Romulus Whitaker seems an unlikely name for an Indian citizen who is also a reptile expert and environment film-maker. But the combination of a foreign name, mildly Viking looks inherited from his Swedish mother, an unexpected fluency in local Indian dialects and a thoroughly irreverent attitude has marked this American-born, 65-year-old Indian citizen out as a highly unconventional yet effective conservationist in a country far from his birthplace.
Call of the Wild
Whatever his ancestry and skills, what drives him is a boundless enthusiasm for the wonders of nature, and a determination to save them. “It is fascination with the endless natural mysteries, questions on why critters do what they do, and empathy and sympathy in the face of the destruction all around,” he explains from his base in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. “I haven’t had to do a nine-to-five job ever in my life, and that is a very envious situation to be in if you like the wild. Life has been much like a river in that it picks you up and carries you along. I have got into things as they come towards me.”
This seemingly relaxed attitude belies the original thinking and careful and considered planning behind his many projects for wildlife, for forests and for the people living in them. His current ambition, for which he has been selected as an Associate Laureate in the 2008 Rolex Awards, is to create a network of rainforest research stations throughout India, part of a vision he has been elaborating in his mind for many years. “The idea of the rainforest research stations has been with me absolutely forever, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to do anything about it. Then all these things started falling into place over the last few years. My mother died and she left some money, enough to buy this block of land [at Agumbe, in southern India] we had talked about before her death. Then the Whitley Award for Nature came along and helped set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station and get it working really well.”
Charmed by Snakes
A mother’s tolerance for a small boy’s fascination with snakes — first in upstate New York and then among India’s much more venomous varieties – became the basis of a notable career in herpetology for Whitaker. Author of eight books and over 150 articles, he served in key reptile posts and has inspired many with 23 acclaimed environmental documentaries, such as the National Geographic film “King Cobra”. In 1984, for his project to help the indigenous Irula people of Tamil Nadu make the transition from their old trade (catching snakes for the now-banned skin trade) to collecting snake venom to produce life-saving antivenom serum, he received an Honourable Mention in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.
Whitaker realized long ago that snakes and the other species he loves cannot survive without their habitats. So, like many others, he has evolved from naturalist to conservationist. “A lot of us get wrapped up in our own little special animal and then we wake up and start thinking it has got to be habitat and it has to be eco-development that involves people and, now, in my case, it has crystallized into the whole idea of water resources.
“India has a history of droughts, floods and famines,” Whitaker explains. “Food production has been successfully tackled and dealt with, but we are now faced with a water shortage that will dwarf any of the past problems faced by the people. Owing to forest clearance and ill-advised dam projects, rivers are drying up, ground water reserves are being used up faster than they can be replenished and pollution is hitting most of our sources of drinking water. These are the obvious problems, but there are other, possibly much more serious threats facing our water regimes including climate change, which we must tackle on a war footing.”
Ironically the water that Whitaker is intent on saving is in the form of rain, one of the major obstacles to conservation research in many parts of India. Despite being recognized worldwide as biodiversity hotspots, relatively little is known about India’s dwindling rainforests and the many species for which they are home. But monsoon downpours make it near-impossible for researchers to operate at the very time the most scientifically interesting events are occurring in the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants. At Agumbe, where Whitaker caught his first king cobra back in 1971, annual rainfall of 10m or so condemns outsiders not just to swarms of leeches, along with wet clothes and tents, but also to guaranteed malfunction in all the equipment bound up in recording, communicating and calculating.
A Three-Part Plan
Whitaker’s base at Agumbe, constructed in 2005, and now a fully functioning research, conservation and education centre, is the first of seven research stations that will connect key remaining rainforest strongholds throughout India. Sita Nadi, a river that has its source near the Agumbe Station, is a major focus for Whitaker and his team, who have started a small but ambitious plan to clean up and maintain the integrity of the river, using a three-pronged approach: evaluating the problems, involving the people and implementing a practical action plan. Whitaker cannot emphasize enough the importance of the region’s rainforests for water resources. “The rainforests of India are the origin of all the major rivers in the south and the north-east,” he points out. “The rivers in the Western Ghats [in India’s south] provide the water for 350 to 400 million people, about a third of India’s population.”
The Agumbe station itself consists of living and working quarters purpose-built to function during the monsoon and to be self-sufficient in renewable energy. It is strategically located on about three hectares of land adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary and a national park so that field scientists have easy access to the forest. The base has hosted dozens of Indian researchers, journalists and naturalists. But the station’s mission extends beyond science. It is a springboard for local conservation, including the sustainable use of minor forest produce and medicinal plants. The station has educated hundreds of school children about the forest. “Children are a bit shaky about going into the forest at first, but fascination with what we show them soon gets them hooked,” Whitaker says.
The Benefits of a Network
The network of seven stations will produce vital information, building on discoveries by Whitaker’s colleagues of over 100 new species of frogs in the last decade, and the study of crabs that live in trees. The network will allow immediate exchange of expertise and research, creation of a comprehensive biodiversity database, and expanded mobile educational programmes. Five of the stations in the network, including Agumbe, will be located in the states that span the Western Ghats. A sixth station will be located in the far north-eastern state of Assam, a vital haven for large numbers of migratory birds and endangered mammals. The seventh station is in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 350 tropical islands situated 1,200 kilometres from the Indian mainland in the Bay of Bengal.
Six of the seven stations already exist in various stages of development and now need vital new laboratory equipment and in some cases physical expansion to bring them up to speed for the network. Whitaker will use the Rolex award to help make this happen. Only one station, near the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in the southern tip of India, needs to be built from the ground up. The Rolex funds will also be used to fit out the bases with automatic weather stations. “Climate change is tightly linked with the future of water resources and we need to be monitoring it now,” he says.
Capable of Changing Attitudes
All those who know Whitaker’s work agree that his ability to implement environmental projects is considerable. “Rom Whitaker is passionate about conservation and he is an intrepid fieldworker,” says S. Theodore Baskaran, honorary wildlife warden and former Postmaster General of Tamil Nadu. “As an institution-builder, Rom is unfazed by any hurdle he might face in his work.”
Whitaker puts his trust not just in his own skills, but also in the aspirations of younger generations: “We are doing a lot of work with young people, bringing them to the forest and showing them what happens here and why it matters. It can be very difficult to change adult attitudes, but with the young, it is easier to get across the knowledge that what we are doing to the forests we are doing to ourselves.”
Published in 2008