Venomous earnings

To foreign tourists, snake charmers symbolise the exotic East and all its mysteries. But snake charmers now have a more useful role to play than being just items of curiosity -- they have formed a cooperative to market snake venom to the drug industry.

Snake catchers, who earlier earned a pittance by living as snake charmers or selling the reptiles to venom extractors for meagre amounts, have now realised the value that snake venom holds for pharmaceutical companies. However, individuals with their half-a-dozen snakes are not able to make much profit. About 40 snake catchers in Murshidabad district of West Bengal have, therefore, set up a cooperative for collecting and selling the commodity.

The snake catchers acquired vested land in Shyamgarh village in the district, with the help of the village panchayat, and recently moved out of their mud huts to semi-permanent houses in the village. They have also been provided a reptile house, which now is home to 40 cobras, 25 Russell's vipers and 20 kraits. Venom from these reptiles is extracted once a month and is sold at Rs 265 for a gram of cobra venom, Rs 295 for Russell's viper venom and a high of Rs 2,900 for krait venom. The cooperative now awaits a license that will allow it to trade in snake venom all over the country.

On the initiative of P Roy, manager of Bengal Chemicals Limited, to whom the cooperative was selling snake venom, the members were taught to extract the venom. Entire families are now participating in the cooperative's work -- collecting snakes from fields, feeding them, extracting the venom, and selling it. Already, economic self-sufficiency has enhanced the social status of the snake catchers, who were earlier forced to live only on the outskirts of villages.