On my vacations,Id pass through the sleepy city of Madras on my way between Kodaikanal School in southern Tamil Nadu and my home in Bombay.​ My main memory of those days in the 1950s is of cars and taxis driving right up to the platform of Egmore Railway station,making boarding and alighting a real pleasure.
In the mid-1960s,when I returned from the US after an abortive attempt at higher studies,I set up a venom production lab at Gaimukhbandar,on the outskirts of Bombay. I travelled around the country finding snakes (and high adventure too). One of my regular trips was to Madras,back to the Tamil Nadu where Id lived for a decade as a child. I remembered a lot of the Tamil I had learned as a boy and felt right at home. I read an article about a tribe of snake hunters by a journalist called Harry Miller who was the head of the photography section of The Indian Express in Madras. So I went to the Express Estates to meet him and he kindly introduced me to an aging Irula tribal,Arjunan,who specialised in the fine art of catching snakes.
Meeting the Irulas was the primary reason I moved to Madras. As a lonely snake hunter,it wasnt easy to find a peer group,friends who shared my interests,and here was a whole tribe of them! Over the next few years,I roamed the local forests and farmlands with these very skilled naturalists and hunter-gatherers without rival.
​The first reptile park in India was set up on a farm that I rented for Rs 125 a month near a village called Rajakilpakkam,about 30 km south of Madras. My brother Neel,sister Nina and several friends helped me make the snake enclosures,looked after our collection of cobras,vipers,rat snakes and vine snakes (to name a few) and we were in business. It was an instant hit and I got good press coverage. But to attract the crowds,I really needed to be in the city.
In 1971,I approached the Chief Conservator of Forests,Tamil Nadu,KA Bhoja Shetty,and asked him to give me some land in Guindy Deer Park,the magnificent,last remaining bit of forest located right in the city. He must have been taken aback by this American hippie who spoke about the need for a snake park to educate people about the most maligned of all animals in the world. He said,Yes,well give you half an acre on a 25-year lease,at Rs 200 per year. ​​I still cannot believe the government of Tamil Nadu had the audacity to lease forest land to an American citizen.​
I had the land but needed money to start the Madras Snake Park. World Wildlife Fund-India first came to the rescue,(thanks to its founder,Zafar Futehally),followed by local donors and the Madras Snake Park magically became one of the citys most popular attractions.
The people of Madras responded wonderfully to a snake park in their midst,schools sent large groups of students to learn about snakes,and tour guides brought foreign visitors. One day,we got a somewhat frantic call from the local police inspector to get ready for the visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Soon afterwards,Rajiv,Sonia and their two kids showed up and became friends with a python. Later,I was lucky to meet Satyajit Ray,Pham Van Dong,the President of Vietnam,Margaret Thatcher and various other dignitaries. The list of important visitors to the park goes on and on. I remember the socialist leader Madhu Dandavate wrote in our visitor book: If only Mr Whitaker could extract the venom from some of our politicians! We had one million visitors in the first 12 months of the opening and at 25 paise a ticket,we thought we were rich.
Although reptiles were misunderstood and often hated,the park proved to be very popular. We added crocodiles,monitor lizards,turtles and an interesting array of exotic reptiles,including rattlesnakes from Florida and giant legless lizards from Czechoslovakia,sent by friends in the US and Europe.
One day,I was called to catch a snake in Besant Nagar,near the sea shore. It was a large red sand boa but I had forgotten to bring a bag to put it in. My hair has always been rather long and scraggly,so I simply let the snake burrow into the blond mass and got on my Bullet and drove back to the Snake Park. On the way,the police waved me over. While checking my license the traffic cop noticed the snake coiled in my hair,looked at me and asked Snake Park,ah? When I nodded,he waved me on.
When conserving tigers is seen as an elitist preoccupation,the people of Madras,cutting across class,religion,and caste,big business types to auto drivers and flower sellers,have been incredibly supportive of my somewhat different approach to animals and conservation. That support helped me put snakes and crocodiles on Indias wildlife map.
by ​Romulus Whitaker
Romulus Whitaker started Indias first reptile park in Chennai in the Sixties. To know more about his work,check out http://draco-india.com