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Snake venom provides income source for unique cooperative

In the socio-spiritual matrix of India, both rats and snakes have traditionally enjoyed a venerable status, the landscape abounds with temples dedicated in their honour. In more recent times, however, another kind of veneration, the worship by affluent westerners of bags, belts, and valises made from snake skins has led to massive decimation of snake populations and the consequent proliferation of the rats on whom they once preyed. A further result of this ecological upheaval has been an acute shortage of snake venom, a vital ingredient in the production of life-saving drugs. Playing a central role both in the original disruption and in subsequent efforts to redress the balance has been a relatively small aboriginal group that has found a way to utilize traditional skills within a rapidly changing social environment.

For centuries, the Irula tribals in the Nilgiri and Chingelput districts of southern India had eked out a livelihood by killing snakes and selling their skins, an occupation they evidently preferred to the employment on tea or coffee plantations that sustained other tribal groups. Expertise in catching deadly reptiles without any protective devices was handed down from one generation to the next. But material rewards to the Irulas were meagre. A snake skin that might eventually fetch as much as Rs. 100 would normally bring an Irula snake catcher Rs. 2.

In the early 1970s, driven by poverty and privation, many Irulas began flocking into Madras, which had established a reputation for large scale trafficking in snake skins. With foreign demand for snake skins reaching a new high (exports were running at about six million skins annually) the snake-slaughtering zeal of the Irulas reached almost frenzied proportions. Putrid heaps of snake skins along the roadsides and open spaces of suburban Madras testified to the onslaught Furthermore, as their natural enemy was being eliminated, rats multiplied enormously, posing a threat to human health.

In 1978, the state government imposed a complete ban on killing of snakes. Export of snake skins was also prohibited by the federal Government. In effect, the Irulas were suddenly deprived of their only means of livelihood. It was at this juncture that one man with a deep respect for India's traditions decided that the Irulas' heritage of expertise could still be usefully engaged both to maintain the snake population in the ecosystem and to provide improved incomes for the Irulas.

Romulus Whitakar was a well known natural historian and the founder of Madras Snake Park to which, for years, the Irulas had been supplying both snakes and the frogs to feed them. This relationship offered Whitakar ample opportunity to observe the Irulas' skills in dealing with the reptile world. It was his brainwave that these skills could be used to "milk" the snakes for venom instead of killing them for their skins. This was the beginning of the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society, claimed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Soon after the Society's launching in early 1979, its 200 member families were initiated in the art of milking poisonous snakes - cobras, kraits, Russels vipers, and saw-scaled vipers - for their venom. Snakes caught by the Irulas were brought to the Society's premises where they were examined, weighed, and clipped with a code identification. An Irula would then hold the reptile in one hand, grasp its head from behind the mouth between the thumb and index finger and force the bared fangs through a rubberized sheet stretched over the mouth of a glass, in which the slowly dripping venom is collected. The venom is then dried by a vacuum pump and refrigerated for use when required. After two or three such extractions, the snake is fed with a glucose solution and returned to its natural habitat.

The Irulas are paid according to the variety of the reptile they have captured. To obtain just one gram of venom requires 100 krait or 200 saw-scaled vipers. But while one gram of krait venom fetches about US$50 on the international market, some other varieties can bring as much as $1 500 per gram. Venom is used in the manufacture of serum to protect humans against snake bites and in the preparation of painkillers for those afflicted with arthritis and spinal tuberculosis. It is also used in drugs for controlling hemophilia and to break open blood clots during dental surgery. Snakes, especially the poisonous types, are gaining importance in the field of medicine," says Dr Brian Groombridge, a herpetologist attached to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. "The venom has been used for certain significant breakthroughs in neurobiology."

The returns from the sale of venom have considerably changed the lifestyle of the Irulas. With better housing and educational opportunities they are gradually becoming integrated in the mainstream of national life. With profits earned from the sale of venom, the Society has set up a venom centre at Vadaneli, a hamlet near Madras. Wholly operated by the Irulas, it is claimed to be the first of its kind in the country. The Society has also branched out into the field of rodent control, guaranteeing to keep individual homes free of rats and termites for an annual fee equivalent to US$25. According to Whitakar, "Irulas are top class rodentologists." Certainly, their reputation in rodent control technology is sufficiently established that requests for assistance in eliminating rats have come from as far away as Bihar and Guiarat and from prestigious research centres like the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute in Kasaryod in India's western coast.