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Vadivel Gopal and Masi Sadaiyan were going about their routine work in Karur, catching snakes, when they heard the news that they had been awarded the fourth-highest civilian award of the country, the Padma Shri. The duo from one of the most marginalised and oppressed communities, the Irulars, were being feted for their expertise in the practice of catching snakes and for their advocacy work in creating awareness internationally about human-snake conflict.
Gopal (47) and Sadaiyan (45), who are among six Padma Awardees from Tamil Nadu, are members of the Irular Snake Catchers’ Cooperative society in Chennai, the only group legally permitted by the government to catch snakes to extract venom for the preparation of anti-venom.
The Irulars are a Scheduled Tribe community who for generations have been subjected to harassment, sexual exploitation, ill treatment, denial of human rights and been systemically branded as criminals under the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952, like several other Adivasi communities. The continuing injustices and stigma the community has faced was the focus of Tamil film Jai Bhim, which was based on a true story of custodial torture.
Irulars’ traditional occupations — mainly catching snakes, rats and fish — have led to their being stigmatised by mainstream society. But they have vast indigenous knowledge of the woods, fauna, flora, wildlife, climate and nature in general. They can apparently identify species of snake from just the smell of it. They are also traditional healers. Gopal and Sadaiyan represent a community whose skill and knowledge have slowly started gaining recognition.
Gopal (47) and Sadaiyan (45), who are among six Padma Awardees from Tamil Nadu, are members of the Irular Snake Catchers’ Cooperative society in Chennai, the only group legally permitted by the government to catch snakes to extract venom for the preparation of anti-venom
What brought them and Irulars’ amazing acumen and knowledge to the world’s attention was an incident in Florida in the United States in 2017. The citizens of Florida had been tormented by the problem of pythons slithering uncontrolled through their lands, devouring rabbits, chicken and goats. Flooded with calls from residents to fix the problem, the wildlife department of the US state and Florida University collaborated to find a solution. But they were unable to get the situation under control.
At their wits’ end, the US experts then decided to turn to India and consulted leading herpetologist Romulus Earl Whitaker, an American-Indian wildlife conservationist and founder of Snake Park in Chennai. On his recommendation, the US officials decided to take the help of Irular snake-catching experts.
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Gopal and Sadaiyan from Chengalpattu were picked for the mission and were taken to the US. In just eight days, the two Irulars caught 13 pythons. The US officials stood in awe, watching the expertise of the duo who handled the snakes with cool ease and not a tinge of fear. Impressed with their fine-grained knowledge of snakes and the wild, the US authorities sought the two Irulars’ help to train students of Florida University in snake-catching.
But despite the international recognition for the invaluable knowledge and expertise of the Irulars, the 348 members of the Irula Snake Catchers Cooperative, including Sadaiyan, reportedly continue to live in poverty, earning a mere pittance for their risky work of catching snakes and saving lives.
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