Slithery encounters

Wielding flashlights, we walk into open fields that are still swathed in hushed early morning darkness. Two young men, Raja and Sekar of the Irula community lead us, carrying canvas bags, a crowbar and a scythe.

After an hour of walking, we begin to get restive as we find nothing. The day is beginning to break. And the Irulas have left us behind. Just as our zeal starts to ebb, there’s a meek call from a distance. Viola, they have caught a snake!

I’ve heard legends about the Irulas and their ability to track and handle snakes for years. This walk, organised by Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, is an opportunity to see them in their element. Earlier this year, their international foray into the Florida swamps, when two Irulas Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal caught an impressive number of pythons, had drawn a lot of media attention.

Fast and furious

Today’s first catch is an Indian Rat snake, which is about five feet long and beautifully streamlined. We get a short lesson on its characteristics as it is being held by its tail. The Rat snake is pale brown, can grow up to nine feet long and preys on rodents. Known as ‘Sara pambu’ it is non-venomous. On release, the snake vanishes into the bush in a flash.

With nervous excitement, we walk through bushes and thorny plants. Again, we hear the familiar voice of Raja from afar. The two men show us a ‘Spectacled Cobra’. The Cobra is among the big-four of South Asian venomous snakes. With deadly venom as artillery, this snake is no pushover and has a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. With its hood spread in a threatening posture, the snake surveys the scene like a filmy action-hero surrounded by gangsters. All the while, he keeps a watch on the handler squatting by. A short lapse of concentration could make the difference between life and death for the Irula men. Now, Raja gently eases his hold on its tail, but the snake holds its ground and doesn’t make a dash to get away as we expect. ‘If I get up, he will run away’ he says. Finally, the Cobra slips back into its fortress, a nearby bush.

Gulp thrills

We continue our expedition. Thanks to overnight rains, there is a pleasant breeze. By the time we catch up with our guides, they are furiously digging into a burrow, sliding their bare hands in and out periodically to feel for snakes. They are finally rewarded by a Sand Boa. Given its delicate proportions, it is hard to believe this snake can gulp down birds like the Nightjar. The snake is easily identifiable by its small head, thick body, pointed tail and lethargic movement. After a long look at it, Raja gently places it back into its rat-hole home. “When I was younger, I used to walk with family elders into the fields to watch them catch rats and snakes. Now, the skills I acquired from them help us catch snakes for venom extraction, which is a crucial antidote for snake bites,” he says as we walk further.

The morning concludes with one more find: a long and slender Bronze-back Tree snake. This has a bronze stripe running from head to tail. These snakes are found in the open and live in trees. They are fast-moving and navigate branches with an elegant ease. Aside from the Cobra, all the snakes we sight are non-venomous, yet they are often mistaken to be dangerous and are killed. An educational outing like this helps dispel the myth about these exceptional creatures. It also helps visitors understand their role in the overall scheme of things: Snakes keep a check on the exploding rodent population and thus help farmers.

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