The states of Tamil Nadu and Florida are almost 15,000 km apart, separated by two oceans – the Indian and Atlantic, and one continent – Africa. But a peculiar situation has made the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fly in men from an little known tribe, the Irula, all the way from the southern tip of India. The Irula are a Dravidian tribe, speaking the Irula language, part of the Tamil group of languages (closely related to Tamil and including the likes of Betta Kurumba, Eravallan, Irula, Kaikadi, Kannikaran, Muthuvan and Yerukala) of the Southern Dravidian branch.
They are known for their distinct appearance and speech. For quite some time, on account of their physical features, they were classified as members of the Negrito racial group by anthropologists. With the division of mankind into water-tight racial categories proving to be a biologically untenable and morally repugnant concept, such labels have been dropped. The Irula are now the focus of many studies exploring the colonization of South Asia by the earliest human beings from Africa, revolving around the field of population genetics.
As a people, they have had to struggle a lot. The Irula live in the legendary Blue Mountains or Nilgiris of South India, where three states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka come together. Hunter-gatherers by choice, they excel at catching small game, from rats that are smoked out of paddy fields to snakes captured for venom extraction. Discriminated against by Tamil peasantry and Brahman priests (who still hold on to their caste prejudice), they have struggled to adapt to a rapidly changing economy and society. The forests they relied on are disappearing rapidly and the state and central governments are far less respectful of tribal rights – customary and communal, over forest tracts and produce.
But the art of snake-catching that the Irula cultivated over the years has come to their rescue. They have become indispensable to biologists, health ministries and film makers who rely on their expertise in the field. The first time I saw them was on television. Herpetologists living in or paying a visit to South India, almost always give the Irula an honourable mention. They can be seen on documentaries and news clips broadcast by National Geographic, Discovery Channel, BBC, and Deutsche Welle. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission happens to be the latest member of the fan club.
The reason for their arrival in the Everglades is the presence of another denizen of Asia, the spectacular Burmese python (Python bivittatus). This species happens to be among the largest serpents in existence. Brought to North America as exotic pets, they escaped to the wild and multiplied rapidly in the tropical swamps of Florida. Burmese pythons are an invasive species that pose a threat to native wildlife on account of their size and numbers. Some biologists are worried by the possibility of their colonization of the southern United States. No wonder then that the Commission chose to fly in Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal, two Irula men from Tamil Nadu in January of 2017, to tackle the menace.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and based on a photograph in James Wilkinson Breeks‘ ‘An Account of the Primitive Tribes and Monuments of the Nilgiris’ (India Museum, London, 1873). He was a British officer stationed in the Nilgiris. The photograph has been preserved by the British Library.