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A Slithering Business

A snake venom cooperative? You bet.

JUNE 2022

As a member of an electric cooperative, you are part of one of 3 million co-ops worldwide. Here’s the story about one of them.

Extracting snake venom.

Some cooperatives supply financial services, sell food or provide energy. The Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society has a different take. Its members catch poisonous snakes, such as spectacled cobras and Russell’s vipers, extract the venom for medicinal use and return the snakes into the wild.

Formed in 1978, the society has 15 employees and 370 members to conduct its business. Members of the Irula tribe in south India are particularly skilled at capturing snakes. In 1972, India banned the practice of capturing snakes and selling their skins, leading to formation of the cooperative as an alternative enterprise. Snake venom is a key ingredient in anti-venom medicine, a critical substance in a country where an estimated 58,000 people die of snake bites each year.

In recent years, the cooperative has been hampered by a lack of permits; the state forestry department scaled back the annual snake take from 13,000 annually to about 5,000. This year, government officials are leaning more toward a take of 10,000. It pays about $30 for a spectacled cobra, which keeps a co-op member named Kaali in business. “This is the work I want to do, I wanted to preserve this knowledge,” he says.