With a legendary passion for reptiles, Romulus Whitaker is leading conservation efforts in South Asia. Combining innovative strategies such as anti venom production, documentary work and academic research, Romulus’s cooperative community based approach is changing the methods and practices of reptilian conservation
Affectionately known as the ‘Snake Man of India, Rom’s tryst with Indian reptiles started when he encountered the Irula tribe based in Tamil Nadu. Following the snake trade ban in 1975, Romulus worked with the Irula to wean them away from their traditional occupation of selling snake skins. The Irula and Romulus collaborated to create the Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative Society, through which they were trained in devenoming poisonous snakes. Today, the Irula Cooperative is the only licensed anti-venom producer in the country, supplying more than a million bottles of anti-venom needed to save hundreds from snakebites in the country.
However, Rom’s mission did not end here. With a strong belief that conservation happens in the field, Rom has been engaging a range of local communities and people to make them a part of the conservation effort. In Agumbe, the Andaman, and Nicobar islands he has set up research stations managed by local communities in the heart of the rainforests ( ARRF & ANET). Through a mix of both community based experts and experts from the sciences, Rom has ensured that conservation efforts include local and traditional knowledge, as well as benefit from the advances in science and technology. Outside the forests, in the heart of cities like urban Chennai, Rom has inspired scores of young people to take up the conservation of local wildlife. Through the path-breaking Madras Snake Park and Crocodile Bank, Rom introduces urban inhabitants to the exotic and the esoteric and works with them to make rare reptiles part of the everyday. The Crocodile Bank in particular, celebrated as a gene pool for all species of crocodiles, has become a premier research centre for Herpetology. Rom has replicated the Crocodile Bank internationally, in Papua New Guinea and in Bangladesh, where the park’s employ sustainable practices to finance operations and conservation efforts.
Today, Romulus is reenergizing his efforts on the problem of snakebites in the country. A thriving underground market for cobra anti-venom is threatening the Irula cooperative, the sole official source for anti-venom, making the anti-venom further inaccessible to people. With around 50,000 people still dying of snake bites every year, Romulus is raising awareness on this issue with policy makers and health officials. He has also collaborated and produced several award winning films on snakes, snake-bites, the Irula cooperative, including the King and I and Supersize Crocs. Through such strategies, Romulus is taking forward his mission to connect communities with conservation efforts across South Asia.
Note: This was updated in August, 2014. Read on for the ELECTION profile.