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Sympathy for Snakes

Even the mere mention of the word “snake” is usually enough to send a shiver down the spine of any normal person.  This used to be the same for me, and it took years of National Geographic snake documentarys to change my view on the slithery creatures.  Now days, I consider snakes to be some of the most beautiful predators on this Earth – wrapped in mystery – occupying the very fringes of animal society.

In the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu, a tribe named the Irula have dwelled in the dark, steamy jungles, since ancient times.  In recent times, modernization and deforestation have forced many of the Irula into normal Indian society.  But many of the Irula still practice their most famous skill – snake catching.  Up until the 1970’s, the Irula caught snakes to supply the lucrative snakeskin market.  But with the passing of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, in 1972, snakes became a protected species in India, and it looked as if the Irula’s snake catching days were over.

This could have been the case, if not for the intervention of American herpetologist, Romulus Whitaker, who aided the Irula in the foundation of the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Co-Operative Society (yep, it’s a mouthful). The Irula work within the society by catching snakes in the wild.  The snakes are then brought back to the Co-Op’s headquarters, where they are then “milked” for their venom.  The snakes are then released back into the wild.  The raw venom is sold to laboratories, where it is used as the main ingredient in the production of snake anti-venom.  The laboratory process involves injecting a non-lethal dose of venom into a live horse.  The horse then naturally develops antibodies, to fight off the poison.  Blood serum is then collected from the horse’s jugular vein, and the antibodies separated.  What is left over in an intravenous anti-venom injection, which saves thousands of lives across India each year. 

Though anti-venom is widely available in India, the country still tops the world in snake bite death statistics, with an astronomical 25,000 deaths occurring annually.  This figure also only takes into account the hospital statistics.  The actual number of deaths may exceed much further if the fatalities that occur in remote villages, where the victims are unable to reach a hospital, are taken into account.

While in Tamil Nadu recently, I decided to pay a visit to the Irula Co-Op.  The Co-Op is located 14 kilometers up the highway from the tourist enclave of Mahabalipuram, and it was on this highway that I found myself, riding what seemed to be the worlds slowest moped, en-route for my visit to the Irula Co-Op.  The Co-Op headquarters sits inside the “Crocodile Bank” – a reptile park which aims at educating Indians about their country’s reptilians.  On arrival, I paid my Rs 20 entry fee and made my way through to the Irula Co-Op.

Inside the Co-Op, a number of venomous snakes were on display – a Russell’s Viper, an Indian Cobra, a Krait and a few Saw Scaled Vipers.  These snakes were interesting to see, but what I really wanted was to go out catching snakes with the Irula, and see them in action.
An Irula man was busy exhibiting a bunch of tiny Saw Scaled Vipers.  They were all curled up together, on the end of his snake-handling rod, like a bundle of venomous noodles.  Once he had put the Vipers back in their pot, I asked him about the possibility of going out snake catching.  The Irula man lacked the knowledge of English to understand my request, so I went through to the Co-Op office, where I was soon shown through to a man who seemed to be the big boss.
“How can I help you?” Asked the boss, as he shook my hand firmly.
“I want to write an article on the Irula, and I wondering about the possibility of going out snake catching with them?”
“May I see your card?”
“Oh, I don’t have a card, I don’t work for anyone.”
There was a silence; I could tell that the boss had lost confidence in me. Finally he spoke, filling the quiet void only previously occupied by the overhead ceiling fan. 
“First you must write an application letter.”
My heart sank, this looked as if it could be a long and highly bureaucratic process.  The boss then handed me a blank piece of paper, and as I was writing my application, he asked me if I would like to go out snake catching today or tomorrow.  My spirits lifted, it looked as if my snake catching adventure was on.
“I will arrange two Irula men two take you out snake catching.  You will pay the men five hundred rupees.  You can make the payment directly to the men.”
“Oh that’s great.” I replied excitedly. “Can we go today?”
“Yes, that is possible.”
Two khaki clad Irula men then joined me in the office, their names were Vedan and Rajendra – they were to be my snake catching guides for the afternoon. I paid them their five hundred rupees, and followed them out of the Co-Op.  They picked up their snake catching equipment as they went – a large metal rod, a few cloth sacks, and a jungle machete.  We then crossed the highway, and made our way into the fields that lay on the opposite side of the road.  I had thought that we would have to walk a long way before we entered snake country. But this didn’t seem to be true, as Vedan and Rajendra went straight into action mode, peering down holes in the earth, and analyzing snake trails that led around them.  It soon became obvious that Vedan and Rajendra were true masters of their trade.  They could tell whether or not a snake was inside a hole with out even seeing the snake.  I have no idea how, as the communication difficulties rendered a running commentary out of the question.

Ten minutes passed before Vedan found an occupied snake hole.
“Rat Snake!” Said Vedan, as he began digging down fearlessly into the soft earth.  The Rat Snake is common in South India, but is useless to the Irula as it is non-venomous. I think Vedan just wanted to show me the snake. As Vedan continued digging, he stumbled upon a small field mouse, which he caught and put in one of the cloth sacks – snake food.

As he continued to dig down, Vedan anticipated where the hole led, and instructed Rajendra where to dig another hole – in order to flush the Rat Snake out.  The snake soon came into view; it was much larger than I had expected – dark colored and around four feet in length.  Vedan soon had the snake out of the hole, and safely held it by its head as I held the rest of its body. I’d never touched a snake before, and was surprised at the coolness of its skin, and its strength, as the Rat Snake tried to wrap itself around my arm.
“We put outside now?” Asked Vedan.
“Yeah sure.” I replied.
Vedan put the snake on the ground, and it slithered away at a surprising speed.  The sound it made as it moved across the leaf covered earth was haunting, to say the very least.

Seeing the Rat Snake, and Vedan and Rajendra in action, had been quite satisfying.  But I wanted more – I wanted to find a dangerous snake, a venomous snake.
“We can find a Russell’s Viper?” I asked.
“No Russell’s Viper here.” Replied Rejendra. “Only in jungle side.”
I was disappointed.
“We can find a Cobra?” I pressed.
“Yes, that’s possible.” Said Rajendra.

So off we went again, in the direction of some grassy pastures, fringed by stunningly green rice paddies.  Once we reached the pasture area, Vedan and Rajendra fanned out, peering down holes and checking under scrub.  We were in Cobra country now, but it didn’t seem as if any Cobras were home.

We left the pasture and entered the rice paddies, walking across the raised trails that led through the wet expanse.  I pitied the farmers who have to enter the snake-infested paddies to harvest their rice – they undoubtedly make up a large number of the 25,000 annual fatalities.

Soon we reached an embankment with a few promising holes in its side.  Vedan and Rajendra set to work immediately, digging deep down into the soft earth, in two separate places.  I felt like a lazy, neo-colonial bastard, just sitting there and watching, as Vedan and Rajendra perspired in the afternoon heat. But there was no way I was going to stick my hand down the snake hole – no way. 

After half and hour, the men gave up on their holes and moved to another spot, about thirty feet away.  This hole was more certain.
“Rat Snake.” Said Vedan.
Once again, I was disappointed.  I didn’t want Vedan and Rajendra to waste their energy getting the same, non-venomous, species of snake out of the ground that I already had seen.  But I didn’t say anything, and the men soon had another Rat Snake out of the ground.  I was really starting to doubt if I would be seeing any venomous snakes that afternoon.

Rajendra released the Rat Snake and the men gathered up their snake catching equipment.  We were on the move once more, walking single file through some more rice paddies.  The sun was now dropping low into the afternoon sky.  I cast my gaze out across the paddies and pastures, and onto a river that flowed steady and strong along side.  Coconut palms stood here and there – it was a picture of tropical serenity. As I took in the scenery, I marveled at the fact that what I was doing seemed completely normal to me – out with two tribesman, looking for snakes under the earth. Maybe I’d been on the road to long.

We soon reached another embankment, this time covered in trees and dense undergrowth.  Vedan picked up a snakeskin off the ground and handed it to me.
A Cobra had shed its skin in that spot recently, and the search for the Cobra was on.  The men soon found the Cobra’s hole, and while Rajendra cleared away the undergrowth with the machete, Vedan dug furiously into the earth.  It didn’t take long before the skin of an Indian Cobra came into view, this time attached to its owner.
“Cobra!” Exclaimed Vedan as he turned to face me, looking quite pleased with himself.  I took three steps backward.  I didn’t feel comfortable being in the claustrophobic confines of the scrub and trees with an uptight Indian Cobra.

 Vedan quickly had the Cobra out of its hole, with its hood retracted; it just looked like any ordinary snake.  But this didn’t stop a shiver from running down my spine, as Vedan casually strode past me, holding the Cobra by its tail.  The snake was thrashing around, trying to find some flesh to sink its hypodermic fangs into. 

Once we were back out in the open, Vedan set the snake down on the grass, and Rajendra began to show off his snake handling skills.  He teased the Cobra by flashing one of the white cloth sacks in front of the snake.  The Cobra jumped straight into its defensive position, raising its head off the ground and puffing out its intimidating hood.  I now had no doubts that the snake in front of me was an Indian Cobra, and it looked so beautiful in the deep, late afternoon light.

After Rajendra had tired of teasing the Cobra, it was put into the white cloth sack that contained the small field mouse that had been found earlier.  I wondered if the snake and the mouse, on finding themselves in the same predicament, would abandon their differences and struggle through their incarceration together – as a team.  I then heard some tortured squeaks coming from the sack, and the answer to my thoughts was provided. 

With the Cobra safely in the sack, we set off in the direction of the Co-Op.  I felt on top of the world, buzzing off the excitement of seeing a live Cobra in the wild, and the snake catching expertise of my Irula guides.  I asked Rajendra what the future had in store for our captured Cobra.  He informed me that the Co-Op had enough Cobras for the milking program at that present time, and our Cobra would be taken far away from human habitation, and released back into the wild.
As we neared the highway, I had no idea that one last treat was in store for me.  Vedan spotted a tiny Saw Scaled Viper, curled up in the branches of a small tree.  The Saw Scaled Viper is a tiny snake – the biggest Saw Scaled Vipers only reach about 30 centimetres in length.  However, despite its size, the Saw Scaled Viper can pack a serious venomous punch, and the Vipers are used in the Co-Op’s anti-venom program.  

Vedan extracted the tiny Viper from the tree and placed it on the grass.  The snake seemed rather pissed off, and wrapped itself in a ball, rubbing its course skin against itself.  This creates an intimidating sound, used to scare of predators – rather like the Rattlesnake of North America.  It was enough to make me take a couple of steps backward. 

The Viper was put inside a separate sack from the Cobra and the (probably ingested) field mouse, and we slowly finished the remainder of the walk back to the Co-Op.  I reflected on the afternoons events, and was more than pleased to have viewed two of India’s most venomous snakes, in the wild, in one afternoon.  This is testament to the skill and expertise of the Irula snake catchers, there is no way I could have just walked out into the fields and found the snakes on my own.  Maybe I didn’t get to see a Russell’s Viper in the wild, but I’ll leave that snake, with its one inch fangs, until next time. 

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