Snake­catch­ers risk death to save lives

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Chen­gal­pattu, In­dia

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.

ARUN SANKAR / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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.

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