Who are the Irulas?

There are about 40 adivasi (indigenous) communities in Tamil Nadu state of south India. Of these, one of the most unique are the Irulas (or Irular). Irulas are master hunter-gatherers whose forest skills include tracking, fishing and the collection and processing of medicinal plants. They can track snakes, arrow fish, and dig out hibernating turtles in rock-hard river banks. They possess a vast knowledge bank related to medicinal plants, and Irula cures and preventives are widely sought and used. Like indigenous groups everywhere, the Irulas are a community in transition. Modern laws and restrictions(such as the Wildlife Act of 1972) limit their livelihood options and activities. This legislation, to protect wildlife, put an end to their traditional source of income: catching snakes for the snake skin industry. For close to a century, India had been one of the main exporters of snake skins; some estimates put the figure at 10 million skins a year. Irulas were the main suppliers in the south, and hunted mostly cobras, rat snakes, pythons and Russell’s vipers. The risks were worth it because of the dependable income and lack of competition; no-one else was able to do what the Irulas did. To find, read and follow a snake track is an extremely specialized skill. To then dig out the snake (usually from a rat hole) is an equally difficult feat. It takes strength, skill and knowledge. Watching an Irula snake catcher at work is a memorable experience.

The sudden ban on the snake skin industry was a landmark in the history of the Irula people. A few snakes could still be caught, with a license from the Wildlife Department, for display at the Madras Snake Park. This project had been started by an American herpetologist, Rom Whitaker, to educate people about snakes and their value in the environment. Visitors learned that not all snakes were dangerous… and that even the dangerous ones were not aggressive. They learned that there were only four common dangerous snakes in India: the cobra, krait, Russell’s viper, and saw-scaled viper. They also learned that antivenom serum was the only cure for snakebite, and that snakebite victims should be taken straight to the nearest hospital, and not to faith healers, witch doctors, or priests. Antivenom is produced by making a “venom cocktail”, or a mix of different snake venoms, and injected it into horses. The horse produces antibodies to fight these toxins, and these antibodies are then medically processed to produce the antivenom serum that saves snakebite victims (if administered in time).

There was only one problem: an acute shortage of antivenom serum. Now this was something the Irulas could certainly help with! Working with Irula snake catchers and their well-wishers, Rom Whitaker started a unique snake-catchers’ cooperative in 1982. Here, licensed snake catchers brought in the Big Four snakes and extracted and lyophilised (freeze-dried) the venom. This was sold to the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, Serum Institute in Pune, and other laboratories that produced antivenom serum. The project has won many international awards and is showcased as an example of how traditional skills and technologies can benefit modern Science and medicine. Recently however, bureaucracy has slowed down this important initiative.

The Irula community numbers about 80,000 and is one of the poorest adivasi groups in the country. The literacy rate, social discrimination, birth rate and infancy deaths, nutrition, and access to health and welfare programmes, are a blot on our so-called “welfare state”. A few fortunate families and sub-groups, connected with organisations like the ITWWS, have weather-proof homes, electricity, and clean drinking water. The majority don’t.

The hunting of small game- such as mongoose, civets and monitor lizards, all of which were part of the Irula diet- came to an end in 1972, because all these animals were protected by the new wildlife laws. At the same time, many traditional hunting and fishing grounds became wildlife reserves or were appropriated for construction and industrialisation projects. The Irulas had been, in effect, thrown out of their own traditional domain, the unique scrub forest of the Eastern Ghats. These hills are the eastern counterpoint to the Western Ghat mountains on the west coast of peninsular India. With lower altitudes and less dramatic topography, they are nevertheless a unique habitat in which the Irulas lived and hunted in a sustainable way. There are many stories about their careful, conservation-minded style of using the forest: such as taking only regenerative plants, and never up-rooting rare medicinal plants. Sadly, the forests they used and cared for so conscientiously, have now been decimated by the crazy, unplanned developments of the last decade.

Today, Irula villages/hamlets are concentrated around the Chinglepet district of Tamilnadu. Many of these are on plots of untitled land; and eviction by the local council or high-caste neighbours is often a very real possibility.

But the rapid growth of Chinglepet district has brought something the Irulas can use: rats. Rats are an important protein source for Irulas. Only some species of the clean, field-dwelling, rice-eating rodents are hunted and eaten. Incidentally, grilled rat meat is often served in small (non-Irula) village “pubs” as well. (Apparently after a few drinks, even rats taste wonderful.) And often, digging out a rodent from its burrow brings an added bonus… up to several kilos of rice paddy! Some species are avid hoarders and Irulas collect several kilos of rice from the burrows of certain species.

Termites are another source of protein. As the humid monsoon winds hit coastal Tamil Nadu, termites begin their travel preparations. It is time to swarm, and leave the earthen mound where they were born. The smell of rain is their cue; and Irula skill has found a seed which, burnt and powdered, replicates this smell. On a pre-monsoon night, an Irula arrives at a “ripe” termite mound. He digs a hole near the mound, puts a small tin inside and places, on a stick bridge across it, a small oil lamp. Then the special “kottai” or seed is roasted over the lamp, powdered with a stone, and sprinkled over the mound. Mistaking this aroma for the “real thing”, thousands upon thousands of winged termites stream out of the minute holes and head for the light. They fall into the tin and are gathered up, often by the sack-full. De-winged (by vigorous shaking of the sack) and roasted, they are tasty and nutritious.


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