from its head – entirely calm, and tell me, if I have finished looking, they’d like to cover it again with the cloth. When we walk away, my photographer friend and I look over our shoulders a lot.
Masi and Vadivelu are, however, looking down. They both carry staffs; Masi’s is iron and Vadivelu’s is wooden. They use them to poke at bushes and branches. The two men show us how they track snakes in the scrub jungle and fields, near their village, Chenneri, in Chingelput district, Tamil Nadu. Masi and Vadivelu picked this up when they were young. Their families are traditional snake-catchers. “At least three generations have caught snakes,” Masi says. “Maybe even more. My grandfather used to catch snakes and peel the skin. I haven’t seen it, but my father has, and he’s told me about it. Then, he used to take the skins to Chingelput and sell it by the inch.” It was the only job he knew and did, and the only thing that ‘saved the family’.
Masi uses the phrase ‘saved the family’ a lot. And every time he does, it is moving. He speaks of a people who were dirt poor, who would fetch water for the people in their village and get paid Rs.2 at the end of the month, and maybe some food at the end of each day. “We could afford no rice nor millets, not even peanuts. So my grandfather used to dig out paddy from the rat’s burrow, and that’s what was cleaned and hand-pounded with an iron pestle and eaten, and that’s how he saved the family.” The ripe paddy was, in the first instance, stolen by the mole rat and stocked up in the burrow to feed its children. It fed children, but of another species. “And they didn’t kill the rats. It fed them!”
But they killed the snakes for their skins. S. Muthiah’s Madras, Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India mentions that in the late 1950s, one tannery near Madras was curing five to ten thousand snake skins a day. And that in 1967-68, ten million skins were handled in the snakeskin industry. Had it gone on, the trade in its skin would have wiped out several species of snakes. So the government banned hunting snakes (through the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972). And in 1975, it prohibited both the slaughter of snakes and export of snakeskins. The Irulas realised it was now illegal to do what they had done all their lives – catch snakes. And sadly, it was all they knew to do.
Today, the Irulas are once again catching snakes with their bare hands. But now it is fully legal. It’s thanks to one man’s efforts that they use their extraordinary tracking and capturing skills to extract venom from snakes, which then goes into making anti-venom and in turn saves thousands of lives. The man is Rom Whitaker (herpetologist, wildlife conservationist and founder of the Madras Snake Park, The Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust, and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust). Incidentally, he was instrumental in bringing the ban on the snakeskin industry. And in 1978 it was he who set up the Irula Snake-Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society (ISCICS). It has, since then, made a deep and lasting change in the lives of the Irulas who belong to the society, including Masi and Vadivelu, who are among the 300-odd licensed members. (The Irula tribe itself is many thousands strong.)
At the ISCICS, they are respected and rewarded for their traditional tracking skills and knowledge of snakes with work and money. Once a month, the co-op tells each member to catch a specific snake and they are paid a pre-fixed price for it. Venom is then extracted at the society from the snakes, once every week, for four weeks. The venom is then freeze-dried and sold to anti-venom manufacturers and for medical research. The snakes are released back in the wild.
We are back in the wild and open following Masi and Vadivelu. This time, we’re heading toward paddy fields. After a night’s rain, it’s parrot-green and pretty. But Masi and Vadivelu only look at the raised bund between the verdant squares. They stop near a small round hole in the ground. And they start digging. Masi’s iron staff lands with a soft and dull thud. With the tapered end, he pushes aside the earth. Vadivelu pulls out something from the soil. It’s a stalk of paddy. The grain on top is small and unripe, the work of an impatient rat. “There will be more, it must have had babies,” Vadivelu says. “This is what our families used to eat,” Masi points with his iron staff.
But those days are behind them. They now buy their food in shops, and besides the snake catching, they go for coolie work (when it is available). Their children are a little more educated than they were. Masi, who only went to school for the 1st standard, has two grown sons and a daughter. His daughter, a tenth pass, has a clerical job. His sons have studied till 8th and 10th – one does many kinds of coolie work, and another only goes for tile work. Vadivelu’s son – schooled upto 9th class – is also a coolie worker. “The ladies go to NREGA work, or, sometimes, agricultural work. If there’s nothing to do, they stay at home.”
Home for Masi and Vadivelu is a pucca building. Outside Vadivelu’s house, there are a lot of dogs and goats. Their young – the puppies and kids – run around our feet and each other. His wife Pushpa is just back from a self-help-group meeting with her neighbours. And she tells me she earns a regular income from doing domestic work in two houses besides the NREGA work. And she also catches snakes.
Every month, the ISCICS asks the license-holders to catch a particular snake of a particular size. “One person alone cannot catch the snake,” Pushpa says. “My husband and I go together. I hold the bag. He catches the snake. I tie the mouth of the bag and keep it aside.” She makes it sound effortless, easy. But it isn’t always so. “If they give us a hard-to-find snake, it takes us a long time to catch it. Sometimes, even two weeks.”
Kraits are the hardest, she says. “We have to travel out of town to catch it.” She calls the process of hunting for it beyzaaru, a word that’s otherwise used to indicate a mild nuisance, like not finding a preferred packet of soap or biscuit in a shop.
“You need to break the earth, break into the burrows of rats, to find the snakes,” says Amulu Mani. She too is a license holder and Pushpa’s neighbour. During the rains, vipers are easy to find; during the summer, even those become hard. Amulu and Pushpa take turns in rattling off the names of the snakes and how and where they can be found. And likewise, they name medicinal plants and trees in the area. “They do have considerable ethno-botanical knowledge and for this reason we helped them set up the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society at Thandarai near Chengalpattu,” says Rom.
Pushpa parents were not even snake catchers. “But to get the license, they said we had to catch snakes. So I mustered up some courage, and went ahead and caught snakes. Earlier only the men did it. Women were nervous. But now we do it too!”
“Women also catch snakes but generally men outnumber women in this occupation,” explains Janaki Lenin, author of My Husband and Other Animals (as well as a column on The Wire and an environment blog on The Guardian). “But often the wives will assist their husbands – look for other burrow exits, hold the bag, etc.”
Typically, when an order comes, the Irulas travel as a group. They stay in one place, cook, eat and catch the snakes. Then they ring for the co-op van, which collects the reptiles from them. They are paid Rs.220 for saw-scaled vipers, Rs.750 for common kraits, and Rs.2000 for Russell’s vipers and cobras.
Even in an unknown terrain, their extraordinary tracking skills and knowledge leads the Irulas to the right snake. “The Irula track snakes on hard ground by reading the faintest signs – a grass blade slightly depressed, the raised edge of gravel, etc,” says Janaki. “From these signs not only can they say whether a snake went in or out of a burrow, they can say what species of snake, and how long ago,” says Janaki, who’s been on many snake tracking trips with her husband Rom Whitaker and the Irulas. “Watching an Irula read the ground is like watching magic. We Indians do not appreciate this – there are NO other snake hunters in the world as skilled as the Irulas.”
There are four common but venomous snakes in India. Known as the ‘big four’, the Russell’s viper, spectacled cobra, saw-scaled viper and common krait are responsible, between themselves (with some help from other species), for over 46,000 deaths every year. There was – and is – a huge demand for anti-venom. It might be read as good times for the snake catchers, but that’s not really the case.
“The technology to produce anti-venom is so advanced, we don’t need that much venom any more. If there were no Irulas to catch snakes, we’d probably move to a model where snakes are maintained in captivity for life such as they do in the US and Australia,” says Janaki. “But what we’d lose is the incredible skill of tracking snakes.”
Like those of Masi and Vadivelu, who are now taking us back into the scrub jungle. “I learnt to catch snakes from when I was 15. We’re not afraid of them,” says Masi. A slight moment in a bush has him parting it with his staff. A hare leaps out. “Pambu [snake]!” he shouts. But before we could see, the cobra – for that’s what it was – has slithered away. We make do with the skin he picks up from the ground to show us. “I learnt to tell apart the poisonous from the harmless, the cobras from the rat snakes. We were taught by the elders, this is a Kanaadi viriyan (Russell’s viper). If you get bitten, your hands and legs will swell up badly.”
The next snake they pluck out from deep in the undergrowth, in the shade of a palm and neem, does not kill if it bites. “But you will get night blindness when you’re 60-years-old,” says Vadivelu, pointing to the slithering specimen on Masi’s hands. It’s a rat snake, a five-foot beauty with a bright yellow belly, brown back and a very smooth tail. I know because I touch it. The snake is young, they explain. True to its name, it snacks on rats but won’t say no to frogs. A mature one grows to be as thick as a man’s forearm. This one keeps coiling and winding over Masi’s hands and legs. He has a light grip on it, and flexes his wrists this way and that, his movements as smooth as the snake itself. “Even when we handle venomous snakes, we don’t get bitten because we catch it properly,” he explains as he releases it, gently, back into the undergrowth. It is gone before we could say ‘Irula’.
A short interview with Rom and Janaki
Q: What are the most common poisonous snakes in India? And what are snakebite death figures?
Janaki: Snakes are venomous, not poisonous. And they kill more people than all the other human/wildlife conflict combined. There are four medically important snakes: Russell’s viper, spectacled cobra, saw-scaled viper and common krait. The average annual mortality is about 46,000.
Q: How do the Irulas deal with snakebites?
Janaki: In the old days, they used herbal medicine but their delivery systems were more sophisticated than traditional healers. They understood the need for the antidote to get into the bloodstream fast and applied poultices to cuts. But after the co-op was set up, they go to hospitals in case of snakebite. Each member of the co-op carries a note to the doctor that says snake-catching is the person’s livelihood and if he says he’s been bitten by a venomous snake, take him at his word and treat him.
Q: What is the monetary value of snake venom? And how many lives can be saved from each dose of anti-venom?
Rom: It takes about 10 extractions from cobras to produce one gram of venom and close to 100 extractions from kraits to produce a gram of dried venom. With this venom, horses can be immunised and produce several thousand vials of anti-venom. It may take 20 or more vials to save a patient from a serious snakebite.
[The price of one gram of snake venom: cobra, Rs.20,000/gram; Russell’s viper, Rs.27,000/gram; saw-scaled viper, Rs.22,500/gram; and krait, Rs.40,000/gram.]
Q: How difficult is it to catch a snake?
Janaki: Rom and the Irula catchers make it seem easy. Watching them numerous times, I was confident I could also catch a snake. But when the opportunity arose – I was alone at home and had to rescue a cobra from our pet pig – it was a nightmare. The snake kept slipping off like wet spaghetti and crawling ever closer to Luppy the pig, who was snorting in anticipation of a snack. Eventually, when I was tired of picking up the snake, the cobra also grew tired and sat still on the snake hook long enough for me to flip it into a bucket.
Q: And are the snake numbers growing or dropping now?
Janaki: We don’t have any idea of snake numbers. But you have to remember that before the ban, up to 10 million snakeskins were being processed in one year alone. The Irula co-op catches about 8,000 in comparison. All the four species that the Irula co-op members catch are very common because they live in rice fields and live off rodents. And that’s precisely the reason why there are so many snakebites in the country. It’s essentially a rural problem. If snake numbers go down, the amount of time an Irula has to spend hunting for them goes up. If it’s not worthwhile any more, they wouldn’t be hunting snakes.
Aparna Karthikeyan is a freelancer who writes about people, places and practices. She is currently documenting the vanishing livelihoods of rural Tamil Nadu.