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Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 20:10 GMT
Snakes provide an antidote to poverty
Cobras in the laboratory
The Irulas have a lucrative snake-catching co-operative
By Crispin Thorold in Madras

The members of a south Indian tribe which was on the brink of economic disaster have turned their unique skills into a lucrative business.

For centuries, the Irulas have been snake and rat catchers, and for at least three generations they were the main suppliers to the Indian snakeskin industry.

But the tribe faced ruin in the 1970s when new conservation laws banned their trade. They responded by forming a business that has preserved their traditions and helped them edge towards financial security.

Catching snakes
Pulling a rat snake from the ground
The Irulas are now the only suppliers of snake venom to laboratories across India, which use it in the production of life saving anti-venom serum.

The scheme has been such a success that the tribe has applied for government permission to export venom to laboratories across the world.

Unique co-operative

The tribe is found in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but the majority of Irulas live just south of Madras.

In 1978, 25 members of the tribe formed the Irula Snake-Catchers Industrial Co-operative Society, which is now issued with nearly 130 hunting permits by the Indian government every year.

These allow members of the co-operative to legally capture India's four most deadly species of snake - the cobra, the krait, the Russells viper, and the saw-scaled viper.

Once the government allows us to export the venom, we will definitely be able to give tribal people employment for the whole year

Dravida Mani, co-operative secretary
Working in pairs, often husband and wife teams, the Irulas spend hours and sometimes days looking for tell-tale signs. From a seemingly innocuous faint scrape in the ground, they can identify the type of snake, the direction of movement and roughly how old the track is.

These skills are crucial. Many of the commercially viable snakes live in rat holes and have to be dug out - a process that, in the case of highly venomous varieties, can take hours.

The snakes that the Irulas catch are taken to the co-operative's venom extraction centre, near Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. Members of the co-operative then log all the animal's details.

Extracting venom

"Snakes that are brought here are measured for their weight and length," said Rajendran. "They are stored in clay pots and then venom is extracted.

"The fangs of the snakes are pressed against a piece of leather attached to a glass container. When the snake bites the leather, venom is extracted.

Extracting venom from a cobra
Venom is "milked" from cobras once a week
"From a krait we extract two drops of venom, a cobra two to three drops, a Russell's viper more than four drops, and from the small saw-scaled viper we take just one drop."

It is a lengthy and laborious process. To produce just one gram of pure cobra venom, 10 snakes are needed, while to produce the same amount of saw-scaled viper venom the Irulas have to catch 750.

The snakes are held for three weeks, during which time they are "milked" once a week. At the end of their stay, they are released back to the place they were originally captured.

The extracted venom is purified, frozen and then freeze-dried to make the pure venom powder that is used by government laboratories for the production of anti-venom serum.

Successful enterprise

For the Irulas, it is a lucrative business. Overheads are low and demand is high. Since it is a co-operative, many of the profits are reinvested, and what's left is shared amongst the members.

Snake catching is a family affair
This has radically changed the lives of Rajamal and her family. "From the co-operative we get money, and we also get a bonus for every snake that we catch. The bonus means we can buy better food, and it helps with the children's education," she said.

"If my son Kali wasn't a full-time member of the co-operative, he would have to work for daily wages, by helping with the harvesting or by doing coolie (labouring) work. But by being a member of the society, he gets more money and more benefits."

However, the co-operative's secretary Dravida Mani says one simple change in the law could bring the tribe even greater financial security.

International expansion

"The government of India has banned the export of snake venom to other countries," he said. "Once the government allows us to export the venom, we will definitely be able to give tribal people employment for the whole year.

"In foreign countries, they use venom not just for the production of anti-venom serum, they also use it for other medicines. It is very important to the pharmaceutical industry."

Husband and wife snake catchers
The Irula are also experts in catching rats
The future of the Irula's enterprise is assured, but the Indian Government holds the keys to a potential fortune. Orders from around the world are being refused - one American laboratory alone wants to buy a kilogramme of cobra venom ( the retail price for one gramme is $250).

Whatever the Indian Government decides in the long-term, the Irulas have already made a success of their business.

Beyond the financial side, the co-operative has acted as a catalyst for the community. It is an important social centre where the Irulas meet and discuss their problems.

But perhaps most importantly, in an age when tribal identities are increasingly threatened, the snake-catching co-operative has become a source of pride and identity for all Irulas.

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