The Best Snake Hunters In The World by Romulus Whitaker & Janaki Lenin

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A Brief History:

Sometime in the early 1900’s a German fancy leather trader came to India to look for a source of snakeskins, millions of snakeskins. We may never know how he found out about the hunting prowess of the Irulas of Chengalpattu District but he very quickly organized what was to become one of the largest snake slaughters the world has ever known. Using middlemen, often Muslim livestock hide dealers, our German friend started a trade that eventually snowballed into the killing of over 10 million cobras, rat snakes, pythons and Russell’s vipers per year. It wasn’t just Irulas, soon tribal hunters all over the country got into the act but none had the finesse and expertise of the Irulas.

The trade was out of control and probably not sustainable for long. Luckily the combination of local and international outcry killed the bulk of the snake skin industry with the ban on exports in 1976, but that put about 5000 Irulas out of a job and hard times began for them. In 1978 the author, colleagues and 12 Irula friends registered a Cooperative Society for Snake Catchers. This was to let the Irulas continue to catch snakes, but only for the venom, and the snakes then released.

How they do it

I first met the Irulas in 1969 when I was on a snake collection trip to Madras for Haffkine Institute, then the biggest producer of antivenom serum. The late photojournalist, Harry Miller had written about the snake hunting art of the Irulas in the Indian Express and he introduced me to Arjun, who blew my mind with his casual skill. From that moment on I had found my peer group – I instantly liked their reserved, calm attitude and deeply admired their vast store of wild knowledge. Over the next 40 years I went on innumerable snake hunts and learned much.

One of the first bits of Irula “magic” they taught me was how to recognize the alarm cry of the babblers, mynahs and palm squirrels when they spot a snake. Very useful, especially after the rains make the bushes dense and snakes are hard to see. I learned how to collect “stick honey” from the small bees that harvest flower nectar every April and how to eat live termites without getting lips and tongue bitten. Next they tried to teach me how to find snakes by their tracks but decades later, I’m still a rank novice. In a harsh, hot land like India many snakes spend a good part of their lives underground – either hunting, eating and digesting rats or just tiding over the burning daylight hours. The Irulas specialize in finding the rat holes, termite mounds and other places snake stay in and that is like real magic.

The famous Chokalingam from the Irula Tride

An average snake hunt

Last July my partner Janaki and I went snake hunting with Kali, son of the famous Chokalingam and a longtime Irula friend. He was catching the “Big Four” venomous snakes: cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper for venom extraction. We started with the cobra and headed straight to the boundary of a rice field where mole rat (Bandicoota bengalensis) burrows abounded. Scarcely noticing crab holes and rat holes with rat tracks or fresh diggings, Kali homed in on one with a slight smoothness, a shiny bit of compressed dry earth on the bottom edge.  He peered in, dug a few licks with his short crowbar and showed us a very obvious snake track impressed on the softer earth deeper down. No root system to hamper work, Kali dug a wide access into the hole swiftly and carefully. Careful so not to cut the snake. After digging awhile, occasionally peering in, Kali takes a thin, springy, green stick and gently pushes it into the hole about a foot. The stick mysteriously pushes back out an inch. Kali smiles and pushes his elbow to mimic the snake’s coil as it pushes against the stick. Now he knows he can safely dig a foot more without harming the snake. In a few short moments the cobra is visible; it’s obviously a female because she’s with her 20 or so eggs! She is carefully removed and bagged; the eggs are collected for incubation back at the Irula venom center.

Over the next few days our Irula pals took us first to Russell’s viper territory, dense hedgerows of spiny Agave plants and we pulled out two adult and six baby Russell’s (the babies for release in a safe place). Then we went after kraits, the clues this time being a shed skin and a fresh scat. Digging out this elusive snake of the night was more difficult – the large male had found a hole in the root system of a neem tree. But again, no problem for the Irulas. Finding the last of the Big Four venomous snakes of India was a snap. We spent the morning peering down into the rough bark of palmyra trees and found several of the tiny but dangerous vipers tightly coiled and well hidden. Again, the Irulas knew where to look: according to the species and the season.

When my son, Nikhil and I wrote up the rough data of the 5 day hunt for a scientific note we found that we had slowly and carefully hunted about 3 km per day and caught a total of 55 snakes, including a bunch of non-venomous rat snakes, water snakes, striped keel backs and sand boas just to measure and release. We also recorded 158 shed skins of 11 species of snakes and started formulating ideas of how to use shedded skins to study status and distribution. After all, it’s quite easy to ID a snake from the shed skin.

Nagraj from the Irula Tribe releasing a Spectacled Cobra in 2012

But Irula knowledge goes far beyond the world of serpents. Being big consumers of the tasty field rats that abound in our rice fields, the Irulas have worked out rat finding and capture techniques that put pussycats to shame. A hunter-gatherer can’t waste precious time and energy digging up a vacant burrow so they confirm occupancy by small signs like tracks, dung, fresh digging and even the presence of rat lice. They are so good at rat catching that the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology gave the Irula Cooperative a grant of Rs. 10 lakhs to do a pilot project of rodent control by direct capture. During the 20-month period Irulas captured over 400,000 rats, probably saving at least 12 tonnes of grain and other crops, without using a drop of deadly pesticide. Unfortunately the project was never taken to its logical conclusion: make biological rodent control in India a labour intensive operation that would employ lakhs of tribal people. Again, as usual, big industry (the pesticide producers) run the show, as the Government generally bows to big bucks, never mind how dangerous and ineffectual rodenticides are.

An Irula milking a Russells Viper at Madras Snake Park (Croc Bank) in 2012.

The Irula Cooperative is one of the most financially successful cooperatives in India but it would be wonderful to see the Irulas’ other talents being fully utilized for the good of the country and make a living for them too. Rodent control, crocodile farming, technical assistance to field biologists are just some of the many things the Irulas are experts at. The Co-op’s sister organization, the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society, has helped to empower Irula women and receive recognition as herbal and the tree planting experts. They have planted lakhs of trees since they started in 1986 and the future looks a lot brighter for these great people described in recent Government texts as “most primitive” and as having the lowest per capita income in the country.

Seed Bank at the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society

True, the Irula literacy rate is dismally low and few of their kids finish more than a couple of years of school. On the other hand, their knowledge of nature far surpasses most college graduates or even professors – that’s food for thought!

Romulus Whitaker

Janaki Lenin


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Romulus Whitaker

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