AT A time when queues at zoos gravitate towards tigers and lions, Romulus Whitaker remains rooted to the world of reptiles.
Awarded a Padma Shri this year for his outstanding work in nature conservation, Whitaker will be the guest at the Express Adda in Delhi Thursday. The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change.
Popularly known as the ‘Snake Man of India’, Whitaker, 74, founded the Madras Snake Park in 1972, and four years later, set up the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust on the outskirts of Chennai to act as a gene bank for all the world’s crocodilians. Today, it serves as a premier institution for herpetological research.
Born in New York, Whitaker moved with his family to Mumbai in 1951. He met his “first peer group” back in the 1960s and 70s — the Irulas of Tamil Nadu, who he immediately took a liking to for their positive and deep knowledge of snakes.
Later, while studying incidents of snakebites in India, Whitaker discovered that numerous lives were lost due to inadequate production and distribution of anti-venom serum. That is when he mobilised the Irula community to form a snake catchers’ cooperative, who under licenses from the Wildlife Department, supply snakes, extract and freeze-dry venom and sell it to anti-venom producing laboratories before releasing the snakes back into the wild.
In 2005, Whitaker won the Whitley Awards in the UK, and the prize money went towards setting up The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. The citation mentions that the award was given to him for making the “king cobra a flagship species for the vanishing rainforests of the Western Ghats of the Indian subcontinent”.
In a recent interview, Whitaker said that as a five-year-old in upstate New York, he would go around turning over rocks and finding different insects underneath. “When I brought home the first snake, my mother said, ‘How fabulous, let’s keep it.’ I was the ‘minister for the religion of snakes’ since I was a little kid,” he said.
At the Express Adda, Whitaker will be in conversation with The Indian Express Deputy Editor Seema Chishti and Assistant Editor Sowmiya Ashok.
Past guests at the event include the Dalai Lama, J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, veteran journalist Mark Tully, Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, writer Amitav Ghosh and cricketer Virat Kohli.