Romulus Whitaker was only four years old when he caught his first snake in the country estate that he shared with his mother and sister in northern New York State. It was the beginning of a fascination with reptiles and a journey to conserve nature. Although born in the United States in 1943, Rom Whitaker grew up in India where he nurtured his passion for reptiles exploring the wild as a student in a boarding school up in the mountains in south India. Dr. Whitaker is one of India’s leading herpetologists and conservationists. His efforts have helped to put numerous endangered wildlife on the conservation map.
The world-renowned herpetologist and author is changing perceptions of reptiles through his innovative work while championing the cause for conservation of India’s rich biodiversity. (He’s 69) In an exclusive interview Romulus Whitaker shares some of his thoughts and interesting experience through the course of his work. 1. What is it about reptiles that got you fascinated about them? My love affair with reptiles began before my ‘age of reason’, in fact I was catching and keeping snakes at the tender age of 5 years at Hoosick, NY I found my first snake, a Dekay’s snake and I was hooked.
I Kept a terrarium full of local snakes and when I was seven I moved to India, the land of snakes. Over the years my interest broadened to all herps. 2. Were your parents or friends influential in your decision to go into herpetology as a profession? My mother in particular was very supportive of my ‘unusual’ interest and bought me books by Pope, Ditmars etc. 3. Where is your favorite herping spot in the world? I guess my best place in Agumbe, Karnataka State, near the west coast of India, where we have one of our research stations. 4.
What herp in the wild still gives you chills and sends your excitement levels through the roof? What herp is at the top of your list to find in the wild? I guess the king cobra tops the list but I get great pleasure in seeing any of the wonderful herps we have here in the wild. Well, having found a lot of species in a lot of places I guess it’s just the mere idea of finding ‘new’ species, which I’ve never seen in the wild, which excites me. 5. Aside from the conservation programs you’ve set-up, do you keep any herps as personal pets?
Nope, no herp pets. We live on an 11 acre farm with Russells vipers, cobras, kraits, saw-scaled vipers, rat snakes, trinket snakes, vine snakes and so on, so there are rarely ‘dull’ moments here. 6. What’s the best avenue people can help your conservation trusts and efforts? People can donate out right of course but perhaps more of them might be interested in coming over to India on a ‘paying volunteer’ program which allows people to stay on site and do work to help keep the research and general work going, bringing their own special inputs. 7.
Any advice for students looking to get into the herpetological field? Handling venomous snakes? I think the best way is to attach yourself to an existing herp program in any capacity just to get that experience and to work with people who are obviously doing it right and learning from them. 8. Do you think the increase of interest in the herp-keeping hobby has helped or hindered reptile & amphibian conservation? I can’t say much about the herp keeping hobby, I know that it should be done responsibly and people should learn and know where their animals are coming from.
If most of the herps on the market are from captive bred stocks fine, but taking them from the wild can be a fatal rip-off and that has hammered several species worldwide. 9. What are some of the most fascinating aspects of your job as a Reptile Expert? Every day is a fascinating experience, simply because so little is yet known about reptiles, as compared with more ‘obvious’ creatures like birds and butterflies. Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that once you have studied and been close to reptiles long enough, you realize that they too are complex beings with individual personalities, some nice and some not so nice.
Venomous snakes have their tremendous killing power yet they are timid and shy and want nothing more than to stay clear of horribly dangerous human beings. I don’t have dull moments except for when I have to go into the awful city to do some chore like renew my driver’s license! 10. In the course of your career, you must have had several close and dangerous encounters with crocs, komodo dragons and snakes. Is there any incident that stands out in your mind which left you completely speechless? It’s kind of hard to say which experiences stand out as being exciting and memorable, in my kind of life excitement is never far away.
Perhaps the incident that sticks in my mind is the first time I encountered a king cobra. It was in Agumbe (where we now have a research station) and I saw the black tail of a large snake disappearing into the bushes. Thinking it was a large, harmless rat snake I did what any snake hunter would do, I leaped on it. I managed to grab the tail and in my now prone position I looked up to see the hood of a large king cobra spread over me and a pair of not so friendly eyes glaring down at me. I needed no more encouragement and quickly released the king cobra’s tail and rolled out of the way.
Luckily the snake didn’t want to tangle with me any more than I wanted to tangle with it and it slid away into the forest. Phew! 11. What are the challenges you have faced to dispel some of the misconceptions people have about reptiles? The main challenge is to get people to realize that their old folk tales and beliefs about snakes are usually wrong and that the reality of snakes and other reptiles is of course much more interesting than these old tales. People have a tendency to think that wild animals are ‘out to get them’ when actually it’s just the opposite. 2. Do you think there is adequate support / assistance for conservation of reptiles today or more can be done? How? Certainly reptiles are still not too high in the popularity charts and there is always a need for understanding the misunderstood creatures that we share the planet with. More media exposure to the facts about reptiles, their usefulness to us in controlling rodents and cleaning the waterways (in the case of crocs) and controlling harmful insects in the case of lizards, will certainly help their plight. 13.
What do you hope people will take away from your work and films on reptiles? Is there anything you would like to do in the future? Well, I know people are not going to start hugging reptiles overnight, but I do feel we are making headway by writing, making films and bringing people to the Madras Crocodile Bank and teaching them about the wonders of the reptile world. What will I do in future? Probably just what I’m doing right now. One project is to promote research on snake venoms and the perfection of the anti-venom serum against snakebite in India. All good fun!