Wildlife Conservation: A Never-Ending Challenge

By Avadhani, Ramesh | The World and I, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Wildlife Conservation: A Never-Ending Challenge


Avadhani, Ramesh, The World and I


Romulus Whitaker is an American who has devoted more than four decades to the study of Indian reptiles. Sanjay Gubbi is a young man with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and has worked in projects to conserve the tiger and the elephant. I met Rom in Mahabalipuram and Sanjay in Bangalore, and frankly, the range of views they expressed on wildlife conservation was astonishing.

Romulus Whitaker

People in and around Mahabalipuram call Rom the "the snake man" but he is evidently much more than that. Author of over a hundred scientific articles and several books, he has also made a number of films on reptiles. His film on the king cobra Ophiaphagus hannah won an Emmy award. Along with his wife, Zai, he founded the Center for Herpetology in 1976 for research and conservation of reptiles. He also helped the Irula tribe in a splendid way. The Irulas of Tamil Nadu are a tribe famous for snake-hunting skills. For a long time they earned their living by selling snakeskin. When the government ban on such trading came into effect, Rom rushed to the tribe's rescue by establishing the Irula Snake Catchers Cooperative Society. The tribe now captures venomous snakes--cobras Naja naja, vipers Vipera russelli, Echis carinata, and kraits Bungarus caeruleus, Bungarus fasciatus--milk their venom and release the snakes in reserved forests. The venom is sold to manufacturers of antivenin.

"The project is a win-win situation," Rom said. "The Irulas have a steady source of income and the snakes aren't killed. We must find more such ways of using forest resources on a sustainable basis. That I think is the key to effective conservation of wildlife."

But it was with some anguish when he talked about his crocodiles housed at the Center for Herpetology. The center has 2,400 muggers Crocodylus palustris, twenty-nine gharials Gavialis gangeticus, and twenty-one salties Crocodylus porusus.

"All my crocodiles are just lying around, waiting for natural death. These three species were endangered twenty-five years ago. Hunters and poachers killed them indiscriminately for their beautiful skins. Now the crocs are dying because people and fisheries that have encroached upon the animals' habitat don't want them reintroduced there. They say that the crocs eat up all the fish. This is nonsense. Crocs are excellent scavengers and feed on predator fish that anyway are not commercially valuable.

"But more important is that crocodiles are on top of their food chain; they are the most ancient of reptiles and have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. To remove crocodiles from the environment would upset the ecological balance. The trouble is that the damaging effects would be visible only after many decades, after a generation or two. So, right now people are not bothered. They only have a short term goal--no crocodiles to interfere with their fishing."

Rom had come up with an alternative proposal: captive breeding and commercial sale of crocodiles. Still, the government wasn't convinced. "Some of those officials should go to Australia and see the kind of commercial breeding those guys are doing with the salty," he said.

Born in New York, Rom came to India at the age of seven and stayed to finish his schooling. He returned to the U.S. to study wildlife management. After brief stints in the merchant navy and the U.S. Army, he joined the United Nations. He was deputed to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Java for studies in conservation of reptiles.

Did he ever consider other pursuits, apart from herpetology and conservation?

"Well, I keep dreaming all the time," he mused. "I want to write fiction with a good dose of wildlife conservation. Perhaps that would give me a wider audience. Second, I want a lot of trees to be planted everywhere in India. The plant cover in this country is abysmal. Soon we will have nothing left to bequeath to future generations. …

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