Sunday, August 5, 2007

The snake man of India

Romulus Whitaker talks about his mission to get the King Cobra recognised as the king of the jungle.

HE IS more at home with snakes and crocodiles than fellow human beings. He caught his first snake when he was just five and studying in Kodaikanal. He has many films on reptiles and other crawlers to his credit. He is one of the better-known environmentalists in the country. He is Romulus Whitaker, the snake man of India.

In Thiruvananthapuram to promote an exhibition on snakes, Whitaker said his new mission was to make the King Cobra the symbol of Western Ghats just as the Tiger was the symbol of conservation in India.

"I caught my first snake when I was five and ever since I have been smitten by them," Whitaker recounts.

His passion for reptiles took him to Wyoming University in the United States to do a course in Wildlife Management. In 1963, he joined as an assistant manager with the Miami Serpentarium, Florida, and in 1967, he returned to India as manager of the Venom Production Laboratory in Mumbai. In India, he continued to actively pursue his interest in snakes.

Whitaker's 53-minute-long film, `King Cobra', was awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding News and Documentary Programme Achievement in 1998. The film was shot extensively in the rainforests of Kerala and took two years of intensive research.

Although he was bitten thrice by snakes ("It was quite bad", he says), Whitaker does not hold it against them. "I am more scared of human beings than snakes," he says.

Other than the `King Cobra', `Rat Wars', `Spunky Monkey', `Croc Man' and `Thunder Dragons' are the other documentaries he has shot for various channels.

He is a member of many important committees connected with wildlife and environment such as the Palni Conservative Council and Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, U.S. Whitaker has won awards and acclaim such as the Rolex Award for Enterprise (Switzerland) and the Order of the Golden Ark (Netherlands) for his work. He has travelled extensively. Recently, the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, a well-known conservationist, consulted with him on why the crocodiles in Bhutan were not breeding. "I found that there was no male and told the King to get a couple of males for the company of the female crocs."

Although Whitaker is for harvesting crocs for their skin, the environmental laws of the country are against it. "The people who protect the crocs should have some stake in it," he says.

Today, Whitaker is the vice-chairman of Crocodile Specialist Group IUCN/Species Survival Commission and lives in Chegalpatu near Chennai.

"I want the King Cobra to be recognised as the real king of the jungle," he says. And that is a tough task in this country where the King Cobra has to compete with another living being that is bent on destroying its habitat - Man.

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