When Romulus Whitaker says, ‘I like snakes’...

Vinaya Patil
Friday, 23 February 2018

...people wonder ‘how’. In a new tele series starting Sunday, the Indian herpetologist and wildlife conservationist, explains why Indians need to be more aware about the reptile population

India has 275 species of snakes, more than any other country on the planet. In an effort to reduce the estimated 20,000-50,000 fatalities, herpetologist Romulus Whitaker is launching an India-wide initiative to educate people about its oldest, most iconic and most misunderstood residents. Travelling throughout India, he introduces us to the huge variety of vipers, cobras and kraits that inhabit the subcontinent. 

He delves into the evolutionary past to explain our primordial fear of the serpents, looks at the myths and customs which have grown up around them, and reveals why anti-venom is so often ineffective.

Gives us a brief about the show.
It’s a long story but let me begin by saying that there are over 3,000 different kinds of snakes in India. But only a few are venomous. Rather only four species actually cause the dangerous snake bites. So through the show we have tried to make people understand how to identify those reptiles. We want to teach people that it is very simple to get into conflict with snakes and avoid snake bites. So a film like this can actually make a difference in this country, especially if it reaches rural India.

Snakes are known to induce fear. How and why did you choose to work in this field?
Actually, I don’t think I chose this field. The field chose me. When I was four-years-old, I brought a snake home to my mother. We were living in northern New York state then, where there were no venomous snakes. I was very fascinated with all sorts of bugs and what not and I found this snake below a rock. I had a very weird kind of mother who actually said ‘Wow, what a beautiful li’l snake. Let’s keep it!’ How many mothers would say that? So that was really the beginning of my career.

I began studying these creatures. My mother bought me my first book on snakes. I learnt to identify them, and even lecturing people at that age. At 13, I caught a venomous snake, because by then I had learnt to handle these reptiles. It doesn’t mean I am encouraging kids to catch snakes though.

I knew a lot about the reptiles by then, but I also learnt that people’s attitude towards them wasn’t great. I would see snakes being killed rampantly by people, who didn’t know that it wasn’t venomous, and could have actually been useful.

The ingrained fear that they induce is at the root, especially in India. So when I say ‘I like snakes’, people wonder ‘how’. We are trying to solve this problem by producing films like this one.

India’s snake population is huge. How was it finding the snakes?
Well, this is the land of snakes. But when the camera is rolling and you want to shoot one, sometimes it’s very difficult (laughs) to find one. Snakes are more active during the monsoon and not otherwise. So you have to choose the right time, season and place to be able to shoot them properly. 

What locations did you shoot at, and how was the experience?
We shot across four corners of India — Kerala, Assam, Rajasthan, and Karnataka. So we got to see most of the venomous snakes in India. Most importantly, we worked with this young tribal boy called Kali. He came along to help us find the different kinds of snakes and we were quite successful.

For instance, in Rajasthan, we got more than a dozen vipers. So this wasn’t just a film trip, this was also a scientific excursion to collect venom samples from different parts of the country. We wanted to make sure that the anti-venom that is made across the country is effective. Because there are different kinds of venoms from different species of snakes.

Share some memorable experiences from your shoot.
Let’s say the most exciting one was getting Kali on an aeroplane, since he had never been on one. We teased him quite a bit as the aircraft took off. But on a serious note, everything went quite smoothly. We found several snakes, even a King Cobra in Karnataka. It was a very exciting and lucky trip to have found everything we needed.

How do you plan to create awareness in India?
We have an educational programme called the Human-Snake Conflict Mitigation Project, along with the Madras Snake Park, currently underway. It’s teaching people — particularly school children — to identify snakes and learn to avoid them. We want this to spread to the countryside since 97 per cent of the snake bites happen in rural regions. Getting all this information into all the languages of this country is not an easy job, but we are making pretty good progress.

How do you think snake parks help?
Snake parks can be very helpful but they have got to be well run. The snakes have to be looked after well, only then it becomes a very important educational tour to a snake park. When we made the Madras Snake Park, within a couple of years, we started getting 10 lakh visitors per year. I was very happily surprised that snakes were so popular.

What next?
Right now, my main work is the snake project. It’s a full-time job, because I am constantly travelling. I am visiting a place next week to put radios inside two King Cobras to track them, know what they are doing and to learn more about them and understand them. Then we are going to Andhra Pradesh to collect venom samples from there. There’s a never dull moment for me.

The series India’s Deadliest Snakes will premiere on Sony BBC Earth on February 25 at 10 pm

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