Romulus Whitaker's passion for snakes remains as unchanged as ever
Children are born naturalists, says Rom
SNAKES ARE the stuff of volatile passions. Even when you are not hinting at anything Freudian and speaking plainly of how the world is divided into two categories of people: those who go into raptures and those who pick up the biggest stone around at the sight of one of the species. The latter may be a much thinner population, but their ardour sure makes up for what's lacking in numbers, if D.H. Lawrence's description of the "king in exile" in his wonderful poem Snake is anything to go by.
Romulus Whitaker sounds quite Lawrentian himself when he talks of the "unmatched sinuousness and grace" of snakes and the "mystery of creatures that move, hunt, feed, mate, and breed without limbs". "It's almost mystical!" Not surprising, coming from a man whose romance with reptiles started at four and has endured a lifetime.
Rom caught his first snake in his country estate in New York State. Then the family moved to India and he came to study in residential schools atop Western Ghats, where he was keener on snake chasing than studying. He went to study in the U.S., but soon dropped out to work in the Miami Serpentarium. He returned to India and started the first snake park in the country at Chennai and later a crocodile bank at the same place. He helped the Irulas, who were badly hit by the ban on snake skinning, start a snake venom extraction co-operative. He has travelled the length and breath of India and most corners of the world chasing snakes and crocodiles as a researcher, writer, film-maker, U.N. representative and so on.
The latest in the line of Rom's affairs with snakes has been a field guide on Indian snakes (Snakes of India), which he has co-authored with Ashok Captain. Rom was at Kahawa Gallery of Design in Bangalore to launch the book, which has involved 10 years of hard work.
The problem word
But how did he, at the first place, escape what seems like a "natural repulsion" for slithering creatures? Rom has a quarrel with the word "natural". Repulsion, he says, is what a child picks up from a parent. You cringe and say "Oh my God!" and the child does it too. A good parent, in fact, should be nurturing a child's natural curiosity for all things that move. Let a child watch a lizard stalk its cockroach pray and don't instantly pick a broom to squash them both, he advises. "Children are born naturalists. Very few are bank accounts at age four."
Rom's mother was different from an average parent and told him that all creatures are wonderful. "The adult fear of these wonderful creatures itself may have been a source of fascination for me... I enjoyed doing things the opposite way!" he laughs.
Our native reptiles featured in Snakes of India
Rom's spirit of adventure has remained intact from then to now. It was not very long ago that he and his team were swept off by a storm in the dead of the night from Mozambique to the South African coast while researching on crocs. They hung on to some papyrus stems through the night, surrounded by hippos!
But he has evolved through these many years from an adventurous snake-chaser (who shocked people of Madras by driving around his mobike in wildly-coloured hippie clothes and a sand boa coiled through his white hair!) to a conservationist with a practical approach.
Being a hands-on, on-the-ground researcher rather than one with an impressive Ph.D has made a big difference. For one, he does not believe that people can be wished away in the name of animal conservation. (That comes with an impish rider, though: "Let me warn you my theories keep changing. I could say this is my theory for today!")
If you stop Irulas from skinning snakes, it's important to provide them a viable alternative to not only prevent them from starving to death, but also to prevent the whole trade from simply going underground what he calls the "backlash effect." "All kinds of fundamentalism are dangerous," says Rom. And that includes one brand of animal activism that has no second thoughts about wiping out people's livelihoods.
A less painful, practical and imaginative approach is available in most cases, as the success of the Irula co-operative illustrates, says Rom. The co-op is meant to diversify further into a environmental-friendly pest control initiative too, considering that Irulas know more about rats than any other group of people under the sun. But years after presenting a successful field study, the initiative is yet to take off, thanks to red tape. The project has now moved to Pollution Control Board! "Bizarre, isn't it?" asks Rom, pushing back his shock of white hair. "But I'm running out of energy to run again." It does indeed take a lot of energy to negotiate with politicians and bureaucrats who want to link rivers and "bring pollution from Ganga to Cauvery"!
Too much action?
But you would see no sings of abating energy if you watch Rom's lively programmes on one of the television channels that show films on natural history. But aren't these channels packing a little too much energy to attract viewers and make a "drama" of all things in nature? Rom admits that films on natural history began to change colour when viewers got the remote control in their hands. These channels had to compete with movie and news channels for viewers' attention, which invariable meant putting more action into them. That's when someone "screaming into the camera with a thick Australian accent" became the "in" thing. Rom hasn't done anything so completely "freaked out", but enough to get across his point. "Let's also remember that you are reaching some 10 million people," he says in defence.
You see more of Rom's undying energy is his enthusiasm to bring out Snakes of India (which costs a whopping Rs. 2,700) in Indian languages at a subsidised rate and his eagerness for the next book on Indian lizards. "If we survive this one, that is!" he says. He should, if his tryst with hippos is anything to go by.
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