Thursday, November 12, 2009

From darkness to light

The National Geographic magazine calls it "...probably the only successful example of the sustainable use of a wild species in India.". The Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society (ISCICS), which is thus described, has been around since 1978, but I first got to know about them in the early 1990s, when a friend working with an NGO contracted the ISCICS to catch rats that had become a menace in the Madras Central station.

The Irula tribe gets its name from the Tamizh word 'irul', meaning darkness. It is not important whether the word signified their complexion (they are supposedly descended from Negrito stock) or the timing of their chief occupation, for they would be active during nights, hunting rats and snakes. The latter catered to the demand of the global skin trade, ending up as shoes or bags with high fashion labels. The tribespeople were famed for their ability to track and catch any snake, especially the poisonous king cobras and the Russell's vipers, which were numerous in the regions around Madras. It is estimated that the entire population of the Irula tribe - about 250,000 people today - has always been concentrated around Chennai, and was entirely dependent on catching and skinning snakes to make a living.

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, while being a boon in general, struck a body blow to the Irulas' livelihood by making it illegal to hunt wild animals. And then in 1976, export of snake skins was banned under the Act. Many Irulas were forced to turn to other occupations, which they promptly made a hash of. Even after a couple of generations, the Irulas are uncomfortable in the mainstream, though a majority of them are now part of it. A small group, however, formed the ISCICS in 1978 under the guidance of Romulus Whitaker, the man behind the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. The ISCICS members (about 500 of them now) continue to catch snakes, especially poisonous ones. But there is a difference; they catch them live, tag them, house them for about a month, during which time they are milked for their venom once a week. At the end of the month, the snake is released in the wild and they are not brought in again for at least 3 months.

The members of the ISCICS have been scrupulously following the processes for capturing, milking and releasing the snakes. They also have some space within the Crocodile Bank for demonstrating the venom milking and to speak about the snake species around Chennai. With all these efforts, they earn enough to live with the modern-day norms without sacrificing their ancestral skills - now, how's that for sustainability!

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