One Million Snake Bites is a fascinating BBC2 documentary which investigates India’s snakebite epidemic by going on the trail of the country’s deadliest serpents with a snake catchers co-operative, led by snake expert Romulus Whitaker.
Whitaker describes the southern Indian Irula tribe, who have been catching snakes for decades and are expert at finding snakes from the traces they leave, as ‘the best snake catchers in the world’. The Irula Snake Catchers Co-operative extracts and processes venom, which supplies 80 per cent of India’s anti-venom, creating a sustainable livelihood at the same time as saving lives. The co-operative analyses venom to explore how snakes and humans can co-exist – and help both India’s people and its snakes.
A recent report found that 50,000 Indians per year die of snake bites (and a further 950,000 are bitten but survive), with incidents commonly occurring when leaving the house at night to go to the toilet or collecting firewood. The Natural World programme shows Whitaker film, then slow down, footage of the exact moment at which some of the country’s most dangerous snakes – King cobra, Spectacled cobra, Saw-scaled viper and Russell’s viper – bite. Those in rural areas, working in agriculture and using manual labour, are most at risk, but killing the snakes is not a solution as they are important to India’s economy as a means of pest control, reducing the threat of rats to agriculture.
The programme also shows the team travelling around the country to collect and analyse venoms from other regions, including the desert in Rajasthan, as venom from the same species varies regionally and venom from the south does not act as an effective antidote to snake bites across the country. It is hoped that, eventually, a nationwide venom hunters co-operative could be formed to share knowledge.
The programme was broadcast on Wednesday 23 February and is available to view online until Tuesday 8 March on the BBC iPlayer.
Stirling Smith visited the Irula Snake Catchers Co-operative in 2006. Read about his trip here.