The Irula Snake-cooperative has brought about a revolution in the treatment of snake-bites in India by producing enough anti-venom, thereby acting as a reliable supplier to the hospitals across the country. The Irula tribe, one of India’s oldest communities, living along the borders of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are experts in traditional herbal medicine and healing practices, and Irula ‘vaidyars’ (practitioners of medicine) comprise mostly women, and they practice healing procedures which use over 320 medicinal herbs. Besides being well-versed in medicine, their skill at capturing venomous snakes is outstanding.
Why the need of an antivenom?
Reports say, during the 20th Century, Irulas made a living by trading snake skins. Out of reverence to their main deity, Kanni Amma, the goddess who is deeply associated with the Cobra, they wouldn’t eat the meat, but sell it to tanners who would process and export it abroad. However, in 1972, with the passing of the Wildlife Protection Act, the hunting of several animals, including snakes has been atrociously banned. Thus the Irulas got kicked out of their employment. If we go by statistics, about 30,000 to 40,000 people die globally of snake bite in a year, and of these, 25% or about 10,000 people die in India. Anti-venom serum, made by immunizing horses with gradually increasing doses of snake venom, is always in high demand because it is the most effective cure to treat potentially fatal snake bites. However, a large number of snakes are in fact required to produce a considerable quantity of anti-venom medicines.
The man who brought the skills in action
The renowned herpetologist and wildlife conservationist, Romulus Whitaker, has worked with the Irulas for nearly 50 years. Having known their skills and the practical problems they’ve faced, he decided to set up the Irula Snake-Catchers’ Cooperative, on the outskirts of Chennai in 1978, where their knowledge would serve the purpose of conservation of snakes as well as the production of snake venom. However, never an easy job, the snakes need to be handled carefully.
The daredevil act of venom extraction
The Irulas find snakes mainly by looking for tracks and other clues like feces, skins at rat holes, termite mounds and dense hedge-rows. Technically sound, they dig out the snakes with short crowbars, pin them down and bag them. In a good day’s hunt, they pick two-three healthy snakes. Once captured, the snakes have to be looked after carefully as they can only survive a few weeks in captivity. This is why they are kept for three weeks, and three to four venom extractions are done during this period. Later, they are released in the vicinity of the agricultural land of the Irulas. A survey, which is a brief pilot study in 1991, was carried out, where the snakes released, had been marked with fluorescent paint marks on their backs so that they could be monitored.
During the past 15 years of the project’s existence, the Irulas have learned to optimally undertake all the work—from a skilled and dangerous job of capturing the snakes and extracting their venom to operating the state-of-the-art lyophilizer (freeze drier) which processes it. The cooperative, now the largest producer of venom in India, is a milestone of traditional knowledge used in the sphere of medicine. Additionally, an entire indigenous community is making the odds look possible by bringing in snake venom.