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Home > News> Talking Point > Why Tamil Nadu’s Irulas are ready to let go of snake-catching

Why Tamil Nadu’s Irulas are ready to let go of snake-catching

The Irulas, who catch snakes and supply nearly 80% of the venom used for antidotes in India, have proposed setting up a serpentarium to make their lives easier

Around 90 per cent of snakebites in India are by cobra, common krait, Russel’s viper and saw-scaled viper. The Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative extracts venom from these four snakes.
Around 90 per cent of snakebites in India are by cobra, common krait, Russel’s viper and saw-scaled viper. The Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative extracts venom from these four snakes. (Hendrik Schlott/Unsplash)

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When 53-year-old S. Rajendran catches a cobra or a viper in the wild to extract its venom, it is a display of the rare knowledge and skill passed through the generations in his family, just like others in his Irula community. Rajendran is the supervisor of the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative in Tamil Nadu which supplies “almost 80 per cent” of the venom that goes into making anti-venom in India.

There is now a proposal to set up a modern serpentarium that would make snake-catching a thing of the past. Although this could diminish the community’s importance and lead to a significant loss of skills, it is the cooperative itself that made the proposal about two years back.

Also read: Meet the snake rescuers of Goa

Venom being extracted from a snake at the Irula Snake Catchers' Industrial Cooperative in Tamil Nadu.
Venom being extracted from a snake at the Irula Snake Catchers' Industrial Cooperative in Tamil Nadu.

One of the reasons is the challenge that faces all traditional forms of employment, from weaving and pottery to snake-catching—the younger generation is not too keen on following their parents into the field. The second lies in the cooperative’s desire to provide larger quantities of venom to meet the country’s demand.

India recorded an estimated 1.2 million snakebite deaths from 2000 to 2019—an average of 58,000 deaths a year. That’s nearly half of all snakebite deaths globally. The World Health Organisation classified snakebite envenoming, or poisoning from a snake bite, as the highest-priority, neglected tropical disease in 2017. Apart from death, snakebite envenoming can cause permanent disability or amputation, both of which, it is suspected, is grossly underreported because cases of snakebite are more frequent in rural areas.

One of the main challenges to preventing death or disability due to snakebites is the shortage of anti-snake venom (ASV). In India, around 90 per cent of snakebites are caused by common krait, Indian cobra, Russel’s viper, and saw-scaled viper. The Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative, which came into being in 1978, extracts venom from these four snakes, known locally as ‘Big Four’.

Rajendran (right) and a colleague prepare to extract venom from a snake.
Rajendran (right) and a colleague prepare to extract venom from a snake.

Herpetologist and wildlife conservationist, Romulus Whitaker, who helped form the cooperative, said that the idea of the venom centre was two-fold: to run a business that brought equal income to all members of the tribe, and extract venom in a sustainable manner. The venom extracted from the snakes is dried and sold to Indian manufacturers of anti-venom serum, while the snakes are marked and released back into the wild after three extractions and three weeks in captivity.

“Until the late 60s-early 70s, more than 5,000 from the Irula community were full-time snake catchers who provided the snake skin to tanneries. The ban on trade and export of snake skin under the Wildlife Act 1972 made it illegal for them to do so,” Whitaker said. That’s when they set up the cooperative to use their particular skills to continue to earn a living. “The cooperative is the only one that has a licence from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to catch 8,000 snakes a year from two districts—Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram.”

While the cooperative’s role has been significant in filling the gap in ASV availability in India, which still faces a critical shortage, there have been discussions on the potency of ASV made from the Big Four in the treatment of other species of snakes in different geographical locations. All ASVs produced in India are a combination of the venom of the Big Four, and is hence called polyvalent ASV. Some of these snakes are not found in parts of India, such as the northeast, and therefore might not be as efficient while treating bites of snakes from those regions. What experts are calling for, instead, is monovalent ASV, made from the venom of a particular species of snake.

Whitaker agrees to this partially. “With more work being done in geographic variation in venoms, it does look like this is a problem,” he said. But the mono vs polyvalent ASV discussion is more complex than it seems. “In the case of monovalent ASV, the clinician will have to know what species of snake bit the patient, which is often not possible,” he says. Time is of the essence while treating a snake bite—the sooner ASV is administered, the higher the chances of survival. Whitaker goes on: “A geographically-valid, high-titre, clean antivenom (i.e. with minimal chance of anaphylactic reactions), which is polyvalent for all the key medically important species, is what India badly needs.” The need is to immunize horses with a pool of venoms from “all corners of India—to be more specifically determined as research unravels the complexity of the variations”—in order to get the most effective pan-India ASV, he explains. In other words, we need an effective polyvalent ASV that is made from the venom of snakes found across India instead of just four species from Tamil Nadu. For northeastern India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, different antivenoms need to be researched and produced, he added.

The Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative has proposed the setting up of a modern serpentarium that would keep snakes from all parts of India in captivity for venom extraction, as mandated by the WHO. If the proposal, submitted to the Niti Ayog since just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, is accepted, it would mean the Irula community would no longer catch snakes from the wild. There’s another conservation based benefit to this: The survival rate of snakes released into the wild after venom extraction is not known. Snakes caught from rice fields, for example, are not released back in the same spot because farmers or other locals would object. When a snake is released in a different spot, its chances of survival are questionable, says Whittaker.

Members of the Irula Snake Catchers’ cooperative in Tamil Nadu.
Members of the Irula Snake Catchers’ cooperative in Tamil Nadu.

Herpetologist and wildlife conservationist, Romulus Whitaker, who helped form the cooperative, said that the idea of the venom centre was two-fold: to run a business that brought equal income to all members of the tribe, and extract venom in a sustainable manner. The venom extracted from the snakes is dried and sold to Indian manufacturers of anti-venom serum, while the snakes are marked and released back into the wild after three extractions and three weeks in captivity.

“Until the late 60s-early 70s, more than 5,000 from the Irula community were full-time snake catchers who provided the snake skin to tanneries. The ban on trade and export of snake skin under the Wildlife Act 1972 made it illegal for them to do so,” Whitaker said. That’s when they set up the cooperative to use their particular skills to continue to earn a living. “The cooperative is the only one that has a licence from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to catch 8,000 snakes a year from two districts—Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram.”

While the cooperative’s role has been significant in filling the gap in ASV availability in India, which still faces a critical shortage, there have been discussions on the potency of ASV made from the Big Four in the treatment of other species of snakes in different geographical locations. All ASVs produced in India are a combination of the venom of the Big Four, and is hence called polyvalent ASV. Some of these snakes are not found in parts of India, such as the northeast, and therefore might not be as efficient while treating bites of snakes from those regions. What experts are calling for, instead, is monovalent ASV, made from the venom of a particular species of snake.

Whitaker agrees to this partially. “With more work being done in geographic variation in venoms, it does look like this is a problem,” he said. But the mono vs polyvalent ASV discussion is more complex than it seems. “In the case of monovalent ASV, the clinician will have to know what species of snake bit the patient, which is often not possible,” he says. Time is of the essence while treating a snake bite—the sooner ASV is administered, the higher the chances of survival. Whitaker goes on: “A geographically-valid, high-titre, clean antivenom (i.e. with minimal chance of anaphylactic reactions), which is polyvalent for all the key medically important species, is what India badly needs.” The need is to immunize horses with a pool of venoms from “all corners of India—to be more specifically determined as research unravels the complexity of the variations”—in order to get the most effective pan-India ASV, he explains. In other words, we need an effective polyvalent ASV that is made from the venom of snakes found across India instead of just four species from Tamil Nadu. For northeastern India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, different antivenoms need to be researched and produced, he added.

The Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative has proposed the setting up of a modern serpentarium that would keep snakes from all parts of India in captivity for venom extraction, as mandated by the WHO. If the proposal, submitted to the Niti Ayog since just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, is accepted, it would mean the Irula community would no longer catch snakes from the wild. There’s another conservation based benefit to this: The survival rate of snakes released into the wild after venom extraction is not known. Snakes caught from rice fields, for example, are not released back in the same spot because farmers or other locals would object. When a snake is released in a different spot, its chances of survival are questionable, says Whittaker.

I ask Rajendran if the serpentarium would rob the Irulas of their inherited skill of catching snakes. He does not think so. “Skills never die. It’s like a plantain tree. Once you use every part of it and it dies, a new shoot appears. Similarly, our skills will be very much required while handling the snakes in the serpentarium. And we know these creatures. The snakes’ behaviour will not change; they will need to be fed, and for that we will have to rely on our primary skill of tracking animals, like rats, that can be fed to the snakes,” Rajendran said.

The Irulas will also be called upon to rescue snakes that enter human habitations, and reduce human-snake conflict, for which they will continue to be paid. Currently, the venom collection centre pays each Irula 2300 to catch a cobra, 850 for a Krait, 2300 for a Russel viper, and 300 for a saw scaled viper. Along with their monthly earnings, the cooperative members have access to medical services and insurance. “The cooperative changed our economic and social status. We have also helped non-members improve their situation. From eating only kanji (rice gruel), we started having non-vegetarian food in our diet. When our skill was recognised, we got respect; we could walk on the main road without fear,” Rajendran said.

Snake-catching is now something the community wants to move away from. “Most of our children are scared of snakes now,” Ranjendran said. “The community is mostly into carpentry and masonry work, some work in rice mills and in factories. Everyone is sending their children to school. Everyone wants their children to do better than them. They want them to have salaried jobs.”

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    03.02.2022 | 07:00 AM IST

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