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  Rom Whitaker 

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[Book review] A frank and fearless autobiography of India’s snakeman

by Meena Menon on 13 February 2024 

 

  • Unconventional and adventurous, herpetologist Romulus Whitaker’s new book ‘Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll: My Early Years’ is a candid reflection of his journey to becoming one of the most famous Indian conservationists.

  • From exploring his upbringing in the U.S., and his discovery of being allergic to snake venom, to forming an aversion to too much discipline, Whitaker’s story contains grit, hilarity and does not shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of his past.

  • His enduring passion for snakes dominates the autobiography, which also explains the origins of his determination to build a snake park and dedicate his life to dispel myths about snakes and other reptiles.

A delightfully unapologetic, racy and often hairy coming-of-age story, Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll: My Early Years is an engaging account of ‘Snakeman’ Romulus Whitaker’s life and his abiding passion for snakes, nature and solitude. At the outset, he declares that he is not a conservationist and it is a label that others have foisted on him. Yet he can boast of a string of awards for his work in conserving habitats, protesting against the Silent Valley Project by writing articles, founding various NGOs including the Madras Crocodile Bank and Snake Park, working with the Irula community, as well as the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in 2005, authoring papers, and books, producing a stunning TV series featuring king cobras and so on.

This book is ostensibly an account that shows him with ‘all his warts’, in his own words, and makes him more of an anti-hero, though his escapades are unequivocally heroic. Even if he shirks off the label of conservationist, his work on snakes has largely transformed the stereotypical perceptions surrounding them and the dread of snake bites.

Whitaker’s vision was much larger than saving a particular species and often encompassed protecting entire habitats. Despite some unconventional ideas about saving some species, for which he has been criticised in the past, he is not entirely a non-conservationist.

The first volume of Whitaker’s autobiography is as breezy as his nickname. The table of contents offers a glimpse of what is in store. For example, ‘Year of fishing’, ‘Year of Stuffing  Birds’, ‘A Year of Vices’, one for explosives and later on in section 2, ‘Snakeman’ and ‘Commercial Hunter’, give an idea of Whitaker’s many adventures.  It describes the early years of his life, his education in Kodaikanal, his aversion to any form of regimentation, his unsuccessful attempts to cope with studies, his increasing love for solitude, wildlife, fishing and camping in the wild, qualities he adapted well in the US, where he enrolled for higher education.

By the time Whitaker returned to India at 24, he had already lived a few lifetimes with a brief and unhappy university education in the US, working as a salesman, a seaman and later, as a lab technician in the US Army where, as he writes, he was thankfully not drafted to fight against Vietnam. He occasionally went jacklighting and has shot animals (luckily missing a leopard once in India), caught masses of snakes, other reptiles and amphibians either for venom or for trade while he lived in the country of his birth for seven years. His passage back to India from the US was paid for by a collection of 500 rattlesnakes, a breathtaking climax to the book.

As always, he humanises snakes and the episodes about catching them, even if not always happily, and his tenure with Bill Haast, his hero and the founder of the Miami Serpentarium, form the most fascinating parts of the book. His stint with Haast sowed the seeds of an idea that he would eventually turn into reality in the form of the Madras Snake Park (currently Chennai Snake Park) and the public display of extracting snake venom by the Irulas, which became a major attraction.

A young Romulus Whitaker with his pet kite Shangrila in Mumbai, 1959. Photo from Harper Collins India.

In the mid-1960s, there were only a few wildlife protection laws in place in countries, including the US, and snakes were transported freely all over the country and abroad. The 35 rattle snake species in the US, featured in stunning photographs in the book, are not only strikingly beautiful but huge, making them deceptively appealing as they sun themselves or spread out over rocks.

The autobiography also gives glimpses into the rich natural history of the United States of America, but also its easy access to guns, which delighted a young Whitaker used to a stricter regime in India as a schoolboy. Lurking at the back of many episodes of snake and lizard or even frog and the occasional alligator-catching is the underlying uneasiness of how this would impact wildlife, and also a forewarning of the invasive species that would infest many parts of the country like Florida.

Whitaker has a matter-of-fact approach to the discovery that he had colour blindness, and, curiously, an allergy to snake venom. After being bitten by a prairie rattler, he stops for a coffee to decide what is to be done before walking into the hospital with a swollen hand. At that moment, he realised he is allergic to venom and that cryotherapy did not work for bites. He spent his recovery reading Carl Kauffeld’s book on snake hunting several times and even writing to him. He remains calm after snake bites despite the dangers and pain, and debates the next moves, at times delaying anti-venom  injections, the remote location being one reason. Once, on a hunting trip, his friend Attila, after being bitten by a timber rattler, says, “Let’s sit and think and think about what to do”. Luckily, it was a dry bite. These experiences may have something to do with Whitaker becoming a firm advocate of not panicking after a snake bite and seeking immediate medical attention.

Read more: No magic bullets to deal with snakebites

Whitaker’s friend Attila with an indigo snake, in Florida Everglades in 1963. Photo from Harper Collins India.

The book offers a glimpse of his affectionate family, including his siblings, and, in particular, his mother Doris, who gave him his first book on snakes and tried to dissuade him, unsuccessfully, from killing animals. His father was a murky figure who later remarried and Whitaker was much closer to his stepfather Rama, the son of Harindranath and Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay. Both grandparents  are objects of fond reminiscences. His life in then Bombay, which seemed as crowded and busy as ever in the 1950s and 1960s, and those of his school life in the Kodaikanal hills, could not offer a greater contrast.

The autobiography hasn’t ‘airbrushed‘ his bloodthirsty past, as he writes. Whitaker was not immune to the ‘coming-of-age’ hunting and bloodletting of those days. However, growing up in 1960s America as a teenager, unable to sport long hair as he was in the US army,  he was very much influenced by the music of his times: Bob Dylan, Barry McGuire and Tom Paxton, among others, and the anti-war sentiment that prevailed. His explorations into the use of drugs including peyote, the potent cactus which contains mescaline, a hallucinogen, and other drugs are candidly described.

A hilarious anecdote is of Whitaker giving a rather preachy Baptist missionary, his companion on the ship voyage to India, a book on peyote, which shuts him up. The book has other light moments and one liners, and the funniest episode is about an anaconda wrapping itself around Whitaker, who was extricating it from a shipment, much to the amusement of his companions who did nothing to help!

While other boys may have photos with their first toy car, Whitaker has one with his first snake in 1947, his pet python at school in Kodaikanal, and Shangrila the kite in Bombay. He has an abiding love for motorbikes as well and often scrounged out money for a Norton, a Triumph, BSA or an AJS. On his 24th birthday Whitaker spent the day hiking with friends and catching a Mojave rattler, which was his first ‘tiger’ rattlesnake and a few more which capped the hunt for 500 snakes which would pay his passage to India. A few days before that, he was bitten by a green rock rattlesnake. Even though it caused a brief bout of blindness, some pain and swelling, it didn’t stop his snake hunt. His desire to travel to India overshadowed everything at that point.

An anaconda at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology in 2016. The centre is one of the largest reptile zoos in the world and one of the oldest non government environmental organisations in Asia. 

In parts, the book is also a memoir of an excited schoolboy in many ways, who hunted birds, learnt  to identify and stuff them, and eventually trained  in taxidermy under expert hands in Mysore before going off to hunt wild game, and fishing which became an abiding passion. The narrative transports us back in time to a life not governed by mobile phones and computer games where nature and related activities were a compelling attraction. Recreation and adventure had a different flavour and Whitaker’s many escapades as a young boy were probably not uncommon in those days in a Durrellian sense, though few would persist with their love for nature and animals with any seriousness and commitment to form a lasting bond. This volume is a precious account that opens a window into the formative years of a non-conformist naturalist and offers inspiration to current and future generations who would be hard-pressed to leave the comforts of virtual reality for the most part.

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From hunter to guardian: How the ‘Snakeman of India’ found his way into wildlife conservation

By Michelle Cohan, CNN

Editor’s Note: Call to Earth is a CNN editorial series committed to reporting on the environmental challenges facing our planet, together with the solutions. Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative has partnered with CNN to drive awareness and education around key sustainability issues and to inspire positive action.

CNN — 

Moving from America to India as a child in the 1950s would likely be a challenging experience for most, but for Romulus Whitaker it was a dream come true — he had arrived in “the land of cobras,” he explained to CNN.

Whitaker would go on to earn the nickname “Snakeman of India,” and spend more than six decades dedicated to reptile research and conservation. He’s written several books on snakes, spearheaded a lifesaving anti-venom program, and launched wildlife research stations throughout the country.

His field work with snakes and crocodiles ultimately led his conservation efforts to help save India’s rainforests.

Today, Whitaker’s focus is on educating Indians on how to protect themselves from snakes — part of a national campaign to reduce the snakebite mortality rate.

CNN spoke with Whitaker recently at his home in Mysore, southwestern India, around the release of the first volume of his memoir: “Snakes, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Early Years.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: How did you first become interested in snakes?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

                                                                                                  A young Romulus Whitaker holds up a

                                                                                                  milk snake circa 1947 in Hoosick, New York.

                                                                                  Doris Norden

Whitaker: I started out as a very young lad in northern New York state, turning over rocks and finding bugs and stuff, until I found a snake, and it was love at first sight.

It really started then. But I must blame or thank my mother for when I first brought a snake home. She said, ‘wow, how beautiful.’ And now, which mother would do that? Not very many.

Then, when my mother married Rama Chattopadhyay and we moved to India, that was something that opened up the world to me. Can you imagine an eight-year-old arriving in Bombay and being able to go out into the jungles of India? These are dreams that I had when I was a little kid, which came alive.

CNN: What does a herpetologist do and what was your journey to becoming one?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

                                                                                                            Romulus Whitaker (L) pictured here with mentor

                                                                                                            Bill Haast (R) at the Miami Serpentarium, where

                                                                                                            Whitaker learned how to extract venom from a snake                                                                                                              Heyward Clamp

Whitaker: A herpetologist is a strange person who studies reptiles. I’ve concentrated most of my work on snakes and crocodiles, but I am very interested in all the others … the turtles, the lizards, and of course the amphibians, the frogs and toads.

I’ve been doing this forever, ever since I was four years old when I picked up my first snake. [In 1960] I was going to college in America, but I flunked out. Then I got a job at the Miami Serpentarium and worked for this gentleman [Bill Haast] who handled king cobras with the greatest of ease and extracted their venom.

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   ORDER ON AMAZON NOW!

A legend in the arena of wildlife conservation and affectionately hailed as the 'Snakeman of India', Romulus Whitaker has had a lifelong love affair with the 'fierce creatures' that share our planet. This first volume of his fascinating memoir brings the India of the 1950s and the US of the 1960s to life. 

When his mother married and moved to Mumbai, Whitaker was transplanted from a conventional childhood in the US to what was for him the exciting world of India. At boarding school in Kodai, he kept a pet python under his bed and realized that all he really wanted to do was work with snakes. Sent to the US for college, Whitaker preferred snakes to lecture halls and left to work in a snake farm. The adventures that ensue are hair-raising and often hilarious. 

Snakes, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll tells the story of a boy who would become one of the greatest conservationists of his generation, discovering the wonders of India's extraordinary natural world.

                         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 <kingcobra@gmail.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.

Please see: https://madrascrocodilebank.org/web/snakebite_mitigation

Link to key snakebite paper below:

Trends in snakebite deaths in India from 2000 to 2019 in a nationally representative mortality study 

<https://elifesciences.org/articles/54076/figures>

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aUl-jQsLWs&t=33s

Snakebite

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHXbr9gy6N4&t=2s

 

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.

 

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". 

Romulus Whitaker 

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