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Meet Rom Whitaker

Meet Rom Whitaker

Romulus Whitaker has devoted his life to the study and protection of reptiles and amphibians. He is delighted that more young persons have taken to herpetology and hopes the government, corporates and universities will take conservation research more seriously and that training, encouragement and jobs will be available to those who choose to make a career in this vital field. Photograph by Janaki Lenin.

Rom Whitaker is a legend in his lifetime. He has been largely responsible for making reptiles and amphibians more acceptable to humans who usually recoil at the very thought of a snake, crocodile or lizard. Presented with the 2006 Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Lifetime Service Award, he speaks here to Bittu Sahgal about his life and his mission.

Rom, you are probably the most unique and fascinating Indian wildlifer I have ever seen. Where were you born and what can you tell us about your parents?

I was born in New York City during the Second World War. My mother Doris Norden was an artist and my father was then in the U.S. Army. After they were divorced, my mother married Ram, son of Kamaladevi and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. We moved to Bombay in 1951 where Ram set up India’s first colour motion picture processing lab, Ramnord, in Worli.

You get a lot of slimy characters in the film business, but you chose encounters with the genuine slithery articles? What accounts for your lifelong love affair with herps?

While growing up in the U.S., we mainly lived out in the country in northern New York  State. Non-venomous snakes abound there and as a five-year-old, I was already catching them and keeping them as pets. Amazingly, my mother was totally supportive of my strange pursuit. I was interested in bugs and spiders too, but snakes were the MOST! Coming to India could have been dangerous for a snake-crazy kid but I survived my childhood and the fascination for snakes and other herps just grew and grew.

Romulus Whitaker helped transform the lives of Irula tribals such as Natesan by providing them a livelihood from snake venom when the snakeskin industry was banned. Photograph by Dorris Norden.

It grew to the point where you actually started a snake park, right?

Yes, that was in 1970. And it was called the Madras Snake Park, now the Chennai Snake Park. I am happy to say it is still going strong and has lakhs of visitors per year, half of them children. The Trust is run by a retired IAS officer, B. Vijayaraghavan, one of those rare officers who always had a deep interest in wildlife and educating people.

Tell us about the Croc Bank? Are you still a part of this?

The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust was set up in 1976 to act as a gene bank for all the world’s crocodilians. Today, it is home to 14 species of crocodiles, 14 species of turtles, lizards and snakes. It is also a premier institution for herpetological research and houses one of the best herpetological libraries in Asia. It is at the forefront of herp conservation in India with a major turtle project in the north, the new gharial conservation initiative and a research base in the Andaman Islands. I was the director for about 25 years until I stepped down in 2001. I’m still a Trustee and Advisor at the Madras Crocodile Bank.

Of course, you wanted to farm the crocs and use the money to protect them in the wild. But you never got that permission, so does the Croc Bank have a future? 

It is a shame that the Indian Government will not consider crocodile farming and ranching as a viable conservation tool as in many other developing countries. As with the tiger, it is very difficult to convince people that they should share their river, lake or forest with a potentially dangerous predator. However, give the crocodile an economic value for the people who are responsible for its survival (the people living in its habitat, not the bureaucrats and conservationists living in Delhi!) and there is a chance that they will tolerate and even nurture it. This is a basic principle of wildlife management but we have missed the boat and are losing our wildlife as we speak.

The Croc Bank is a not-for-profit conservation NGO, which barely breaks even by selling low cost tickets to the lakhs of visitors that come to see and learn about the crocs. The plan was to initiate, guide and support a crocodile farming scheme for the Irulas (and other tribal groups) by supplying them eggs produced by the thousands of crocs at the Croc Bank. The profits would be for the people and for conservation of wild populations, now facing extinction.

Whitaker credits his mother’s encouragement of his childhood fascination with snakes, bugs and spiders for his lifelong committment to herpetological research and conservation. Photography by Nina Menon.

The Irulas... what prompted you to become their spokesperson?

The Irulas were my first peer group. Back in the 60s and 70s, there were very few people in India with a positive interest in snakes and it was wonderful for me to find a group of people with such a deep knowledge of ‘my’ subject. Of course, they were then into catching snakes for skins so we changed that and provided them with a livelihood, which still allowed them to use their vast natural history knowledge. That was how the Irula Cooperative came into being. Now, they catch snakes for the venom (for the manufacture of life-saving anti-venom serum) and release them back into the wild.

Was there ever one defining wildlife moment you can identify that changed your life forever?

When I was about five years old, some little friends I was with, up in northern New York, killed a harmless snake. I put it into a jar and took it home. My older sister, Gail, was horrified and that impressed (and I suppose, saddened) me so much that I went right out and caught a live one to bring back and admire its beauty and grace. I was hooked then. I am still hooked today.

You are hooked to a life-threatening involvement, if I have it right. Are you actually allergic to snakebites? And what happens if you do get bitten?

Yes, I’m allergic to some snake venoms and also the anti-venom serum. I have no desire to die just yet and I am extremely careful in my old age. When I was in my wild twenties (the age at which you are “invincible”), I had a few serious snake bites, which taught me some important lessons that stuck with me all my life!

I got a message from you about the gharial and Sanctuary is running a campaign with you as a result. What is the real status of the gharial and can we save it?

There are just about 200 adult gharial left alive in the wild and the pressures on its survival are mounting by the day. Gharial survival is inextricably linked with the survival of our northern rivers (as are the fates of river dolphins, turtles, migratory waterfowl, otters and famous fish like the mahseer and hilsa). While some of us may be interested in the conservation of different species, a concept we call ‘wildlife management’, the real problem is ‘human management’. Unless the realisation that we are losing all of our rivers hits home, we will not only lose the wonderful gharial and the other river creatures, the stage is also being set for huge die-offs of our fellow human beings who are dependent on these rivers for survival.

If you had the resources, what kind of herp research would you most wish to undertake?

As we all know, good, effective conservation can only happen with good research as the basis. For the gharial, we need to know what their territories are, how far they migrate and what the critical factors are in their riverine habitats that determine whether they survive or not. For the king cobra and python, we need to know how far they roam, whether they have a home range and how large they grow. All this research requires dedicated field people and some fairly expensive radio telemetry equipment. The same argument holds true for the long list of other endangered herps like the leatherback sea turtle (the Andaman and Nicobar nesting beaches are some of the best in the world) and the myriad species yet to be described in the Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats and the Northeast.

Clearly, gharial reintroductions have to be aggressively pursued again, but the effective protection of their wild rivers and fresh water habitats has to come first. Photograph by Romulus Whitaker.

How could farming possibly help save the last 200 gharial?

The gharial were heavily hunted for their skins. The remaining populations were then limited to the few riverine habitats that weren’t destroyed by dams, barrages, and siltation. Now, they are being finished off by competing fishermen who always resented the closure of fishing in Protected Areas. Gharial (and mugger) are easy to rear in captivity from eggs collected in the wild and much more profitable than fish. Why catch fish for a small income when a reptile can earn you much more? Croc (including gharial) farming, (where animals are bred for the sale of skins) could ironically save the species if done right.

Wildlife crime networks are sophisticated and ruthless and our wildlife enforcement is abysmally poor. Don’t you think these crime syndicates will get the better of whatever well meaning safeguards you build into a system of croc farming?

The positive thing about the croc skin industry is that it is a decades-old international network, managed under CITES by the Crocodile Specialist Group. There are few other wildlife resources traded internationally, which are so rigorously controlled with checks and safeguards such as un-reusable, magnetic tags for skins and products. Criminals are generally one step ahead of the game and of course, we need to be vigilant. But their underground off-take from a croc skin industry would be nothing compared to the current deadly slaughter of our last gharials as they get caught in fishing nets.

You have long championed people-oriented conservation such as the Irula Cooperative’s snake venom industry, the Irula Women’s Society’s tree planting programmes and, of course, the croc farming that you and I disagree about. Where do you stand with regard to the proposed Tribal Bill?

A uniform Tribal Bill for all tribals all over India may be a laudable idea but shows how badly the lawmakers have done their homework. What happens when each nuclear family develops into one or more families? Is there another 2.5 ha. available for them too? This is a complicated issue to which too little thought has been given in the face of real and perceived people’s problems and political pressures. Having roamed Indian forests for half a century, I know what human presence in a forest does and it’s rarely positive. If we can’t keep at least that four per cent Protected Area that India has left inviolate, we are dooming one of the richest wildlife legacies on the planet.

Thanks to field studies in different parts of the world, it is now apparent that ‘rescue’ of wild animals and translocation to new, unfamiliar places is likely to end in disaster, snakes included. Do you have any message for the many snake rescuers around the country on this?

This is a tough question because very often when you get a snake call, unless you take a snake away from a household or garden, it is likely to be killed. It would be best to release the snake as close as possible to the place of capture, but in urban areas this is generally not an option. Since snake rescues must, under law, be done with the permission of the Forest Department, an area for release should be chosen with their help and approval that has the basic food, water and shelter requirements for snake survival. This means calling on the help of experts in field herpetology, essential if the rescue and release programme is to have any meaning.

Passionate about filmmaking, Rom Whitaker has worked on several wildlife documentaries including the Emmy-award winning ‘King Cobra’. He is currently setting up a research station in Agumbe to study and protect the ‘King’ and its habitat.

How do you view television as an educational tool? There has been quite a focus on personalities such as Steve Irwin in recent weeks. Do you think these shows are machismo-promoters?

Since I do a bit of this ‘reptile wrangling’ on TV myself, maybe I’m not the best person to ask. Certainly, it has become a bit of a circus, with some of the presenters a bit more obnoxious than the last. Steve Irwin started the recent trend of reptile popularity and whether you liked his comic face and brash talk or not, our cold-blooded friends have been gifted with a lot of positive public relations, which the furry animals and birds have had for so long. My take on it is that as long as the reptiles are treated with care and respect, an informative television programme done with a knowledgeable presenter can be both educational and entertaining.

Back to work Rom. Your latest project is the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, probably the first permanent rainforest base in India. What’s it all about?

I bought land, surrounded by forest, outside Agumbe in the Shimoga District of Karnataka, with funds willed to me by my mother.  The base has been set up over the last year and commissioned with funds from the Whitley Award for Nature, London. It is now operational and acts as a research, conservation and education centre in the Western Ghats. Now researchers can actually live in the forest where they are studying, students can come and experience what a rainforest is like and we can help spread direct conservation messages to people living in and around the rainforest. We are collaborating with the Karnataka Forest Department, local as well as urban schools, researchers and NGOs. We have to keep wildlife alive long enough for better stewards to take charge of the natural world that sustains us all.

Are there any young herp persons on the Indian horizon that give you reason to hope?

There are a good bunch of young herp persons in India now, more than I could have ever imagined back in the 60s when I was starting to get serious about studying and protecting them. They need training, encouragement and in the long run they need jobs in this field, which will only happen when the Government, corporates and universities start taking conservation and research more seriously.

Do you have a message for kids? 

My main message is something most kids already know: reptiles and amphibians are just about the most fascinating creatures in the world. But it is difficult to make grownups aware of just how wonderful and useful these animals are. It is up to kids to educate their parents and all adults (whose minds generally get closed to the wonders of nature) and open their minds to our dependence on the survival of wild places and wild creatures.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVI No. 6, December 2006.


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