Many young students, upon arriving in Agumbe for their research or field-work, have been intrigued by a bearded scientist who breathes and lives snakes. P. Gowri Shankar, herpetologist, is a fascinating personality, managing an equally fascinating schedule: At 8 am, you could find him at Bangalore’s City Market, talking about a new snake-hook design; at 10 am, he is in the lab learning about molecular genetics tools; a little later, he is probably planning a snake rescue workshop with his collaborators from Mysore and other parts of India.
Gowri Shankar’s long-term goals revolve around his ideas on snake ecology and conservation. He has created awareness among a large audience through the documentaries about the King Cobra that he has been part of. He is currently coping with a PhD project on King Cobras which requires data from all over India, while balancing his role as co-founder of the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology at Agumbe. He is also an advisor on snake captive management at the Kannur Zoo and a mentor-friend to many. Apart from being a consummate field biologist, he finds time to indulge in urban fascinations of vintage bikes and horse-riding.
In this interview, he opens up about his phenomenal career in herpetology, the numerous challenges of on-ground conservation, and his tryst with the king of snakes.
1. You grew up in the heart of Bangalore. What sparked your interests in forests and reptiles?
A chance sighting of a snake in our backyard when I was barely 9 years old got me wondering about them. I found them extremely interesting, but only heard negative things being said about them. That conflict between wonder, myth and facts got me curious. Since then, I aspired to learn more, and dreamt of living in a forest with snakes around me.
The heart of Bangalore 30 years ago was much greener than it is now. Living in the outskirts with paddy fields, mango groves, and a small lake, I shared my home with many snakes. I caught my first snake when I was thirteen. Every step forward, be it herping, research or captive management springs from that primal chord of passion that struck me as a child.
2. Your passion lead you to meet renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker. As a student just out of college, how did you manage reaching so far?
Like any reptile enthusiast, I admired people associated with snakes. I met Mr. Mohammed Anees, who used to rescue snakes in Bangalore those days. He mentored me and suggested that I get in touch with Rom. At a time when I literally had to save to travel, I persisted, and visited the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT) four times before Rom was kind enough to speak to me for a few minutes. After several follow-ups, I was appointed as an intern for 3 months, and was later given the position of an education officer. Just working under Rom with an open mind, observant and diligent, set me on the right path. Ever since my student days, I have believed in being focused, sincere, and giving my best to whatever I do. Over the years, I have come to understand that it is very important to strike the right balance between smart work and hard work.
3. During your time at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), there would have been many great experiences. Could you share one such interesting experience which shaped your path?
MCBT was undoubtedly a great learning experience and a whole new world for me. Reptiles of all sorts, the people, the place, and the most amazing library filled with books on herps – I did not need any other companionship. Entrusting me with the captive management of King Cobras was the best thing that happened. Working with 18 King Cobras every day taught me so much that I realised how little I knew; this got me even more interested in studying them in the wild. Thus was paved my path into the secret world of King Cobras.
4. We know you worked with captive King Cobras while you were at MCBT; was that your first interaction with the King? What about King Cobras lead you to specialise in them?
Yes, I worked with captive King Cobras for four years at MCBT. But it wasn’t my first interaction. I was attracted to King Cobras since my college days in a rather eccentric way, to the extent that I preferred watching them the whole day at Bannerghatta Zoo, rather than attending classes at college. My daily routine consisted of dropping my younger sister to college, bunking my classes, and observing King Cobras at the zoo until evening. I used to wake up from this trance only to pick up my sister. Given a choice, I would not have left the place unless forced out by the zoo authorities! The more I observed, the more inquisitive I got. That’s when I decided to take the help of science in understanding King Cobras, and after 20 years, I feel the journey has just begun.
5. From the east coast, you moved to the Central Western Ghats. Tell us about this journey and what took you to these misty forests.
The transfer from the hot and humid eastern coast to the Western Ghats was bliss! Snakes and forests were dreams I had cherished for as long as I could remember. When I teamed up with Romulus Whitaker to help set up a field station in Agumbe, it was a dream come true. Agumbe’s scenic beauty, biodiversity, snake-friendly culture, and Malnad cuisine, all had a tremendous impact on me. And to realise that I was walking the same land on which King Cobras roamed free was indeed a special feeling.
6. “An unknown visitor in the village who does not seem to leave”, is what the people of Agumbe could have thought when you first arrived. How did you become one amongst them?
As in any close-knit village community, it takes a lot of effort and genuineness to earn acceptance. I spent lot of time with the villagers, talking about our work and intentions of conserving King Cobras. First, I started rescuing them from the King, which instilled confidence that help was near in case they had a snake in their homes. I used every opportunity to talk about snakes, conducted awareness programs in local schools, hostels, fairs, villages, and temples, for self-help groups and more. These interactions and the knowledge gained instilled in them a sense of pride for their land, which was home to the largest venomous snake in the world. Acceptance took a couple of years. I am indebted to them, and equally proud to say that I am a citizen of Agumbe. Now I have my ration card and also get invited to people’s weddings and other ceremonies.
7. Chasing King Cobras has taken you extensively around India. How was your experience with people from different walks of life?
King Cobras are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats, Northeast India, Sub-Himalayan region, and the Andaman Islands, and because of this, I visit all these places and meet interesting people. It is a known fact that travel and education go hand in hand; the more you travel, the better you become. I have experienced different cultures, visited different forests, witnessed diversity, tasted amazing cuisines and most importantly, met incredible people doing some amazing work.
I am perplexed by how people from different regions perceive the same King Cobra differently. For example, in Northeast India, snakes are hunted irrespective of their size, and are considered appetising; in the Eastern Ghats, they are killed at sight but not eaten; in parts of the Western Ghats, they are shot; and in the Malnad region of Karnataka, King Cobras are worshipped as gods, with special offerings for merely sighting them.
When it comes to snakes, especially King Cobras, people are already burdened by the baggage of myths – most people are scared, some revere them, and very few think from a scientific or conservational angle. My biggest challenge is addressing such divergent thoughts, convincing them, and urging the right action to conserve these apex predators.
8. From a snake enthusiast to a herpetologist, and more formally, a scientist – had you imagined this would ever happen, while you were pursuing a degree in Commerce?
My career path has been anything but conventional. During my formal education days, the field of ecology and wildlife were least priority and hardly known; I wasn’t even aware of such options. I made all the wrong moves to get an educational qualification, but my passion for snakes has steered me to where I am now. While I’m still in the process of becoming a scientist, it feels great to look back and see how I have evolved.
9. From being a snake enthusiast who was single, to being the father of two kids – do you still wander the same amount? How has this been possible for you?
Being single was an advantage to my professional life, but becoming a husband and a father completed me as a person. I wander even more now, and it is possible because of a strong, independent and dedicated woman in my life: Sharmila, my wife. She takes care of our home, our kids, and our brainchild, the Kalinga Centre for Rain-forest Ecology (KCRE).
I am also very lucky to have a great team (Prashanth, Sujan, interns and volunteers) who understand my vision and share the same passion. My team backs me up in executing our plans, and their unwavering support makes things possible for me. I am the face of the fame I have acquired, but my wife and my team are the undercurrents that make it all happen.
10. Moving from King Cobras in India to following your Ph.D dreams in Europe, and travelling around that continent – how did this happen?
The courage to pursue a Ph.D was perhaps a giant leap of faith instilled in me by a very special friend. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life, but is a happy turning point. Travelling to Europe was the generous offer by the ERASMUS MUNDUS exchange programme for which I qualified, opening doors to the world herpetological scene. I met many herpetologists and scientists, visited museums, delivered lectures, and interacted with students. I also befriended common people crazy about snakes; they were neither scientists nor researchers, but had designed and maintained terrariums in the most scientific way. Their discipline and dedication in caring for their reptile pets is commendable.
11. You never truly left Agumbe; instead, you gave a new shape to your love for that place. Tell us about the Kalinga Centre for Rain-forest Ecology (KCRE) and the driving forces behind it?
Agumbe is special for all the memories it has woven, both personally and professionally. My wife shares my love for it, so we decided to make it our home for life. Agumbe’s charm can transform people; anybody who has experienced Agumbe’s beauty will vouch for it.
As the saying goes, ‘what we love, we will conserve’. From this sprung the idea of an environmental education campsite. Thus was born Kalinga Centre for Rain-forest Ecology, a campsite where people irrespective of professional or educational backgrounds can appreciate and understand the rain-forest, and learn scientific tools of conservation through workshops and camps. A major portion of the funds generated by KCRE goes towards conserving the Western Ghats. Our aim is to do as much as possible, in all ways possible, to conserve what we have of these pristine forests of India.
12. You still live on the edge, a wanderer and dreamer. What does tomorrow look like?
The luxury of a dreamer is to wander where your heart takes you. I am living that privilege now! Tomorrow? I’m sure it has lots to offer, but I believe in living in the moment.
Note: All photographs used in this interview have been provided by Gowri Shankar, from his personal collection.