All It Takes is a Walk with Kali: Irular Sunrise Snake Walk Experience
During the capstone travel period for my master’s program, I flew all the way to Tamil Nadu, India to collaborate with the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT) and Centre for Herpetology. MCBT is known globally for its efforts in reptile research, herpetological conservation, and snakebite prevention.
Due to my interest in learning more about how it was taking initiative to mitigate snakebite cases, I spent three weeks interning with MCBT’s Snakebite Mitigation team and immersing myself in the world of snake conservation.
During my stay, the majority of my days were spent analyzing data for my own thesis or helping research snake-related topics for MCBT’s upcoming projects. Sprinkled in between my workdays at the library, though, were several key events that the team had planned for the summer: One of which was the infamous snake walk with the Irular tribe.
The Irular are an indigenous ethnic group living in Tamil Nadu and other neighboring states, who are known for their historical knowledge on snake tracking. On the day of the snake walk, I was up before the sun preparing myself and a bag full of essentials for the excursion: Sunscreen, closed-toed shoes, my camera, and snacks.
After snagging a quick bite from the canteen and ensuring my reusable bottle was filled for the trek, I met up with the other interns and the Irula duo, Kali, and his wife Alemelu, who would be leading the walk.
As we made our way to the open fields, the other local nature enthusiasts on the tour spotted and shared information about some of the surrounding wildlife: First, a bright blue pair of Indian rollers perched on a fence.
Then, several green metallic-colored Jewel beetles settled on the underside of some leaves; and along the way, various species of butterflies fluttering on by.
Prior to the walk, I was informed that the chances of seeing a snake were low since it is summer: Excessive heat exposure makes it more difficult for the snakes to regulate their body temperature and can even be fatal in extreme cases, which is why it was likely that they would be well-hidden.
After half an hour, I was becoming convinced that this was so. However, moments later Kali hurried over to a spot that looked ideal for a resting snake and began to search.
This was going to be my first snake sighting, I thought as anticipation built up from watching him. He began to chip away at some low hanging branches and briefly disappeared into the bushel. When he returned, in his hands was a molted snakeskin.
Even though I was both relieved and disappointed that he did not come back with a snake, it was still thrilling to see the shed skin because it meant he was on to something. Not even fifteen minutes later, the couple had rushed to another spot nearby where they followed a similar routine to the first snake search. This time they came back with a brown and yellow-scaled snake.
What seemed to me like nonsensical lines in the sand were actually guiding marks straight to the hiding places of the snakes for the Irular. (Think Sherlock Holmes with his magnifying glass tracing footsteps — except in this case, an Irula duo navigating their way to the slithering trail of a common bronzeback.)
This happened twice more on the walk, and we were able to see an olive keelback and common rat snake before the end.
Each time, I, as anyone else with nonexistent snake experience, had an initial fight-or-flight reaction. However, after a few moments of observing the snakes and seeing them settle down, I experienced firsthand what the other snake experts at the park had been saying all along: I saw for myself that snakes are not aggressive creatures; they are only looking out for themselves when they strike to bite.
Even then, they will do certain actions such as puffing out their skin, flicking their tongue or lunging forward to warn an invader like us before they even resort to biting.
Overall, this snake walk was just a glimpse into the expertise of the Irular and an eye-opener to the true reality of snakes, one of the many misunderstood animals of this world.
For more information about the Irular and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, please visit https://madrascrocodilebank.org/the_iruals.