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Virus versus Venom: Snake catchers in Tamil Nadu face lockdown woes

With snakes slithering out and snake catchers locked in, the business of venom extraction was brought to a complete halt,denying the basic needs of livelihood to the Irula community.Naaz Ghani reports

Published: 29th September 2020 03:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th September 2020 10:48 AM   |  A+A-

Extractions are often done in intervals to allow snakes to regenerate the venom | GNANESWAR Ch, ARUL V, ELLIOT

Express News Service

CHENNAI: A rescue bag in hand, C Thangaraj picks up his carved wooden stick and other equipment. He had just received a call from his senior about a snake that had entered a house in Chengalpet. It was his turn to attend to it.

Once there, he parts through the crowd that has gathered to confront the snake of the day — a common krait. Half an hour later, he walks out with the snake safely in the bag.

He’d taken the time to comfort the terrified family members, leaving them with a few tips to handle such an event. All this drama had caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood.

For Thangaraj, though, it was just another day of work; albeit one after a long hiatus.

Thanks to the pandemic. Thangaraj is among the 350 members of the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society (ISCICS). The call that he had been asked to attend was what the Forest Department couldn’t handle with its staff.

The Society gets five or six such calls a day. But, its primary occupation is snakecatching and venom extraction. Like almost every other sector, this too took a hit with the virus-induced lockdown, and things have barely gotten better over the months. 

Clash of two crises 

All the members of the Society hold licences to catch snakes to extract venom. Staying true to a system the tribe has followed for centuries, Thangaraj and others capture snakes and send them to the extraction centre at the Madras Crocodile Bank, also run by ISCICS. Extractions are done in intervals to allow snakes enough time to naturally regenerate the venom.

“We stick to extracting venom three or four times from each snake and then release them back into the environment they were taken from,” he explains.

This venom is then freeze-dried to a powdered form, and sold to manufacturers who produce anti-venom. With the lockdown in place, however, none of them could venture out to capture snakes and keep up their work routine.

Though the lockdown regulations were relaxed in June, it barely did these men any good.

For between July and October, they hang up their tools to not disturb snakes during the breeding season. They only handle rescue calls during this period. Given that calls come to them only when the Forest Department’s staff is all engaged, even that has not given them much work , reports Thangaraj.

Every year, most of the men take up odd jobs in the construction sector or with the Corporation.

With many of these sectors still reeling from the effects of the lockdown, or refraining from starting too many new projects, this kind of work hasn’t been easy to find either.

“We used to earn around Rs 17,000 per month. The money we earned by rescuing snakes during the non-breeding period fetched us a round Rs 8,000, and the stocked venom we sell through the Society earned us a good Rs 9,000,” says Thangaraj, who has been out of work since the breeding season started in July. 

Tiding through 

Unlike previous years, the tribesmen were not able to prepare for the jobstarved breeding season by saving more and storing supplies. Without the regular job in the first few months of the lockdown, these provisions were used up long before they were supposed to be.

“The amount we got from the Forest Department also reduced drastically to Rs 4,000 since April,” notes Thangaraj.

Like many other Irula households, his family too has been dependent on the free rations distributed by the government and a few NGOs.

In some areas like Perungalathur, a few of the women have managed to find jobs in the homes close to where they live, as house-help. Earlier the amount they earned from ISCICS was enough to run their households.

“We are able to pay our rent because the women are earning during this time. None of the men in our community are getting jobs at the moment,” says Boopathi S, a member of the cooperative residing there. While the Madras Crocodile Bank had offered some help — in terms of funds and a few jobs at the facility — in the previous years, it has been able to do little this time around.

“They generally hire many of us during the snake breeding season to work at the property (caring for the snakes, feeding them, cleaning their enclosures, etc.). This year they haven’t had as much footfall, which has impacted their income as well,” says Mumusamy, another member of the Society, who stays in the Irula settlement in Chengalpet.

In Nagathamman we trust 

Although the situation and outlook are grim, they find support from each other in the Irula community and try their best to stay positive. Every Friday, they meet to offer prayers to Nagathamman, the snake goddess.

Usually, the celebration involves many people singing praise to the Goddess. Now, with social distancing in mind, they gather in groups of five to eight in each house and pray together.

“We ask for Nagathamman to offer her protection during these times. We also ask her to bless nature and replenish the flora and fauna of our ecosystems because we are solely dependent on them for our continued survival,” says K Thulukkanam, a Society member living near Siruseri. Here’s hoping their prayers work.



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