A person’s natural instinct when faced with a poisonous animal is to jump back. That is exactly what I did when the Irula tribesman took the first snake out of the clay pot. This near run in with a poisonous snake occurred while we were visiting the Madras Crocodile Bank, a reptile zoo and research center situated in the outskirts of Chennai. They host an astounding 2,000 animals, some of which are snakes. The Irula tribesmen, known for their skills in catching snakes, are the stars of this center as they demonstrate how they adeptly and carefully extract venom from the snakes, which is later used for medicinal purposes. This skill has been passed down through the men of the tribe generation after generation.
In the past the Irula tribe hunted and killed snakes to sell them for their valuable skin; however, they had to change their practices in 1972 when the Indian government banned the hunting and killing of snakes under the Wildlife Protection Act. What interested me so much about this tribe was the fact that they were able to turn their skills into something that the world needed. They now catch the snakes and sell their venom for medicinal purposes, earning at least 10 times more than they did when they killed the snake for its skin.
One of the uses for the venom is as an antidote to snake bites. They inject a non-lethal dosage of venom into a horse and from there doctors are able to procure the anti-venom medicine. According to the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 46,000 people die a year due to snakebites.
|Snake||Rupees Paid per Snake||Rupees Paid per Gram of Venom|
As Dr. Ananthi Livingstone pointed out during a lecture, tribes help with research, education, and other valuable knowledge stemming from their first-hand experiences. This is also known as tribal ecological knowledge. They are able to use the function of the snakes being a vital part of the ecosystem in their favor by using their venom for economic benefit. In addition, as Dr. Selvasingh Richard mentioned, tribes’ people are highly interconnected with nature. The tribe turns ecosystem functions into ecosystem services. As Dr. Paradise mentioned, “activities in and interactions between organisms can lead to the emergence of ecosystem functions, which can also be thought of as processes.” This function is turned into a service when it directly benefits humans.
Learning about and observing the practices of the Irula Tribe hasn’t been my only up close and personal experience with snakes in India. While exploring the Golkanda Fort in Hyderabad two weeks ago, I heard a suspicious rattling sound as I walked through tall grasses. I quickly moved through that area and found the guide, who confirmed that my suspicion was correct. Even though snakes are prevalent in open green spaces in India, I was still surprised that they were in an area where so many tourists and Indians trek around each day. I can still hear the rattling of the snakes in Crocodile bank and the fort. While I am not thrilled with the idea of encountering another snake in India, I am thrilled by the Irula tribe’s ability to help preserve a deadly reptile, save lives, and make money to care for their families in an environmentally friendly way.
Edited and Revised: October 10th, 2017
Livingstone, Ananthi. “India’s forest, reserves, gam and wildlife sanctuaries, and preserve management.” Presentation at Madras Christian College International Guest House, Chennai, India, 14 September, 2017.
Paradise, Chris. “Invasive Species, habitat loss and overexploitation in India.” Presentation at Young Women’s Christian College International Guest House, Chennai, India, 4 October, 2017.
Richard, Selvasingh. “Medicinal plants, ethno botany, traditional medicine.” Presentation at Madras Christian College International Guest House, Chennai, India, 4 September, 2017.