This rat race is for real
India's Irula tribe catches them for a living
September 16, 1997
Web posted at: 4:04 p.m. EDT (2004 GMT)
From Correspondent Gary Strieker
TAMIL NADU, India (CNN) -- Throughout much of the world,
rats are considered worthless and worth avoiding. But some
members of India's Irula tribe depend on them for survival.
For them, rats are a livelihood -- and delicious.
The Irulas are world-class rat catchers, fast and
professional as they dig and poke rat-infested farmland,
grabbing the rodents by hand as they help Indian rice growers
solve one of their biggest problems. By some estimates,
almost half of India's grain harvest is destroyed by rats.
"Their ability to catch hundreds of rats in a day is
startling," says Romulus Whitaker of India's Madras Crocodile
The Irulas are among India's poorest people, a tribe of
nomadic hunters who developed their rat-catching skills
centuries ago when southern India was covered with forests.
Now they have no land. Some don't even have homes. And many
still survive by hunting, not in forests but in farmers'
Working as a cooperative society where everyone works for the
benefit of all, the Irulas sell the rats they catch to a
local crocodile farm, with thousands of hungry reptilian
mouths to feed.
With so much food in the rice fields, rats multiply fast. For
the farmer, hiring the Irulas is a safer, cheaper alternative
to toxic pesticides that may not even work. The Irulas,
storing their catch in cloth bags, can show the farmer at a
glance how many rats they are taking off his land.
Rat catching: a proud tradition
The Irulas say they are proud to be rat catchers. Families
work as a team, eradicating pests in a process handed down
from generation to generation.
The job even turns exciting at times, becoming a literal rat
race. A target lucky enough to escape the clutches of the
Irulas finds freedom only momentary as the fast-moving rat
catchers chase down their prey.
There's also a bonus -- grain from the rats' burrows will be
cooked for dinner. And so will some of the rats. They are
high in protein and low in cholesterol.
Many Irulas will have no other meat but rat.
With their bags full, the rat patrol moves on. For the
Irulas, more grain fields -- and rats -- always lie ahead.