Snakecatchers risk death to save lives
A small scythe, a crowbar and a bundle of canvas bags are all that Kali and Vedan carry when they venture into the fields of southern India to catch some of the world’s deadliest snakes.
Their skills, passed from generation to generation of the Irula tribe they belong to, are crucial for the production of antivenom in a country with the world’s highest number of deaths from snake bites.
Since it began in the 1970s, the Irula snakecatchers’ cooperative on the outskirts of the southern city of Chennai has revolutionized the treatment of snakebites in India, enabling it to produce enough anti-venom to supply hospitals across the country.
It also provides much-needed income for the Irula, one of the region’s most deprived groups, who used to hunt snakes and sell the skins but lost their livelihood overnight when India banned the practice in 1972. species
Kali learned the intricate skill of tracking and then catching snakes from his father, whose abilities were renowned in the small community.
Now the 36-year-old uses those same skills to catch snakes for the cooperative, which keeps them for a month under license from the government and harvests their venom before returning them to nature.
This month he is tasked with catching the saw-scaled and Russell’s vipers — two of India’s four deadliest snake varieties — under the quota system the cooperative uses to ensure it harvests the right quantity of venom.
Within 20 minutes of starting the search in rice fields less than a kilometer from a busy highway, he has spotted a tiny snake concealed under the bark of a fence post, its brown markings barely visible against the wood.
Minutes later his partner Vedan has expertly maneuvered the creature with his bare hands into a canvas bag, which he secures with a tight knot and slings into a plastic shopping basket.
“It’s an adult female sawscaled viper, one of the most venomous snakes,” says Kali, who like many Indians goes by only one name.
“In winter they like to hide in tree bark, that’s how we found it.”
Kali will be paid 300 rupees ($4.50) for the viper under a tariff system that rises to 2,500 rupees for a cobra.
India has 244 snake species and the four most venomous — the cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper — are found throughout the country.
Government figures show just a few recorded cases every year, but most go unreported because victims never reach hospital and a 2011 study put the number of annual deaths at around 46,000.
Back at the cooperative, Kali and Vedan have placed their catch in a clay pot in preparation for the extraction process.
The extractor takes out the snake, gripping it below the head, which he places in front of a thin piece of leather that has been stretched over the top of a small glass jar to imitate skin.
As the snake sinks its fangs into the leather covering, the deadly liquid drips into the jar.
“The snake has to bite, only then will it inject the venom,” explains R. Kumar after snipping a few scales from the snake’s skin to indicate that extraction has taken place.
“We don’t have much education. We’re not interested in any other work. But this work is important, it is sacred to us.”
of snake can be found in India, including four of the most venomous.
Snakecatcher Kali prepares a cobra for the extraction of its venom on the outskirts of Chennai. The work of Kali and other members of the Irula tribe is crucial for the production of anti-venom in the country with the world’s highest number of deaths from snake bites.