“Irulas are very knowledgeable about medicinal plants”: Interview with Zai Whitaker, Director of the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society – Tamil Nadu

The ITWWS is a women’s community-based development organization established in 1986. It was founded with the aim of protecting natural resources, empowering Irula women and using the Irula tribal knowledge of forest resources for economic prosperity. The organization started with five villages and now covers an area of over 100 villages in 4 districts. Because of their extensive work in the field of adivasi empowerment, ITWWS has received widespread public recognition and several awards at national and international levels. The ITWWS campus near Chengalpet is well known for its work on documenting the indigenous knowledge of Irulas.

Source: Praise Foundation
URL: https://youtu.be/hc1lK1vIKNY
Accessed: 1 June 2018

Author and nature lover Zai Whitaker wants to see future generations armed with more information on environment and wildlife

“I couldn’t and can’t be anything other than a nature junkie!” declares Zai Whitaker. “I have always been an outdoor kid, outrageous and outright about my love for the environment.”

Could life be any different for Zahida Whitaker? […]

Since herpetologists are hard-core birders too, when Zai met Rom Whitaker, the chemistry was instant. He had founded India’s first snake park in Madras in 1972 and it received early support from the World Wildlife Fund. “I do not regret a single moment with him,” she says. […]

Kodi Cocktail happened because hill stations are fragile ecosystems and need long-term development plans. The book gives tourists more information on how and what they can do to maintain the environment besides other issues for the locals to ponder — like denuded slopes, decreased water table and water shortage, unregulated construction, and bisons driven out of their habitat.

Zai is also interested in indigenous people. She has worked with people of the Irula community, who are snake catchers. As the director of the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society, which has 300 members, it is her endeavour to empower them. “Irulas are very knowledgeable about medicinal plants. We buy raw materials from them that are used in making herbal products. Their children now go to schools and the drop-out is zero. We are integrating them into mainstream colleges and institutions.” Her only regret is that she is unable to give more time to the Centre based in Chinglepet and even to conservancy work. […]

Source: “The Naturalist” by Soma Basu, The Hindu, 21 February 2013
URL: https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/the-naturalist/article4439332.ece
Date Visited: 15 June 2022

With her latest book, ‘Termite Fry’, naturalist Zai Whitaker takes readers deep into the lives of Irula community who continue to find ways to thrive amid change [Bloomsbury, Rs. 599]

Climate change has emerged as the greatest challenge before humanity. Its effects, however, are disproportionate. Indigenous people, who contribute least to global warming, are among the first to feel its impact. It takes a toll on the ecosystems and landscapes they inhabit, and affects the environment and resources they depend on.

Although their resilience is threatened by their vulnerability to the negative effects of climate change, indigenous communities are usually able to adapt by the continued practice of traditional knowledge, often encoded in indigenous languages, and passed between generations. For instance, the Irula community in India has been associated with healing, traditional medicine, and snake catching for decades. They are instrumental in afforestation projects because of their knowledge of local biodiversity and ecosystems — resulting in the formation of seed banks. They also gather Lantana camara, rated as one of the world’s 10 most invasive species, and turn it into furniture in order to limit its impact on their ecosystem.

Naturalist Zai Whitaker’s latest book, Termite Fry (Bloomsbury Publishing, 200 pages, Rs 499), offers a captivating glimpse into their Irula world. […]

How relevant is the Irula tribal identity in today’s world?

This is a common question and one I don’t understand. Of course it is relevant, just as our own (non-Irular) identities are. Adivasi communities are brilliant at straddling “today’s world” and their own, if given the appropriate opportunities and support to do so. The pivotal word here is “appropriate”. Building cement-block houses for nomadic people is not.

Looking at possible roles they could play is vital. For example, their skills as rodent exterminators, demonstrated by field trials, could and should replace the rodenticide industry. We have barely scratched the surface of invaluable Adivasi knowledge in India and it’s being lost as we dither.

How are they affected by changes in biodiversity and ecosystems?

In every possible way, including psychological and economic. We know, from sociologists and anthropologists and our own common sense, how people are affected when they lose their homes and livelihoods. Watching a group of Irular doing road-work, highlights this transition, and also the amazing opportunities we have lost, to use their skills in more meaningful ways.

Are these challenges further exacerbated by climate change?

Definitely! As soil becomes more acidic and water catches fire, food-gathering such as fishing and collecting indigenous roots and tubers becomes more of a challenge. […]

Source: “Naturalist Zai Whitaker on invaluable Adivasi knowledge getting lost as India dithers” (World Environment Day 2023) by Sneha Mahale, moneycontrol.com, 4 June 2023
URL: https://www.moneycontrol.com/europe/?url=https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/environment/world-environment-day-2023-naturalist-zai-whitaker-on-invaluable-adivasi-knowledge-getting-lost-as-india-dithers-10739551.html
Date Visited: 4 September 2023

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“We are so much more than that. We follow a tradition rich in music, dance and love.” – Author Swarnalatha who runs an NGO that works for the upliftment for people of her Irula community >>

The Irula community numbers about 80,000 and is one of the poorest adivasi groups in the country. The literacy rate, social discrimination, birth rate and infancy deaths, nutrition, and access to health and welfare programmes, are a blot on our so-called “welfare state”. A few fortunate families and sub-groups, connected with organisations like the ITWWS, have weather-proof homes, electricity, and clean drinking water. The majority don’t. […]


Irula Tribe Women’s Welfare Society (ITWWS)
Thandarai, Thirukalukundram Road,
Post Box No 23, Chengalpet -603 001,
Tamil Nadu, India
Tel: (91) 044-27491318,37400237
Mobile :(+91)9842175517,9025133407
Email: irulatribethandarai@yahoo.co.in

Source: itwws
Address : http://itwwsindia.com
Date Visited: Mon Jan 26 2015 21:49:27 GMT+0100 (CET)

The Irula Tribal Woman’s Welfare Association tree planting scheme in the deforested barren landscape of Chingleput is a strategic development project. Led by Vijayalakshmi, Irula women (often helped by their husbands and children) collect seeds, plant young trees and document medicinal and other properties of over 400 local forest plants.

Source: “Irula tribal women seek self-sufficiency” by Susan Benn (Source: Food Matters Worldwide, April 1992)
URL: https://feministarchives.isiswomen.org/18-feminist-archives/women-in-action/women-in-action-1992-2/280-irula-tribal-women-seek-self-sufficiency
Date Visited: 15 June 2022

Find up-to-date information provided by, for and about Indian authors, researchers, officials, and educatorsMore search options >>
Search tips: in the search field seen below, combine the name of any particular state, language or region with that of any tribal (Adivasi) community; add keywords of special interest (health, nutrition endangered language, illegal mining, sacred grove); learn about the rights of Scheduled Tribes such as the Forest Rights Act (FRA); and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s rights, and children’s right to education; specify any other issue or news item you want to learn more about (biodiversity, bonded labour and human trafficking, climate change, ecology, economic development, ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, global warming, Himalayan tribe, hunter-gatherers in a particular region or state, prevention of rural poverty, water access).

For a list of websites included in a single search, click here. To search Indian periodicals, magazines, web portals and other sources safely, click here. To find an Indian PhD thesis on a particular tribal community, region and related issues, click here >>

Images © publishers & photographers featured in Safe Search results
Learn more about water-related issues that affect India’s tribal communities >>
“National development and the development of tribal communities are linked to each other.” – Droupadi Murmu | Speeches by the 15th President of India >>

“Together, we must endeavour to strengthen tribal communities which are the role model in preservation of water, forest and land, and learn from their connection with nature and the surrounding environment for the sake of the entire human race.” – journalist and tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla in The Wire >>

Find publications on these issues by reputed authors including Open Access (free download): Worldcat.org >>


Search for an item in libraries near you:
WorldCat.org >>

“It was assumed that tribal people have same health problems, similar needs and hence the uniform national pattern of rural health care would be applicable to them as well, albeit with some alteration in population: provider ratio. The different terrain and environment in which they live, different social systems, different culture and hence different health care needs were not addressed.”– Abhay Bang, Chairman, Expert Committee on Tribal health (2018 Report of the Expert Committee on Tribal Health)

Learn more >>
Download Tribal Health in India PDF (35 MB) >>
Searchable file (backup):
PDF (OCR 70 MB) >>

Related posts

Learn more about the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society | YouTube video on ITWWS >>