Update on Conservation Work in India - 2022
In 2005 the Whitley Fund for Nature supported my goal to set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, in Karnataka State here in south India. I wish to provide an update on this and other work our team has been carrying out here in India. Rom Whitaker <email@example.com>
1. Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) <www.agumberainforest.org>
Thanks to the startup support from WFN, ARRS is now a thriving base for village education, conservation activites and forest studies ranging from radio telemetry with king cobras, the flight of Draco, the flying lizard, and moth migration to indexing the biodiversity of the area. Perhaps the most gratifying achievement of ARRS is that it has provided a starting block or stepping stone to dozens of young Indian field biologists. Following a 12 foot king cobra day after day, noting and videoing behaviour is the experience of a lifetime. More information on king cobras is available at the King Cobra Conservancy <https://www.thekingcobra.org>
ARRS collaborators include the National Centre for Biological Sciences and Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Zoo Outreach Organization, Centre for Wildlife Studies, The Energy and Resources Institute and many others labs and universities.
As for everyone else the pandemic has come in the way of a lot of good work. Fortunately the Karnataka State Forest Department, Police Department and Agumbe Village Administration consider the ARRS king cobra rescue programme as an “Essential Service” and the Field Director, Ajay Giri has continued his dual role as snake rescuer and village educator.
Please see: Snake Rescue–the Expert Way https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scDGVAFVk4c&t=63s
2. Irula tribal snake catchers to the rescue
In 2017 our team was invited to south Florida by the University of Florida and the Florida Fish and Game Commission to help them deal with the devastating invasion of Burmese pythons in the Everglades and impart a transfer of tribal technology to local snake hunters there. During the period we were there two Irulas carried out 50 transects resulting in the capture of 33 pythons, including a 16 foot, 166 pound gravid female in an abandoned NIKE missile base at Key Largo.
We are now communicating with biologists in charge of dealing with another disastrous invasive snake species: California kingsnakes on the island of Gran Canaria where they are wiping out populations of the local endemic lizards. If funding is found, Irula snake hunters may soon be helping the mission to eliminate these persistent snakes. Who would have thought that snakes could become such dangerous invasives?
Irulas Masi and Vadivel with the large female Burmese python they found on an island in the Everglades. Photo: Rom Whitaker
Vadivel and Masi with 8 Burmese pythons they found in one day’s hunt in Florida’s Everglades, a record! Photo: Janaki Lenin
3. Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation Project of the Centre for Herpetology/Madras
Crocodile Bank is a dynamic combination of public outreach and scientific research. Snakebite makes other forms of human/wildlife conflict look insignificant. India has the misfortune of being labelled the ‘Snakebite Capital of the World’. With over 50,000 snakebite deaths, plus many more permanent injuries, it is not easy to sell the idea of snake conservation. Our Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank has been working hard for several years to help turn the tide.
Link to key snakebite paper below:
Trends in snakebite deaths in India from 2000 to 2019 in a nationally representative mortality study
While we have been doing ‘Living with Snakes’ programmes since the 1980s we got a recent boost and with a generous grant from USV Pvt Ltd, Mumbai we created partnerships in 8 Indian states with a focus on education for snake awareness and prevention of snakebite. While outreach has been the priority, using the below linked short video films dubbed in regional languages to reach a wide rural audience, distribution of torches, mosquito nets and protective gumboots are ongoing activities.
Four Deadliest Snakes of India
Snake education at large school in Andhra Pradesh, 2020. Photo: Gnaneswar Ch
Snake education poster at school in Tamilnadu. 2021. Photo: Gnaneswar Ch
4. Snake venom sampling
Another of our key activities has been the regional sampling of venoms from the medically important snakes around the country for the study of geographic variation and efficacy of antivenom at the Evolutionary Venomics Laboratory in Bangalore <https://www.venomicslab.com> . Links to key publications are below.
Beyond the Big Four--Venom profiling of the medically important yet neglected Indian snakes reveals disturbing antivenom deficiencies. <https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0007899>
Biogeographical venom variation in the Indian spectacled cobra (Naja naja) underscores the pressing need for pan-India efficacious snakebite therapy. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0009150
Biogeographic venom variation in Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) and the preclinical inefficacy of antivenom therapy in snakebite hotspots. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0009247
Gerry Martin extracting venom from a Russell’s viper. Maharashtra, 2019. Photo: Rom Whitaker
5. Gharial Ecology Project
Please see: https://www.facebook.com/GharialEcologyProject/
In partnership with Dr. Jeff Lang, the Madras Crocodile Bank continues its decade long radio and satellite telemetry research and conservation project on the Chambal river in North India for the Critically Endangered gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). The Chambal is still a relatively clean river compared to other Indian rivers and a vital habitat where gharial, Ganges river dolphins, and several Critically Endangered turtles are still holding on.
Female gharial with radio transmitter attached, ready for release. Photo: Rom Whitaker
15 foot long male gharial protecting his creche of hatchlings. Photo: Jeff Lang
6. Madras Crocodile Bank and Centre for Herpetology - <www.madrascrocodilebank.org>
The hub of all our conservation, research and education operations, the Madras Crocodile Bank, founded by us in 1976, was especially hard hit by the pandemic lockdowns since its major income is derived from ticket sales to the half million visitors who come to enjoy the country’s largest collection and gene pool of crocodiles, turtles, lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises. Thanks to generous donors the Croc Bank has tided over what we hope was the worst and is now in the process of planning a major revamp and spectacular new developmental Master Plan.
The Crocodile Bank started with 14 crocodiles. Now 2000. Marsh crocodiles breed like rabbits!
7. Assistance to the Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative
We continue to advise and assist the Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative, located on the Croc Bank premises, which we started in 1978 and is India’s main venom supplier for antivenom production, saving lives. The Cooperative has now upgraded its lab equipment, aiming to produce venoms according to WHO standards.
Venom extraction at the Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative. Photo: Rom Whitaker
8. Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET)
While we continue to be associated with ANET in these magical islands, we have turned this 30 year old field station over to the Dakshin Foundation <https://www.dakshin.org> with whom we've collaborated for over a decade and who are conducting island and ocean based research both in these islands and in the Lakshadweeps, coral islands off India's southwest coast.
Water monitor lizard swimming off the coast of the Andaman islands. Photo: Tasneem Khan/Umeed Mistry
Dakshin Foundation team fixing a satellite transmitter to a leatherback sea turtle on Little Andaman
Photo: Umeed Mistry/Tasneem Khan
I'm a field herpetologist and during the past half century have, along with similar-minded colleagues, set up several NGOs in India including Madras Snake Park, Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank, Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative Society, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team, Irula Tribal Women's Welfare Society and Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. My current focus is a Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank project entitled "Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation".