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