Indigenous Snake-venom Tappers Lose Livelihoods in India

a man holds a snake
The New Indian Express
,
Chennai, India

Indigenous Snake-venom Tappers Lose Livelihoods in India

The Irula Snake Catchers' Industrial Co-operative Society Limited, a 44-year-old institution and India's largest producer of snake venom, is fighting for its survival. With falling profits and the Tamil Nadu government's 'unreasonable' delay in granting permission to catch snakes and sell venom, many licensed members have become daily laborers and ragpickers. 

common krait
Caption: The common krait is one of four venomous snake species that the Irula people catch / Credit: Manoj Karingamadathil via Wikimedia Commons.

Pharmaceutical companies use snake venom to produce antivenin to treat people who have been bitten by venomous snakes. Demand is high as, according to the World Health Organisation, such snakes bite around five million people every year.

But, at the time of writing, there are only 20 days left for in the fiscal year, and the government has not yet issued an order allowing the society’s 350 active members to catch snakes and extract venom.

empty snake pots
Empty snake-pots piled at the Irula society since its operations were crippled due to delay in permission to catch snakes and tap venom / Credit: SV Krishna Chaitanya.
signboard
There were no snakes available to tap the venom, a sorrowful sight at the Irula Society / Credit: SV Krishna Chaitanya.

The society's members are all from the socially-deprived Irula tribe, acclaimed as some of the world’s last tribal ‘forest scientists’. They use traditional knowledge and skills to catch snakes, extract venom, and release the snakes back into the wild without harming them. But for the past several months they have been left jobless.

Third generation Irula snake catcher C Karthik, from Mambakkam village near Vandalur, said that for the last six months there was no income.

Price paid to snake catcher

Spectacled cobra

Rs 2300

Common krait

Rs 850

Russell’s viper

Rs 2300

Saw-scaled viper

Rs 300

"Me and my wife both are licensed snake catchers and, on average, we used to earn Rs 3,000 [US$ 40] per month each,” he said. “It's a sacred work for us, but I no longer want my children to take this profession. My daughter and son are in 9th and 8th standard. For them, I am working as a daily wager. There are many elderly licensed members, who can't do hard labor, sitting at home helplessly."  

The snake venom extracted by the Irula society is restricted mainly to four species of snakes—spectacled cobra, common krait, Russell's viper and saw-scaled viper— that the society’s members collect from Chennai, Kancheepuram and Thiruvallur districts.

Official records, accessed by The New Indian Express (TNIE), state that the last snake returned to the wild after venom extraction was a common krait, on 5 January 5 2022. The stocks of the other three snake species were exhausted by 15 December 15 2021. 

TNIE visited the society's snake farm, located inside Madras Crocodile Bank Trust 60 km south of Chennai, early in March 2022, and was greeted with 'empty' earthen snake pots and a signboard indicating ‘nil’ stocks of all four species.

Grim-looking Irulas said the facility is temporarily closed for tourists and the daily venom extraction show for the public is suspended due to the non-availability of snakes.    

man extracting venom from snake
Members of Irula Industrial Cooperative Society extracting venom from the snakes, the primary ingredient for manufacturing anti-snake venom serum that saves thousands of lives annually across India / Credit: Debadatta Mallick.

A review of the Irula society’s balance sheet by TNIE reveals the last four years have been a struggle. In 2016-17, members caught 8300 snakes, extracted 1,770 grams of venom, and sold 1470 grams of it to earn Rs 39 million in revenue, of which Rs 18.5 million was net profit.

But in 2018-19 the net profit dropped to just Rs 2.6 million.

In 2019-2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the society recorded a loss of Rs 11.4 million. And so far in this fiscal year, which ends this month, the society has made a profit of just Rs 0.28 million. That is a 98.5% decline since 2016-2017.   

Venom extracted (g)

Venom sold (g)

Net profit (millions of rupees)

2016-17

1769

1469

18.5

2017-18

1317

1392

12.4

2018-19

1557

338

2.6

2019-20

354

228

-11.4

2020-21

212

908

6.7

2021-22

183

112

0.28

What triggered the crisis?

In November 1994, after taking into account ecology, species conservation and the livelihoods of the Irulas, the Madras High Court allowed the community to capture and extract venom from a total of 13,000 snakes annually. This total comprised 3,000 spectacled cobras, 1,500 common kraits, 1,500 Russell's vipers and 7,000 saw-scaled vipers. 

Every August, the society applies to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to obtain licenses to capture snakes. The Forest Department provides a limited number of licenses and places restrictions on the number of snakes that can be caught each year. This number depends on factors including population studies conducted in the region and changes noticed in the snake populations. 

Official records seen by TNIE show that, over the past decade, the most snake captures the Forest Department permitted in one year was 8,300. The number was significantly smaller in the past three years.

In 2020-21, the forest department gave permission to capture just 5,000 snakes (500 cobra, 1,000 krait, 500 Russell's viper and 3,000 saw-scaled viper). But the government order was issued only on 29 March 2021, just three days before the end of the financial year.

As a result, the Irulas — who had been operating with temporary licences until that point — were able to capture only 2,930 snakes that year. This year too, the government order has yet to be passed, and the Society is staring at a massive loss. 

Snakes allotted

Snakes caught

Date of Government Order

2018-2019

8300

8300

13 December

2019-2020

4800

4800

20 December

2020-2021

5000

2930

29 March

2021-2022

None yet*

2203

Not yet*

*as of March 2022.

"The forest department had given temporary licenses months back to capture the snakes without waiting for the government order,” says Chief Wildlife Warden Shekar Kumar Niraj. “To date, 2,203 snakes were captured for venom extraction. The government order for capturing remaining snakes will be issued in the next few days.”    

But according to a Society official, who spoke to TNIE on the condition of anonymity, even if permission is given today, it is impossible to capture 3,000 snakes in the 20 days remaining in the financial year.

"From April to August, we won't be able to catch snakes since it's the breeding season,” they said. “From next fiscal year, the government should issue the order in August and increase the allotment." 


SV Krishna Chaitanya produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published by The New Indian Express on 11 March 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.

Banner image: The Indigenous Irula people sustainably harvest venom from snakes / Credit: Debadatta Mallick. 

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