The lucrative business that is cobra venom

Lanky, sweaty and beady eyed. He is constantly twitching. With each new jerk, his gaunt body threatens to give away. Conscious of the stares his disco body is inducing on the streets, he makes his way through the back alleys of a posh colony and cuts through to a park. We have been introduced by a mutual connection who is also his business associate. Between a tree and a shrub, half a leg jutting out from the bench, he smokes a cigarette and starts talking.

He is 38 years old and his name is Ramesh. He is from a small village in Uttar Pradesh where his father used to be a snake charmer. “His work started dwindling when I hit my teens and I have been taken care of my family ever since,” he says. Ramesh who started his career with odd jobs, soon diversified into the highly lucrative business of snake venom a decade earlier, when he saw a market developing for it. “My father was always good at handling snakes and at any given time, we had a pet snake in the house. Before bringing it home, he would often extract the venom and sell it to the local vaids for medicinal purposes.” Although largely considered taboo, snake venom has commonly been used as a recreational drug in rural India. It was only a matter of time before it gained popularity. In 2004, Ramesh got his first customers in the form of some upper-caste boys who came looking for the drug. “They brought a servant along to make the deal and went straight to my father who refused to do it. I told them to come again after two days on the sly.”

After cajoling his father, he set up a task force of eight men that would look for snakes and procure their venom and supply it to willing customers. “We always let the snakes go after our job is done. Except cobras because cobra venom is the highest seller and the most difficult to procure. Vipers and other such snakes that are not so deadly can get a man knocked out for a couple of hours for as little as half an ampule.” A 5ml vial of cobra venom costs anywhere between Rs.10-15,000 since it is harder to procure. “Earlier we had only hard drug users or recovering addicts come looking for this. But in the last five years we have more and more youngsters come in.”

Ramesh procures his snakes in the jungles of Terai in Uttrakhand, Uttar Pradesh and sometimes Bihar. “Because of the nature of our business, we have a very nomadic lifestyle. Staying in different places for sometimes months of time in order to get what we need,” he says. He is currently in the city to deliver a shipment and cannot understand the questions coming his way. “We only service old-regular customers. As the risk of getting caught is very high. They have to call us in advance and we give them a time, date and location of delivery. I was told two months in advance about this shipment. And I got here by train, even though buses are more convenient, they are unsafe because the police is more active.”

A drop of venom is often poured in a glass of water. Although some party revellers are also known to enjoy the powdered version known as K-72 or K-76 in their drinks. “This is not pure venom. We first freeze dry it and then mix it with other drugs in moderation to give the desired effect of high energy. Just like cocaine, but much higher in intensity and longer lasting. The powder is a little cheaper, you can get a capsule for Rs. 5,000 because it is diluted. But if you want a gram it’ll cost you up to Rs. 20,000.”

About litre of pure cobra venom can cost up to over Rs. 8 crores in the international market. “For poor people like us, that is a lot of money,” he says, “but it is hard to get that much. It would mean finding over 100 snakes. Accumulating it over a period of time and then moving around with it. The risk is too high. But the money is tempting.” How would you know that it is pure snake venom? According to Ramesh there is no way a regular can know the difference in venom. “And that is my advantage. All venom, is cobra venom,” he laughs.

That is not true. You can tell the difference. Simply because each reptile has its own variety. Venom is a mix of enzymes and lipids, and can be broadly classified in three categories, hemotoxic, that damages tissues and prevents blood clots. Neurotoxic, which has a temporarily paralytic effect and can cause breathing cessations. Cardiotoxic which causes muscle depolarisation. Therefore not all venom can have the same recreational effect as Cobra venom. And technically speaking, pure cobra venom should be getting you stoned, not high because of its bio-chemical properties. Whether those pills contain any venom at all, only Ramesh will know for sure. But right now, he is making the most of what he has.

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