The Indian Steve Irwin — Romulus Whitaker
“I haven’t had to do a nine-to-five job ever in my life, and that is a very envious situation to be in if you like the wild. Life has been much like a river in that it picks you up and carries you along. I have got into things as they come towards me.” — Romulus Whitaker.
Snake species number over 3,500 in the world. While snakes are able to occupy large spaces in the wild, not every reptile has managed this. Numerous snake species across India and the globe face extinction. It is likely that Gen Z Indian herpetologists will have answers to questions such as this one soon.
Aside from human conflict, snakes face other threats today, including climate change, disease, and disease. India has added 20 new species in the last two years alone.
“Many species that are dependent on pristine forests are under threat, but it is difficult to say how many these are; dozens for sure,” veteran herpetologist and founder of the Madras Crocodile Bank, Romulus Whitaker. The New Yorker spent his formative years in India’s South.
In 2018, the globally renowned herpetologist, wildlife expert, author, and filmmaker, was awarded the Padma Shri. Whitaker was able to pursue his life long fascination and achieve his dream despite growing up in the U.S.
The Madras Crocodile Bank co-founded by him, the Madras Snake Park (India’s first reptile park), and the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust (ANET) are among his notable accomplishments.
Are things going well with the park?
Who is Pramila?
As for Whitaker…
The Florida Herpetology Centre is where RW earned his degree in Wildlife Management. He nurtured crocodiles, rescued snakes, and snuck two king cobras onto a train (almost like someone challenged him to it).
Over the course of three decades, he had a career that caught the attention of many. His conservation leadership earned him the Whitley Award in 2005. It was with the prize money that he founded the Agumbe Research Station in Karnataka for the study of King Cobras, their habitat. To ensure the conservation of medicinal plant species, a section nearby Agumbe has been made a protected area.
RW won the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2008 as an associate laureate (starting a network of rainforest research stations in India) which marked one of the most significant achievements by RW.
In addition, Romulus was fascinated by tribal groups in Tamil Nadu and conducted research on them. In his writing, he drew attention to the unfortunate environmental disadvantages of the regions resulting in a long struggle towards sustainable livelihoods.
During his research, he examined the forestry roles played by Irula women.
Irul means “darkness” in Arabic.
Women in the Irula tradition possess a rare skill passed down from generation to generation. The 1970s saw the ban on eating snakeskin and meat.
In India, where 50,000 citizens die every year from snakebites, a range of techniques is being explored to combat the problem, which the WHO has classified as a neglected tropical disease.
RW proposed an alternative where women caught snakes, extracted venom three times, and then released them back into the wild. Serums are made from this venom, and then snakes are sent back into the wild.
“There are plenty of species waiting to be discovered in India’s North East. For instance, Salazar’s pit viper was recently discovered in Arunachal Pradesh and named after Salazar Slytherin from Harry Potter,” Sumanth Bindumadhav, campaign manager (wildlife), Humane Society International
Taking it a step further, RW wrote “Wild Dreams Green Screens,” published by TVE Asia Pacific and the Centre for Environment Education of India. There were about eight prominent filmmakers who contributed to this book. Documentaries were next on his list.
First filmed in 1985 with a low budget, snake bites were the subject of the first film. He is 78 years old and has plenty of zest for life as he takes on new challenges in protecting India’s forests and wildlife.