Armed with a crowbar, a sabre and a cotton bag, the group sets out at 5.30 a.m. from Vadanemmeli on East Coast Road. Taking the first bus to Mambakkam village on the Kelambakkam – Vandalur Road, the five-member team goes to a paddy field in the nearby Kolathur village.
This is the daily routine of Irula tribals involved in snake catching, who are employed by the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Co-operative Society functioning from the Crocodile Bank on ECR.
G. Vadivel, who entered the profession when he was barely seven years old, says they catch only four species of poisonous snakes - cobra, krait, saw-scaled viper and Russel’s viper - found on paddy fields in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts.
He says they track the movement of snakes in rat holes going by on body prints on sand. Once they suspect the presence of snake, they poke the hole with a stick. Any movement indicates the presence of snake inside. Clearing a termite hill and catching a snake are very difficult tasks as they have to work through several layers.
K. Ramesh, a third generation snake catcher, said the Irulas always move in groups of four or five to ensure that there are people around in the event of a snake bite. They consume a herb before setting out to catch snakes, details of which they are reluctant to part with.
Another snake catcher, C. Sankar, says from dawn till 11.30 a.m. they are on the fields. “We catch only poisonous snakes and when we come across non-poisonous ones we do not even touch them as they are farmer’s best friends. They help to keep the rodent population under control.” When he was bitten by a poisonous snake recently, the Society bore the entire medical expenses.
S. Dravida Mani, secretary of the Society, says it was started in 1982 mainly to help the tribal community earn a permanent income. It has 344 members with an annual turnover of Rs.1.5 crore. The members are allowed to catch 8,500 snakes a year. While the members get Rs. 2,000 for every cobra caught, they are paid Rs. 700 for krait, Rs. 2,000 for Russel’s viper and Rs. 250 for saw-scaled viper. Apart from this the members are paid bonus and incentive.
The Society is involved in extracting venom, which is in great demand for making anti-venom serum. A gram of cobra venom costs Rs. 25,000, that of krait Rs. 40,000, Russel’s viper Rs. 30,000 and saw-scaled viper Rs.45,000.
According to snake catchers, most of the youth in their tribe join them after dropping out of school.