Snakes Alive!

This is the month when many parts of India celebrate Nag Panchami or festival of snakes, by worshipping the Snake God for protection. The many rituals and myths associated with this perpetuate many false perceptions about snakes. This takes me back to my own snake story.IMG_20180830_100525311.jpg

When I started my career as an environmental educator, one of my first close encounters of the wild kind was when we were asked to touch a snake! This was in Sundarvan, a small snake park. The snake was a Red Sand Boa—a non-venomous snake. For someone who was, at that time, far from being a passionate wild-lifer, this was indeed an experience that served to dispel the many myths that one had grown up with. One of these were that snakes were “slimy”, and to be avoided at all costs. The skin of the sand boa felt dry and smooth, and we learnt that most snakes are in fact non-venomous.

And there began my long and fascinating journey in the natural world. A journey along which I had the most wonderful encounters with some of India’s best known naturalists and educators.

One of these was the Snakeman of India Romulus Whitaker.

Not so long after my induction by snakes, Romulus himself came to CEE and fascinated us with snake tales and the importance of breaking the myths that associated snakes with all things creepy and vile, and communicating the vital role of snakes in the ecosystem, especially as friends of farmers because they eat the rats that destroy crops.

A little later, Romulus graciously accepted to write a piece for a book that Meena and I were editing. In this he recounted how he first came to India from New York city when he was 8 years old, and returned a few years later  to make India his home, and herpetology his career. He recalled how “the snake charmers at Juhu Beach in Bombay were my first tutors but it wasn’t long before I outgrew their mixture of magic and nonsense.”

Romulus’s passion for setting the record straight about reptiles has manifested itself in a long and close association with the Irulas, an indigenous tribe of snake catchers of Tamil Nadu who became his friends and mentors; setting up of India’s first Snake Park in 1970 and the Madras Crocodile Bank in 1975 and, in 2005 the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. These Parks continue to attract and educate millions of visitors every year, and they have also become the base of conservation research projects in many parts of India including the Andaman islands.

His never-ending impulse to show and tell people about reptiles led Romulus to start making documentary films, many of which have won international awards. One of his first films Snakebite tells about how to avoid and treat snakebite. 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, extract and freeze-dry venom from snakes and sell it to anti-venom producing laboratories before releasing the snakes back into the wild.

In 2018 Romulus was awarded the Padma Shri for nature conservation. In one of the interviews following the award Romulus said “I believe that touching a snake opens people’s minds and changes it forever.” I can totally vouch for that!

Thank you Rom for helping to open a new world, and for being a continuing inspiration!

–Mamata