12th January, Vellore: "Snakes used to be scared of our forefathers, now we are scared of them” comments Subramani R, a 40 year old belonging to the Irula tribe that resides in Kosavanpudur village, Katpadi district in Vellore. Like thousands in this tribal society, Subramani left the Irular tradition of hunting animals and snake-catching after the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 was passed, prohibiting the capture and killing of snakes and particular wild animals. The livelihood of the Irular people had completely depended on the sale of millions of snake and fox skins and this ban left many in a lurch.
Subramani now works in agriculture and has received cattle from the government like some of his neighbours. The Irulas used to be a nomadic tribe that hunted animals for consumption; their lifestyle did not entail handling money. As they settled and became cultivators, they continued to hunt animals, however, only for recreation and consumption of the meat, not profit. The hunt for the day was cooked and any extra meat would be shared with the community. Over time, they got a reputation as snake-catchers as they would be summoned to use their hunting skills to capture snakes. To make money, the Irulas would then sell fox and snake skins.
The transition from their traditional work, which was illegalised, to other occupations had been hard on the Irula tribe but survival meant adapting to changes. The men in the village are now employed either in agriculture or as contract workers in private companies. Their employers call them in erratic intervals and most do not know whether they will have any work the next day. Of all the men in this village, the only one with an assured salary is the coconut tree climber who is paid a fixed sum of Rs. 20 per tree.
While the tradition of snake hunting maybe dying out among the Irulas, their extraordinary skills are called upon when needed. Many Irulas are called upon to capture snakes to extract their venom; the snakes are then set free. A year ago, two Irula men, Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, were flown to Florida to help hunt invasive Burmese pythons who were destroying the local mammal species in the Everglades. Within a month, the men had captured twenty seven pythons.
Hunting small animals remains a recreational activity for the Irular till date. Rats, foxes, squirrels and rabbits are captured with the help of wire cages and a long net that is handled by the children with as much ease as the adults. The net is laid down among foliage and three to four individuals wait for an unsuspecting animal to step on it before hastily gathering the net up and transferring the animal to the cage. On my visit, a teenage girl from the community held my hand and guided me excitedly to her house to showcase the plump rabbit that her 25 year old brother had caught earlier that day. At night, he hunched over a pot outside the house, cooking the meat.
These skills and knowledge are passed on to younger generations as tradition. The first time 25 year old Arumugam R went on a hunt was at the age of seven. He currently works at the NS Gova Company about a kilometer away from the village but manages to hunt in his spare time. That night, squirrel meat with spices you’d normally find in a chicken curry was being cooked in his house. The meat is light and gamey, wrapped in a strip of tasty fat; his family is more than happy to share the same with curious outsiders. There are allusions made to the ‘unique’ diets of the Irula people in this regard but a cursory internet search will tell you that squirrel meat is commonly eaten across Southern US states and in parts of the UK. In a world where the distance between us and the food we eat is increasing, the Irulas are successfully keeping tradition alive.