Romulus Earl Whitaker (known fondly as Rom to most) has single handedly influenced, perhaps, an entire generation to develop interest in reptiles. During the yesteryears, his Common Indian Snakes – A Field Guide was a bible for all those who could not access other technical publications. In more recent times the comprehensive Snakes of India too achieved a similar status.
An acclaimed herpetologist, he was well equipped to set up the Madras Snake Park; he worked closely with the Irulas. He also started the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust. In more recent times he established the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka.
For his pioneering work, he has received numerous awards, the most notable among them being the Whitley Award (2005) and the Associate Laureate in the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. He is affiliated with several national and international agencies that work for the conservation of reptiles.
Rom has dabbled with producing documentaries on reptiles too, with the King and I being the most popular.
Without much ado, we would like to leave you to read the chat Janaki Lenin had with Rom Whitaker on his forays in Agumbe. Your memories of the first meeting with the charismatic Rom are bound to last for a very long time to come, as would this interview.
1. When did you first visit Agumbe? It’s such a tiny place; how did you hear of it?
I went to Agumbe in 1971 for the very first time. I used to visit Kenneth Anderson in Bangalore and Masinagudi. He was very interested in snakes, and we used to go looking for snakes together. He said, “If you want to see a King Cobra, go to Agumbe.” I asked, “What do you mean?” He replied, “I was just passing through. I was walking along a stream-bed and suddenly saw this huge head of a snake sticking out of the bushes, staring at me. I knew it could only be a hamadryad [old name for King Cobra]. This was the first time I’d seen one, and I’ve been walking through the Western Ghats for years.” The landscape of Agumbe, the rainfall, the vegetation – everything smells of King Cobras.
View from the plains, showing Agumbe hidden by clouds
2.When you went there, what was your first impression?
There was a crazy man in the middle of the street in Agumbe, directing traffic and shouting. I picked up a few supplies in a shop and asked for directions into the jungle. They said, “yeah, there is an obvious road into the jungle for timber lorries.” There were even working elephants. There were roads going to the escarpment, to the waterfall – there were roads going everywhere. I had my knapsack and sleeping bag. It wasn’t the rainy season so I was okay. It wasn’t a drippy rainforest. The trees were incredibly different from elsewhere. Because of the heavy rainfall, long tendrils of moss hung from branches, which lent an almost eerie, wonderful atmosphere to the forest, so different from other forests in the Western Ghats.
One of Agumbe’s gigantic trees.
3. Which other forests in Karnataka had you been to?
Mostly along the Western Ghats, but nowhere where the rainfall was as heavy. I travelled a lot with an entomologist friend Chris Pruett. We’d camp along streams and set up a light trap. We’d been to Koppa, which is not far off from Agumbe.
4.How long did you stay in Agumbe?
I stayed for 3-4 days maybe. On the first day, I caught a King Cobra. The Electricity Board has a rest house in the village. When I came out of the forest, the guys there gave me a room to put all my stuff. At that time, they didn’t know I had a King Cobra in a sleeping bag. I went out to meet David Hailes and Linda Ballou at the bus stop, and we went back into the forest for 2-3 more days.
5.Tell me about the King Cobra capture.
In those days, I was catching every snake I saw. There were big, dark rat snakes all along the Western Ghats, so when I saw a dark tail disappear, I leapt on it and caught it. Then I saw this King Cobra rise up above my head with its hood spread. My first reaction was to let it go, and it disappeared into the undergrowth. Then I realised I had lost a King Cobra. In those days, I didn’t carry a snake hook. I poked the pile of leaves with a stick. The snake – a 9-foot female – popped out, and I had her by the tail. She would try to get away, but couldn’t. So she would turn around and I would fend her off. That’s typically how King Cobras behave. She could have, if she had wanted to, charged right past the stick and bitten me on the nose. But she was very frightened.
Somehow I got my sleeping bag out of my knapsack, stretched it out, and made a small cave-like opening with some sticks. All while still holding on to the snake and fending her off. I’m not sure how I did it, but I did it. I manoeuvred around so the snake could see the opening of the sleeping bag, and she went inside. This was my first experience with this kind of bagging, without having to pin the snake’s head.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about that capture was that two local forest workers came by while I was tussling with the snake. I nodded at them, maybe grimaced a smile. They just watched for a couple of minutes, open-mouthed, and quickly went their way. Wonder what story they told about the sight of this skinny white guy with a huge Cobra by the tail. After that, I went to the tailor in the village and had two huge snake bags made. I also fashioned my Jesus Christ stick – a long, sturdy 6-foot stick that I made from a kind of palm and tied a short crossbar to it at one end. You could keep the snake from coming at you or scoop it towards you as needed.
For the second King Cobra, I had a better plan. I like to hunt alone, so I can concentrate. I had a collapsible butterfly net. I had been out all day and it was getting dark. I realised I had to get back to camp. In the semi-darkness, I was walking along a dry stream-bed when I heard a growling sound. I couldn’t see anything. The snake blended in very well. Then I realised it was a big male King Cobra. His hood was half-tilted towards me, and then he shot off up into the embankment that was covered in some Lantana-like plant. I grabbed his tail and he flopped down on the streambed. I used my John the Baptist stick. He was getting tired and it was getting dark. I had no light with me. Using one hand, I braced the butterfly net against some stones and stretched the bag out. The Cobra saw a nice little cave and slipped inside.
Implanting a radio collar in a King Cobra
6. What else did you do while you were in Agumbe?
I photographed a lot in black and white – frogs and insects. We once found a vine snake eating a uropeltid. And, Malabar pit vipers. One day, David Hailes walked down the escarpment to Someshwara, and on the way, saw a huge python shed its skin. He didn’t have a camera, so he just watched it. The next day, we went to the place, and sure enough, there was shed skin all over. We searched for the snake, but couldn’t find it. Walking through the forest at Someshwara, we ran into what we named ‘Valley of Spiders’. The number of golden-webbed nephalid spiders there, you would not believe! They’re beautiful and huge, but not scary spiders. However, the golden strands of their webs are really strong and sticky, which meant we were wiping our faces all along the way.
On that trip, I experienced malai murugan [a nettle called Dendrocnide sinutata] for the first time. I didn’t dress up for the jungle in those days, with some vague hippie idea that clothes and metal would put off animals. So I was dressed in a loin cloth. I didn’t yet recognize this fantastic nettle, but it would soon literally burn into my memory. I brushed against it and felt searing pain all along my legs and arms and even my poor bare buttocks. I jumped into the stream, thinking it would ease off. But the touch of water was pure agony.
In the village, they told me about a snake catcher who got it all over his body and died two days later. They said the antidote was applying a paste made from the plant’s roots. I said I wouldn’t do anything like that. It was the longest I’ve ever had a nettle last – almost 6 months.
A stream in Agumbe, at high water level
7. How often did you visit Agumbe after that?
After that, I probably went to Agumbe a couple of times. I think the year I spent any length of time there was in 1993.
Releasing a captured King Cobra
8. How did you come up with the idea of setting up a field station there?
I had always loved the idea of actually living in the forest, and I had read about a rainforest research station called Barro Colorado Island, set up by the Smithsonian Institution in Panama nearly 100 years ago. They were learning so much, and we know almost nothing about our Western Ghats forests! My idea evolved from a combination of wanting to set up a field station and owning a piece of land in Agumbe. Also, local people see us as outsiders. I wanted them to see us as insiders. How can you be an insider unless you lived there and had a stake in the place?
Locals showing a King Cobra nest
9. What do you see the field station doing 10 years later? How far does it need to go before it becomes what you envisaged?
It’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing in some ways, which is to set up and operate small projects of interest on species that are characteristic or typical of the place. It has to start attracting people to come and do research there. There are so few opportunities to live and work in the same place. If it were not for the field station, you couldn’t do long term projects.
The field station
10. Do you remember any other incidents in Agumbe?
All I have are images of this magical place – of tree nymph butterflies floating like fairies, of black leopards watching you unseen as you stumble along, of the big, lone bull elephant that passes through every year and knocks all the ugly fence posts down. The mystery of the King Cobra, though, is still to be unravelled. We still don’t know a lot about it.