While on a train journey to down south I happen to chance upon this article which came as a feed from The Washington Post. It was about the infestation of Burmese Pythons in the state of Florida in the US. Apparently with no other option in the site the state had hired two Irula tribe men from India and their translator flew them all the way to Florida to catch these Burmese Python and to kill them. They had previously tried various methods to catch these but failed and these Irula men managed to catch 13 pythons in two weeks. They plan to stay there until end of February for this project.
Irula tribe is famous for their snake and rat catching ability and was used extensively by the farming community to get rid of these from their farming lands. But with the concern of nature conservation snake hunting was banned in India thus depriving the basic livelihood of these people. Poisonous snakes cause a huge number of human fatality in India and with very few supply of anti-snake venom, many saw the need of these Irula men as a key factor in closing this gap.
A cooperative was initiated for these Irula snake catchers to let them capture venomous snakes and extract venom and then release them back to nature. This way the ecological balance will be maintained as well as the necessary snake venom can be milked which in turn can be turned into anti-venom dosages.
It was by sheer coincidence that I managed to take a short visit to Mahabalipuram on my return journey as I had to take a flight from Chennai. Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is just around 60 Kilometres from Chennai and just an hour and a half car ride from Chennai. On our last day at Mahabalipuram, we decided to visit Madras Crocodile Bank and Centre for Herpetology. Apart from the huge collection of crocodiles, alligators, tortoises, turtles, chameleons, snakes this place also houses a snake bank managed by Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Co-Operative Society Ltd. As a special project to interact with visitors members from the Irula community on an hourly basis conducts snake venom extraction, this entertains the visitors also acts as a very good educational programme for the visitors.
As a family, we always like a long drive when travelling and somehow I managed to hire a scooty for a day with which we plan to travel around Mahabalipuram and visit various tourist sites along with the crocodile bank. My wife being a science teacher was very keen to see this reptile heaven and surprisingly my daughter was also very keen to check them out.
It took around thirty minutes on our bike to reach the crocodile park, this place has parking space thus if you are driving down you can park right next to the entrance gate. The entry tickets are quite economically priced, 40 Rs. for adult and 20 Rs. for a child (3-10 years), additional tickets need to be purchased for a still camera for Rs. 30 and Rs. 100 for a video camera. It is highly recommended that you come in the early morning hours as the reptiles are most active with the rising sun.
This is not a government owned reptile park but an NGO and a co-operative, this place also serves as a research centre for students who come here often to study the animal behaviour and also volunteer their time here. Thus all around you will see young students with ID cards taking care of various activities. Children will surely enjoy watching all the reptiles in the open environment as the entire park has been designed in such a way that the animals themselves feel comfortable and as a visitor, you would enjoy watching them with all the natural settings around them.
The highlight of our trip to crocodile bank was, however, the visit to the snake venom extraction section which is managed by Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Co-Operative Society Ltd. This place requires a separate ticket which is priced very nominal and every one hour the Irula’s perform the venom extraction activity for the visitors.
I fear reptiles a lot, even a house lizard can make me scream so the thought of having live snakes around me was really scary. Once you enter you need to stand to look at a pit where there are several earthen pots with snakes residing in them. This snake bank deals with four species of snakes namely Cobra, Krait, Russell’s Viper and Sawscalled Viper. The stock board in front was really alarming which told the visitors that 329 Cobras are present in that pit which is really alarming for a person like me.
What was surprising was that the snake handlers were casually roaming around the pit full of snakes without any fear. Even with the security of a high wall, I was fearing every move that the snakes made which were taken out for display. The snake handlers maintain a logbook with which they can keep a record as to how many times each of the snakes has been milked for its venom. The snakes are released after a particular interval to its natural environment so as not to exert excess stress on them.
Extraction of venom is done with relative ease, first, the selected snake is taken out of the earthen pot and left open. The snake handlers then use a piece of cloth attached to a stick which they keep swaying in front of them to tempt the snake into getting angry. The snakes respond differently according to their type, for a cobra it pumps up its hood and keeps hissing whereas Russell’s viper coils up and keep hissing vigorously.
The next step would be to pin down the head of the snake so that its head could be caught properly and then someone from the team cuts a scale with a scissor to make it angry, this process stimulates the glands having the venom. The snake’s fangs are then pressed against a jar covered in latex so that after penetrating the latex layer the venom can flow down to the vial. The vial full of snake venom then is kept under refrigeration and then sent to laboratories to generate anti-snake venoms.
All of these activities are effortlessly being carried on by the members of the Irula community. After banning of capturing and killing if snakes came into effect with the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 the community have been rehabilitated with the work of venom extraction which they do with much ease.
The park is quite big and if you want to enjoy all the sections of the park then have at least half a day free so that you can take time enjoying the reptiles and the amphibians in their natural habitat. Children would love to spend time out here, there is also a snack bar out here where you can enjoy some refreshment and right next to it there is a curio shop from where you can purchase memorabilia’s of this place.
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