The snake man of India

Wednesday, 29 September 2010 19:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker shares lessons on conservation

Known as the ‘Snake Man’ of India, there is no better description for the renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker than the one given on a website which describes him as, “a scientist and conservationist who slings around the globe to study and protect reptiles’, which he quite literally does.

Back in Sri Lanka to reacquaint himself with the country he encountered and praised for its rich biodiversity on a previous visit in 2003, Dilmah Conservation presented the attention-grabbing personality at the Sri Lanka Institute of Engineers last week where he proceeded to enthrall the large audience with various anecdotes about his work with reptiles over the past so many years.

Shared lessons

Invited to share lessons from his passionate commitment to conservation of reptiles in India, Whitaker’s work today at the age of 65 started with a childhood fascination for snakes. Based in Tamil Nadu, it is surprising to note that the American-born Whitaker is in fact an Indian citizen. He has authored eight books and over 150 articles, has served in key reptile posts and enthused masses with 23 acclaimed environmental documentaries, one of the most popular being the National Geographic film ‘King Cobra’.

Speaking about his experiences with the world’s longest venomous snake, the King Cobra, a reptile feared by most people, Whitaker’s description of the snake made it sound more like a docile creature that slithers around doing its own thing as long as it is unprovoked. This is probably true but the terrifying photo of the snake projected behind Whitaker begged to differ – as well as the description of the reptile given on the ever popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia which describes it as being ‘fierce, agile, and can deliver a large quantity of highly potent venom in a single bite. It is one of the most dangerous and feared Asiatic snakes’. In other words, best stay out of its way.

Amusing anecdotes

The Snake Man however was full of amusing anecdotes about his work with the reptiles especially in India where there are apparently over 200 snake rescues in and around Bombay alone, all of whom are besieged with calls from the locals to remove snakes which find their way into the peoples’ homes.

He related one such tale of a family who found a cobra curled up in their washroom and instead of calling the snake rescuers, had proceeded to wait for several days politely leaving the bathroom door open in the hope that the snake would make its way out at some point in time. Too comfortable in the bathroom, the snake failed to do so and the dire need of having to use the bathroom in the end had forced the kindly family to call the snake rescuers after three days.

Whitaker also laughingly revealed that these snakes, after being removed from residences are not released in a far off forest miles away from where they were found as most of the people assume but are instead set free within the vicinity itself, so it could even be the same snake visiting the families over and over again for all they know.

Yet another hilarious story he related towards the end of the chat was regarding the making of the popular National Geographic film ‘King Cobra’. This had required the insertion of GPS trackers in the snakes in order to know their whereabouts. One of the strange wonders revealed was that in the process of mating, the male snake sometimes ends up devouring the female snake; perhaps an act of passion but it does defy the purpose of reproduction somewhat. After witnessing this phenomenon, the Indian wildlife officials managed to jump to the conclusion that this had occurred due to the insertion of the GPS trackers in the snake which according to them had encouraged the male snake to eat the female – at which point the crowd at the Institute burst into gales of laughter while Whitaker himself chuckled at the podium.

This little yarn brought to an end a most fascinating presentation which lasted over an hour but judging from the laughter of the large gathering that crowded around Whitaker congratulating him and showering him with further queries about his work, not one had noticed the minutes ticking away.

His groundbreaking efforts at raising awareness of polluted water systems in India, and in engaging scientists, government, the private sector and rural communities in protecting habitats and conserving endangered species also hold powerful lessons for post-war Sri Lanka.

By Cassandra Mascarenhas