It's an early start for the Irula tribesmen. If they do not begin work at the crack of dawn, they would not be able to catch any snakes.

The dark sky slowly streaked with light white patches of grey clouds spread. It promised to be a sultry Sunday.

Three figures sat crouched under a tree, waiting patiently for our arrival at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust situated on the East Coast Road in Chennai — Kumar, Kali and Surya from the Irula tribal community. Their traditional livelihood was to catch snakes. They carried a plastic mesh basket, an iron rod for digging and thick cloth bags in case they had to bring a snake or two to the centre. Twelve-year-old Surya, who is studying in Std. VI in the Corporation School in Perungulathur, is learning the job.

Kumar says he began at the age of 10, when he accompanied his parents and watched them at work. He caught his first snake, a cobra, when he was 17-years old and he released it into the wild.

“The best time to catch snakes is just after dawn,” says Kali “they would have finished foraging and be returning to their holes. It is easier to get at them then.”

In single file we walked quietly. The land is parched and dry but small water bodies shelter frogs and few lilies bloomed. Suddenly, Kali launched himself into the pool and with quicksilver movement into the dense mass of tangled creepers. He came up holding a rat snake, a good four feet in length.

“It was waiting to catch its breakfast, frogs,” smiled Surya, who encouraged us to feel the cold-blooded reptile. A beauty indeed. The rat snake was then gently released into the foliage to get back to breakfast that was so rudely interrupted.

“We have to look for rat holes,” said Kumar. “There are telltale signs around these holes that give away the snakes. For instance, you might find moulted skin, snakes shed their old skin when they grow new ones. And the top of the holes are made kind of smooth and shiny because they have slid into the hole.”

Signalling to us that to move back Kumar digs deeper while Kali pulls out a Russell's Viper. One of the Big Four, this is a venomous snake in the sub continent “It's a female. Look at its tail…it is narrower,” he said. Angered by the disturbance and being handled, the viper made deep hissing noises. More walking, more sips of water and more gentle tapping, till on a higher bank that had cacti, Kali and Kumar worked while we watched. A quick movement and Kali pulled out a cobra and Kumar followed with another. It was a male and a female cobra. The female was rather white, as it was about to moult while the male was golden or rather had shades of gold as it hissed softly and coiled and spread its hood. Walking on, a hurried movement caught the eye of Kumar, who soon pulled out a bronzeback from a sandy burrow. Being a non venomous tree snake, this slim dark eyed beauty had been so startled by our appearance that it had chosen a burrow to dive in and hide.

As the sun rose higher and the day grew hotter, it was time to return. Kumar and Kali spoke of times they had been bitten by the snakes, and how traditional medicines had helped. But once a krait bite had been almost fatal for Kumar and he had to be hospitalised.

Their day's work ended at the centre, where they cleaned out the earthen pots which were temporary homes for the snakes after their venom has been extracted. It is in these pots that they are taken to the forests to be released.

Leaving “snake land”, we tramped back, awed by the day's unique experience – of sharing a day's work with the Irulas, humbled by their gentleness in handling wildlife and inspired by their respect for Nature.

When the Indian Parliament adopted the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, the Irulas found that their sole livelihood was suddenly made illegal and was now punishable with a jail sentence. Romulus Whitaker, the “snake man” helped the Irulas form the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society. This group now catch poisonous snakes for venom, which is then sold to laboratories for the production of antivenin that helps people who are bitten by snakes.

The big four: Indian cobra (Naja naja), Common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Russell's viper (Daboia russelii), Saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus)