for National Geographic News
Catching poisonous snakes is second nature to the Irula tribal community in south India. For generations these hardy folk have earned a living by rustling serpentsuntil a stiffening of India's laws to protect wildlife made it illegal.
Most Irulas have been forced to abandon their traditional livelihood hunting snakes for skins and other parts. But a small group has formed the Irula Snake Catchers' Industrial Cooperative Society. The group catches snakes purely to milk them for their venom, which is sold to laboratories for the production of antivenin used to counter the effects of snakebites in humans.
Irulas are a small group of indigenous forest-dwelling people who have made a living for generations by catching and skinning snakes. Skilled at their art, Irulas can track a snake by following telltale signs on the ground, following tracks to burrows where the snakes may be hiding. Using nothing more than a crowbar to dig the soil and bare hands, these illiterate villagers easily catch highly poisonous snakes like cobras, vipers and kraits.
But whereas in the past the snakes' skins were sold to foreign buyers for fashion accessories, today each snake is trapped alive and carefully carried back to the cooperative where it is milked for its venom.
Until the Indian government changed its wildlife laws, Irulas made a living by catching the deadly cobra and Russell's vipers in their thousands. The snake skins ended up as fancy purses and shoes.
When the Indian Parliament adopted the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, the economic basis of the Irulas was suddenly made illegal, punishable with a jail sentence. Many felt it was literally the end of the road for this highly skilled tribe. Irulas had to learn to become farm laborers; others migrated to the urban shantytowns in search of jobs.
A small group hung on as part of the cooperative and today, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), it is probably the only successful example of the sustainable use of a wild species in India.
Under the leadership of legendary "Snake Man" Romulus Whitaker, the Irulas of Chingleput district on the shores of the Bay of Bengal banded together in 1978 and formed the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society, which has flourished to this day. The co-op has served not only to provide a living but also to preserve a culture that has spanned at least three generations.
The cooperative started with 26 members and today has more than 300and is the largest venom-producing center in India with annual sales of over U.S. $15,000. Snake catchers earn several times more per live snake turned in for milking than they did for reptiles slaughtered for their skins.
In helping produce antivenin, the co-op also provides a valuable social service. More than 30,000 people die due to snakebites in India each year. There is a huge demand for venom, which is used to produce antivenin, the only known cure for the effects of snake venom. Antivenin is produced by injecting venom into horses in sub-lethal doses. The horses develop antibodies to counter the venom and these are used to produce serum for use in humans bitten by snakes.
"The cooperative experiment has been very successful, and it's probably the only sustainable use of a wild animal species in India" said Whitaker. "The Irula cooperative is the only venom-production unit in India in which snakes are obtained locally and not killed."
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