The King and I was an American musical film based on the memoirs written by Anna Leonowens, who taught the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. The King and I swept the Oscars, getting five of them. In 1996, a documentary, The King and I, was made for the National Geographic Channel. The major variance here was that the king in the title was not an east Asian monarch but the majestic king cobra, the sizeable venomous snake in the world supposedly capable of killing an elephant.
This film, like its namesake, received many awards, including the prestigious Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Documentary Programming. The filmmaker was Asia’s Reptile Man, Romulus Whitaker, an American-born-Madras-resident.
In distant New York state, a four-year-old boy catches a snake. His mother, an artist, surprisingly encourages him to pursue the hobby — what a normal maternal instinct could have considered dangerous to her kin. This sets him on a lifelong journey as a herpetologist. After a parental divorce (his mother later married Rama Chattopadhyay, a nephew of Sarojini Naidu), the family moves to India and while studying in a Kodaikanal residential school, the ecology of the Palani Hills further fascinated him. In addition, Romulus would hide a two-metre pet boa constrictor below his bed in the dormitory without the warden ever hearing of it.
After a stint at the Vietnam war, Romulus headed to India. Soon thereafter, he set up a snake venom extraction venture outside Bombay to supply medicine producers. Romulus used to visit Madras to buy snakes and in one such trip was introduced to the Irulas, the tribal snake catchers.
India then and even now has a love-hate relationship with snakes — treating them as gods on one hand, and the other, killing them with impunity.
In such a diverse country like India, one should not be surprised there is a tribe that sustains on snake catching alone. The aboriginal Irulas, a few thousand in number, were still dwellers of the scrub forests in and around Madras, and they still lived by hunting and gathering. Their lifestyle had changed little from prehistoric times.
The Irulas would find the snakes mainly by searching for spoors, droppings and moulted skins. Snakes are teased out with short crowbars, pinned with a stick and put in a bag. Middlemen and merchants used their astounding skills in sensing the presence of a snake and capability in gathering it and use them to decimate the snake population mainly for skins to be exported for fashion wear.
In 1976, the export of snake skins from India was banned, mainly because snakes thrived on rodents which ate their weights in harvested grain every season. The entire tribe of Irulas would have starved or turned into poachers.
Romulus had by then moved his operation to Madras city and would play a great role in solving two problems in one stroke.
Thousands of people were dying worldwide due to snakebite. The only known cure was the anti-snakebite serum which was produced by injecting the venom in safe quantities into a horse that produces antibodies. This is used to make the serum that can save a snakebite victim.
In 1978, Romulus assisted a group of Irulas in forming a cooperative society. The primary objective of the cooperative was to establish a venom centre. Romulus educated the tribals on the scientific trapping of serpents to milk them for precious venom for medical purposes and releasing them into the wild again. Today sufficient venom is being produced to make the several million vials of antivenom serum.
He organised a deal under which Irulas got a licence from Tamil Nadu Forest Department and using that they legally caught venomous snakes to the centre for venom extraction. The freeze-dried venom would become the important ingredient needed for antivenom serum, and the snakes were released back to the wild after three weeks in captivity.
Romulus realised that in a land where wildlife was treated with impunity and killed like a pest, wildlife conservationists have an invaluable contribution to nature conservation.
In 1969, Romulus set up India’s first reptile park, the Madras Snake Park, outside Chennai city, which was soon shifted to the Guindy Deer Park. Suddenly, lakhs of people were thronging a park within urban limits and saw the snakes they had feared in mythology.
In 1976, he set up the Madras Crocodile Bank, now India’s largest reptile conservation, research and education centre.
Rom was by now Asia’s reptile man and by making or being talked about in many documentaries on conservation, scientific and sustainable utilisation of wild animal products, tribal welfare and captive breeding of rare species had become a world-renowned figure.
He has been honoured with Padmashri and other international awards. But Romulus must have been most pleased with the honour when a species of Indian boa, Eryx Whitaker, was named in his honour.
— The writer is a historian and an author