It was Harry Miller, the Welsh journalist living in Madras, who introduced the snake-hunting Irula tribals to Rom. The latter was so impressed with their abilities that he moved from Bombay to Madras so he could work with them selling venomous snakes to the Haffkine Institute in Bombay.
Soon Rom figured that merely catching and sending snakes didn’t bring much income. He had wholly supported the shutting down of the unsustainable snake skin industry which now left many Irula with no livelihood. Something needed to be done quick and he was certain that selling snakes was not the way.
Rom conferred with his Irula buddies, “Sure Man” Natesan, “Eli Karadi” Rajamani, “Nak Bulti” Vellai, and Raman, and suggested that since he knew how the venom milking business worked, having been trained by none other than the famous Bill Haast, they could set it up themselves. While the others thought it was a good idea, Sure Man joked that in this son-besotted country, a snake temple with real live snakes would make more money than venom.
The Chief Conservator of Forests of Tamil Nadu felt the venom business was a good job opportunity for former poachers and suggested setting up a cooperative than a private company as the chances of getting the necessary permits from the government would be smoother. In 1978, a cooperative to be owned and operated by the Irula was formed with Rom as the Technical Advisor.
Rom then went to meet the state honchos at the Secretariat armed with a proposal for the Irula to catch a thousand snakes a year, keep them for four weeks for milking after which they would be released. Four years of protracted negotiation later, the Government of Tamil Nadu issued the order allowing the cooperative to capture, milk and release snakes but with twenty-five accompanying strictures.
The next big challenge was housing the numerous snakes. The Haffkine Institute used cumbersome, metal boxes with mesh roofs and the Miami Serpentarium used special plastic and fiberglass cases. Neither seemed practical for Madras conditions nor did the cooperative have much money to invest. Rom had seen the snake charmers of Bengal and Maharashtra hold their snakes in earthen pots and that became the ideal “low cost housing”.
In the 1970s, most of the Irula were immobile; if they had to get anywhere they walked. No bicycles or public transport for them. You couldn’t blame them, they were paranoid about being identified and getting kicked off buses for carrying snakes. They are a dark people with curly hair, and when armed with a crowbar, their tool of the trade, the Irula stick out from the rest of the population. As with many tribal peoples, the focus of the Irula’s interaction with the world is to blend in as much as possible.
At the end of a long day of snake hunting, we’ve had to wait until they washed up at a farmer’s well, changed into polyester pants and shirt and emerged spiffy clean while we looked bedraggled and smelt rank.
How were these shy people going to bring their snakes to the Snake Park? Of course, a few had already taken the plunge into mainstream India but the majority remained reluctant. Since this was the only way they could earn money, it finally pushed some more of them to take the adventurous step. They would bring snakes caught by four or five others by bus, but some still walked all the way from Tambaram to Guindy.
Once the Irula Snake-catchers Co-op started operating, the Irula came up with several rules such as no young snakes, no gravid females, no injured, sick or weak ones were to be brought. They had a good feeling for what snakes needed and applied those principles in maintaining and transporting snakes. And that was how one of the most successful tribal cooperatives in the country came into existence. But Sure Man remained convinced till the end of his life that a snake temple would have been more profitable.