6. Snake survival

Posted: 23 March 2001

The Irulas from Tamil Nadu, in southern India are legendary for their skills as snake catchers. And before the snakeskin trade was banned in 1972, these tribal people killed millions of snakes in the Chinglepet District to supply the trade.

The ban threatened to deprive the Irulas of their main source of income, and if it was to be effective some alternative was needed. In the late 1970s, a sustainable use scheme was introduced under which snakes are captured, their venom extracted, and then returned to the wild.Snake© Daniel Heuclin/Still PicturesIt has proved a great success. It is estimated that 99 per cent of the snakes survive, and in 1996 sales of venom to laboratories making anti-virus serum earned the Irulas of Chinglepet US$15,000.

With 100 members, the local co-operative has become the largest snake venom production unit in India, and the only one where the snakes are not killed. The Irulas use their skills to catch Asian cobra (Naja naja), Indian krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Russell's viper (Vipera russelii), and Sawclawed viper (Echis carinata), Following capture, snakes are weighed, measured, sexed and marked to prevent premature recapture. Each snake is kept for three weeks, and then returned to the wild.

The Irulas now catch only a few thousand snakes from the same area as before. Snake catchers are paid for each snake and receive a share in the sale of the venom. Co-operative members are also eligible for educational and housing benefits as well as housing loans. Not only do they catch fewer snakes, they earn more from extracting venom than from selling snakeskins.

Rolf Hogan

Rolf Hogan works with the Protected Areas Programme at the World Conservation (IUCN) headquarters in Gland, Switzerland.