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For the love of slithering beasts

For the love of slithering beasts
Romulus Whitaker with a chameleon

Marsh crocodiles, pythons, and cobras — not many human lives want to revolve around these reptiles. However, Romulus Whitaker was in love with these reptiles, and they were his best friends right from the age of four! His love for animals kept him going into the wild, leaving the US Army that he was once was part of, to eventually set up one of the India’s largest crocodile parks — Madras Crocodile Bank. As the crocodile bank celebrates 40 years of being home to many generations of happy crocs and snakes, Romulus shares the hiss-story with DC.

“My personal journey with snakes started when I was four years old, while I was growing up in New York State. I used to catch snakes right at that age, and I’m glad I had an unusual mother who was sympathetic towards my love for snakes. Then we moved to India when I was seven, and I had always heard of the country as the land of snakes before I knew anything else about it, so I was quite excited. After I finished school, I tried to go to college, but my interest was going into the wild all the time,” reminisces 73-year-old Whitaker with a smile. Chennai has been his home for years now, like the thousands of crocs and snakes he has rescued from all over the country and housed here.

Clad in a simple khadi kurta, Whitaker used to teach venom extraction to villagers across India on how to co-exist with snakes during the early days of 1969. “Irula tribes are now known across the world for their skills to extract venom. They have the skills that a hunter does — they can trace snakes’ movements just by trails on the sand, or a spot of blood. I was a part of the movement in banning trade of snakes for their skin and have set up the Irula Snake-Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society, where they can now legally catch snakes for their venom. It has been a real achievement, as this venom is key for making anti-venom — saving many millions of lives,” Whitaker shares. Irula tribe members will share their love for snakes with the society through a snake walk on Independence Day.

He adds that it is important for people to know how to live with snakes, as they are tiny creatures, low to the ground and are more scared of humans than we are of them. “Snakes aren’t looking for people to bite. They have no intention to hurt people. So is the case with crocodiles, they are extremely intelligent animals. Unless hurt, or if one enters into their waters, they do not attack. We need to understand animals to live with them in a sustainable way. Conservation of crocodiles along with education is important, as currently we see a lot of human-wildlife conflict — lack of understanding of animals is one of the reasons for it,” he explains, adding that festivals like Jallikattu, which harm animals, are unfortunate.

Currently, the Madras Crocodile Bank is home to over 2300 different species of crocodiles from India, Africa, and South America. Whitaker, who is currently working on snakebites and snake conservation, says there is much more to be done for these reptiles. “Despite many organisations working for crocodiles, we have just 15,000 to 20,000 crocodiles in the whole of our country, while a smaller country in area like Australia has a staggering 200,000 crocodiles, where people are given an incentive for protecting animals. Maybe we need such system here as well to keep the animals safe,” he says, planning for many more facilities to make the croc bank a global destination for crocodiles.