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by Ellen H. Showell and Fred M. B. Amram

Women Invent in America

Why? How? When? And all that good stuff…



Snake-Catching with the Irulas
by Karan Shah

Editor’s Note: This month, Fantastic Journeys takes us to Chennai, India, where a 12-year-old reader reports on his two-day adventure with the Irulas, a tribe of snake catchers in southern India. Karan Shah, who studies at the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai, India, traveled by plane, car, and for many hours on foot to reach the Irula village. He says his keen interest in observing snakes in the wild spurred his adventure (which his mom helped to arrange), but he admits he "would certainly not go near or try to hold a venomous snake." Nevertheless, Karan has quite a story to tell.

Though it was only 8 a.m., the Sun was already fierce when we reached the Irula Cooperative on the dusty highway to Mahabalipuram. Two Irulas, Kali and Ratinam, were ready with their crowbar and a curved machete to take us into the countryside, to look for snakes. We quickly left behind a quaint Irula village with its thatched huts, sun-baked mud courtyards, and tiny school with many pupils. The countryside was picturesque – sandy soil, tall palm trees, clumps of bushes, and an occasional watermelon field. Kali and Ratinam were constantly on the lookout for disturbed sand, tracks, and molted snakeskin. From the smallest slither mark of a snake, the Irulas can tell its species and the direction in which it has gone.

The Irulas are a tribe that lives in South India. They are in tune with nature and have been snake catchers for generations. They used to catch snakes for the snakeskin industry before that was banned. With the help of naturalist Romulus Whitaker (an American who has made India his home), they formed a cooperative. Now they catch snakes to extract their venom to make antivenin, an antitoxin active against the venom of a snake. A snake is kept for one month, during which three venom extractions are made. Then it is released back into the wild, unharmed. Venom is one of the most expensive natural resources in the world (depending on the type), and in some cases it is more expensive than gold! So the Irulas have found a new way to earn their livelihood, using the same snake-catching techniques their ancestors did.

As we trekked through the countryside, every now and then Kali would clear the undergrowth with his machete and dig in a burrow. He would fearlessly put his hand inside the burrow to determine its twists and turns. Sometimes the burrow would be too deep or be curved in a manner difficult to follow, and Kali would abandon the effort. Once he jumped back, startled, as a few disturbed field mice bounded out of a hole. Kali and Ratinam followed in hot pursuit, but the mice were too quick and escaped. After many digging attempts, the Irulas caught a baby rat snake. The ivory-bellied greenish-yellow snake was about 5 centimeters in diameter and about 90 centimeters long.

We trekked on, continuing our search for snakes, until we reached a lotus pond fringed by shrubbery. Ratinam poked and prodded the shrubbery. Just as we were about to give up, a mammoth rat snake slithered out and escaped up the opposite bank. Kali ran across the shallow water, but the snake disappeared into what seemed like thin air! We spent quite some time looking for it, and were often startled by fleeing field mice and quail, but we never found it. During our search, we found many fragments of molted snakeskin, including that of a cobra. Suddenly, Ratinam spotted an almost 2-meter-long adult rat snake. Ratinam and Kali captured the ivory-bellied blackish snake with their bare hands! We could feel the rippling muscles of the powerful snake when we held it. We bagged the snake in a thin cotton bag.

Communication with Kali and Ratinam was difficult, as we did not share a common language. But later it was explained to me that the Irulas capture rat snakes for two reasons. The first is to sell them to farmers. Rat snakes are nonvenomous and, as their name suggests, very fond of eating rats! Since rats are a great menace to farmers, rat snakes are valued. The second reason is that rat snakes are used as food for the king cobras the Irulas have in captivity for venom extraction. The only kind of food acceptable to the king cobra is live snakes!

We walked on, with our eyes peeled for evidence of more snakes. Ratinam was prodding the shrubbery with his crowbar, when a young goatherd, who was passing by, spotted a snake. "Pambu!" she screamed, as she leapt back and clutched her small baby tightly. "Pambu! Pambu! Pambu!" yelled an old goatherd to each of his goats in turn as he tried to herd them away as quickly as possible. The Irulas were highly amused by all this commotion. They knew it was not a pambu (the Tamil word for cobra), but only a harmless rat snake! Ratinam pulled out the snake by its tail. This did not please the snake – it almost bit me when I tried to hold it! Kali and Ratinam found that very funny, and amidst much laughter, the snake was bagged. We called it a day.

On our trek back to the Irula Cooperative, we saw common and pied kingfishers diving in and out of a pond, frogs in shallow waters that croaked and hopped away as we approached, schools of tiny fish in sandy rivulets barely a few inches deep, and large, reddish land crabs unhurriedly ambling along. What a fantastic day it had been!

I wish to thank, very much, Mrs. Shyla Boga, Mrs. Revati Mukherjee, and Mr. S. Dravida Mani for their help in organizing this trip. Thanks also to Kali, Ratinam, and the others, for their warmth, hospitality, and time. Many thanks also to my parents!

(word help) Tamil – A language spoken in southern India and parts of Sri Lanka

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Last modified: February 27, 2003