India’s Reptile Man
Romulus Whitaker: Herpetologist, Conservationist
To Rom Whitaker, the world of snakes has always been a passion. He caught his first snake when he was just four. This was in the country estate that he shared with his mother and sister in northern New York State in the 1940s. Wondrously, his artist mother, Doris Norden, encouraged him to the hilt and soon he started a collection of garter snakes and milk snakes at home. Then came the Big Move. Rom's mother married Indian film industry man Ram Chattopadhyaya and moved the family to Bombay, India when Rom was seven. For the next ten years Rom went to boarding school up in the mountains in the south, smack in the middle of India's favorite biodiversity hotspot, the Western Ghats. Weekends were spent searching for snakes and learning jungle lore from local hunters in the surrounding forests, while weekdays were spent looking after an eight foot python that lived surreptitiously under his bed at the dorm. Somewhere in between the two activities, he attended classes.
Out in the World
Rom returned to the United States to do his degree in 1961. A year later, he called it quits and headed out to seek his fortune, doing odd jobs along the way as a cutlery salesman, merchant seaman, carpenter's assistant, Bloomingdale salesman... He ended up in Miami, and made a beeline for the Miami Serpentarium run by the legendary snakeman, William Haast. Rom was hired on the spot and then followed a couple of years of living with snakes, learning from the master, jiving with other snake hunters, exploring the wilds of the Florida Everglades, Okeefenokee Swamp, and grooving on the folksy ballads of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in coffee shops. Life just couldn't get better for our snake man.
It was too good to last and that was where the Vietnam War caught up with him. "Two years in the army or three years in prison" - Rom opted for 2 years in the army. But the officers must have detected the innate lack of respect Rom had for organized violence, so they put him in charge of blood banking in El Paso, Texas (rattlesnake country) and later at Camp Zama, Japan (mamushi land). After his mandatory two years, he sailed straight back to India aboard a Greek freighter.
A Reptile Park with a Difference
Soon after alighting at Bombay, Rom set up a snake venom extraction venture outside Bombay to supply medicine producers. On one of his field trips to Madras to buy snakes, he was introduced to the Irulas, the tribal snake catchers. Rom moved his operation to Madras city and formally started India's first reptile zoo, the Madras Snake Park. Its novelty value drew lots of tourists, celebrities and dedicated young volunteers. Rom became a familiar figure in this conservative city. With a sand boa coiled through his wild white hair, and his loudly colored hippie clothes, people gawked at Rom as he pulled up on his motorbike. And to everyone's amazement he swore in Tamil, the local language! That was enough for Rom to be "IN". His tribal friends were weaned away from their killing of snakes for the skin industry and he helped them start the Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative Society to catch snakes to milk them for precious venom. Thanks to this imaginative move, today there is sufficient venom being produced to make the over one million vials of antivenom serum needed to save snakebite victims all over India.
Conservation to the Fore
Rom extended his interest to other beleaguered reptiles - crocodiles, sea turtles, and lesser known exotic reptilian creatures around the country. He wrote about creatures that nobody had even paid attention to before and started realizing that India’s rapid development was fragmenting their habitats. Conservation was still in its infancy in India, but when Rom and colleagues hit the headlines with their campaign to save Silent Valley, an iconic Kerala rainforest, the movement started snowballing. Then Rom set up Madras Crocodile Bank, a gene pool for all the world's crocodilians and now India's premier research centre for herpetology. Many endangered crocs were bred here and rehabilitated to the wilds, many young careers in herpetology were launched, many forests were saved by relentless campaigning.
It was at this point that Rom discovered the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India guarded these islands jealously and no foreigner had been allowed to work in these islands for a few decades since the British left India. And that's where Rom wanted to go. The price was his US citizenship which he gave up for the privilege of visiting and working in the islands. The kind of "development" that the Indian government was exporting to the islands prompted Rom to put down an organization there, Andaman and Nicobar Island Environmental Team (ANET). ANET did everything - coral reef surveys, botanical surveys, mammalian surveys, island ecology studies, besides sea turtle and crocodile surveys. Today ANET remains the premier environmental NGO in the archipelago and is called the Centre for Island Ecology.
Tribals and Forest Resources
Never one to stop and dwell on his achievements, Rom was then contracted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to help set up a network of tribal crocodile rearing stations across Papua New Guinea. Rom surveyed the remote swamps of the country to assess the wild population, worked out the logistics and set up a Management Plan for the country over 2 hectic years. Then FAO sent him back to the island, to the Indonesian administered Irian Jaya, to do similar work. Subsequent years saw him travel to Bangladesh to see if a lizard leather industry was sustainable (he concluded that it wasn’t), to Mozambique to set up a village level croc farming operation, to East Malaysia to survey the wilds for crocs. He was canoeing up remote streams, jumping out of helicopters onto croc nests, trekking over mountain ranges in search of elusive reptiles. Rom was Asia's reptile man: straddling conservation, scientific study, education, sustainable utilization, tribal welfare and captive breeding of rare species.
Then came movies. Dissatisfied with the reach of his books, papers, brochures and talks, Rom was caught by the magic of both television and the silver screen. He teamed up with old school friends, Louise and John Riber and film maker Shekar Dattatri to make a series of movies on snakes, snakebite, tree planting, rainforests and the Irula Cooperative he had helped set up. Eventually he produced a children's feature film in Tamil called 'Boy and the Crocodile' - India's most popular children's film to date and winner of the UNICEF’s Best Feature Film award in 1989. He travelled to the United States to sell more film ideas and in the corridors of National Geographic Television met Carol and Richard Foster who were keen on returning to India where Richard Foster was brought up. Together they produced 'Rat Wars' for NGT. Later Rom followed that with his highly ambitious 'King Cobra' - an Emmy award winner. It was the first film made featuring a single species of snake and most of the sequences were filmed for the first time ever. Twenty more films followed including 'Spunky Monkey', 'Thunder Dragons', 'Muggers of Sri Lanka', 'Snake Hunter' for National Geographic Explorer.
Feeling a bit over-stretched, Rom quit the Croc Bank in 2001 as Director; he still remains its Managing Trustee. Recently he and his co-author, Ashok Captain came out with India's first comprehensive color field guide to snakes, published by Draco Books run by Rom’s partner, Janaki Lenin. He continues his interest in spreading conservation awareness through film making and recently developed and presented several films made for BBC Natural World, Animal Planet and National Geographic by Icon Films in Bristol, England. These include: 'The King Cobra and I', 'Supersize Crocodiles', 'Dragon Chronicles', ‘One Million Snakebites’ and 'Crocodile Blues'. The latter film is about the plight of India's Critically Endangered gharial crocodile, the conservation of which is an ongoing preoccupation of this reptile man with a mission. His most recent film is Icon Films’ ‘Million Snakebites’ documenting the problems of rural Indians, 50,000 of whom die from snakebite each year, and his efforts to mitigate these tragedies and facilitate the production of antivenom serum.
In 2005 Rom established the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka for research, conservation and environmental education in the Biodiversity Hotspot of India’s Western Ghats, the magical chain of forest-clad hills where he spent his school years. There he is heading a long term study on the ecology and behavior of the king cobra and cataloging the biodiversity of the region for which he received the prestigious Whitley Fund for Nature Award (UK). Rom received two more awards in 2009, one indigenous: the Salim Ali Award from the Bombay Natural History Society and one from Switzerland: the Rolex Award for Enterprise for his project on facilitating the establishment of a network of rainforest research conservation and bases around India. Last year he finished work on his latest film: “The Leopard: 21st Century Cat” for BBC Natural World. All of this keeps Rom and his dynamic team very, very busy.