A curious mind leads to snake conservation.

An interview with Mr. Rom Whitaker about snake awareness and conservation in India and his life-long experience shared with the WildHub community. By Rezoana Arefine, A conservation catalyst in the WildHub team.
A curious mind leads to snake conservation.
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I am a young herpetologist and snake awareness educator. In April 2024, I joined WildHub as a conservation catalyst. Basically, a conservation catalyst creates content about  impactful conservation efforts by interviewing experts in this field. I joined WildHub’s catalyst programme to leverage my passion for environmental conservation and actively share and contribute to meaningful and sustainable solutions for our biodiversity.

It is my pleasure to introduce Mr. Rom Whitaker. Mr. Rom Whitaker is a prominent field-based herpetologist. He has dedicated his life to saving snakes and, later, crocodiles. He founded the Global Snakebite Initiative, the Madras Crocodile Bank, and the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. He also wrote an autobiography named 'Snakes, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll'. He left his American citizenship to work on snakes in India. Mr. Rom Whitaker led a life that can be a fairy tale for many conservationists. In Conservation Catalyst Ussi Abuu’s interview, Mr. Rom shared his experiences with snake conservation. In this post, you will learn more about his background, the obstacles he faced while working in reptile conservation in India, and his advice to those who would like to work in this field.

Arefine: Can I know about you and your background, please?

Rom: I'm an American by birth. I came to India in 1951 with my mother, my stepfather, and my two sisters. I grew up here and did my schooling here. I returned to America for a few years. I should have been attending college, but my dislike for academics persisted.  So I took various jobs. The most important job I did in America was at the Miami Serpentarium, which was the world's largest venom production centre at the time. During my time there, Bill Haast was my mentor. I learned a lot about snakes and how to keep them. I believe the most important lesson I learned was that people are fascinated by snakes. Although they're frightened of snakes, they're very interested in them. So, I wanted to set up something in India that was similar to the Miami Serpentarium. In 1969, shortly after my return to India, I established the Madras Snake Park. A few years later, my former wife, Zai Whitaker, and I established the Madras Crocodile Bank, the largest reptile center in India, where millions of visitors come to learn about reptiles. So that's a bit of my background.

Arefine: Can I know about your initiative and why it started?

Rom: For a long time, the Madras Crocodile Bank has been helping with snakebites. In 1977, the Madras Crocodile Bank collaborated with the Madras Medical College in Chennai, formerly known as Madras, to host one of the initial seminars on snakebites. During the seminar, government officials acknowledged the seriousness of snakebites in India, as the majority of cases went unreported to hospitals. We lacked reliable statistics on snake bites and their mortality in India until the completion of the Million Death Study. From 2006 to 2010, the Global Health Centre at the University of Toronto and the Registrar General of India conducted the Million Death Study, visiting one million Indian households to investigate the causes of deaths. They found out that about 58,000 people die from snakebites in India each year, which is much higher than the government's estimate of 1,200 to 1,500 deaths per year. Since learning the real numbers, the government has started taking more action to address the issue, which is great news.

Rom with Irula tribals in Tamil Nadu

Rom with Irula tribals in Tamil Nadu

Arefine: What are the obstacles you have faced since starting to work in India?

Rom: In Bombay, I learned Hindi, and in South India, Tamil, at school. In Mysore, Karnataka, I'm trying to learn Kannada, the local language. At first, people saw me as a foreigner, but when I spoke a bit of their language, there was an instant connection and acceptance. I corrected those who called me a foreigner by saying I'm Indian like them. 

Back then, few people liked snakes, and if I stated anything positive about them, they thought I was insane because most stories were negative. The hardest part was shifting snake perceptions. Most snakes are harmless and afraid of humans; therefore, they avoid us. However, due to stories and movies presenting snakes as harmful, we must educate people about how good snakes are and that they're not hazardous. Teaching people was our toughest challenge.

Arefine: Why did you choose to work on snakes?

Rom: It reminds me of my upstate New York childhood. Despite being born in the city, my family lived in a forest-surrounded village. I loved discovering insects, birds, and snakes when I was four or five. I once brought a harmless snake back from a rock. Its beauty impressed my unique mother, who let me keep it in an old, broken aquarium. That moment sparked my interest in snakes, even though few people knew much about them. I learned about snakes from my mother's books, as well as by writing to experts. Even though snakes scare people, I found them beautiful, graceful, and innocent. My message has always been that snakes fear us more than we fear them. I became more interested in snakes as I learned more. Over 3,000 species offer fascinating size, color, and behavioral diversity. This field is amazing to study. 

 Arefine: From 1980 to 2024, what is your perspective on snake conservation? Does it decrease or increase?

Rom: I think snake knowledge has grown in many ways. Compared to the 1980's, the number of snake enthusiasts today is remarkable. Until then, few people studied or cared about snakes. However, thousands of people, especially young people, now care about snakes and want to protect them. This change is great. We teach people how to make movies, give talks, and do snake shows, where they can touch snakes for the first time. People often change their minds after discovering snakes aren't as scary as they thought.

Arefine: What's your goal with snakes and snake bite management?

Rom: My main goal is to educate people about snake bites. A mosquito net and a light are essential for nighttime walking. let me Share a story. I went outside without a light to check on my barking dog one night. It was in my backyard, so I wasn't worried. After a few steps, I felt something soft and thought it was a rope. When it hissed, I realised I'd stepped on a Russell's viper. Thanks to my quick reaction, I was in a sarong and bare feet. Since then, I've been a strong advocate for using a light at night. I also teach people to be careful where they put their hands and feet, especially when working in fields. I know boots are uncomfortable, but they can help. Many people, especially rural ones, need snake bite prevention training. I know people who run large education programmes that reach millions in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. We've made progress, but much remains. Get more people involved in snake conservation and bite prevention. 

Arefine: What should one do in snake conservation?

Rom: Learning about snakes is just the beginning. We have over 300 snake species in both countries, but only a few are venomous and can cause serious harm. We must educate people about the benefits of snakes for rodent control. Without snakes, rice production would suffer because rats would eat it all. Snakes enjoy eating rats and mice, their main foods.

Arefine: Are there any training sessions or other resources?

Rom: We've improved our programme by adding school training sessions, giving talks, and screening films. But there's also a new trend: mostly young men are getting involved in snake rescues. This is crucial because if a snake enters someone's house or yard, they need to be able to call someone for help. When a snake rescuer arrives, it's a great opportunity to teach people about snakes, especially since there's usually a crowd gathered. However, some rescuers start to see themselves as heroes and post risky stunts on social media, like handling cobras with their bare hands or even kissing them. These reckless actions have resulted in bites or even deaths for some of these young men, underscoring the importance of handling snakes safely and responsibly. We're taking steps to stop these risky behaviors among young snake rescuers. Involving the Forest and Wildlife Departments is one approach, as both India and Bangladesh protect snakes. We emphasize that if someone wants to be a snake rescuer, they need proper training, which we provide.

Arefine: You have said that you are a field-based herpetologist. What was the reason?

Rom: I'm not an academic. I've written scientific papers, but field herpetology is my passion. I like watching snakes in their natural habitat and studying their behaviour. I love working in the field, unlike academics, who prefer offices or labs. That's why I consider myself a field herpetologist—it's where I have the most fun and feel most fulfilled. 

 Arefine: What is your advice for young snake conservationists?

Rom: It's fantastic that people are interested in snakes; most people are scared of them. I believe it's beneficial for them to pursue their studies and earn degrees in fields like zoology, specialising in herpetology. They have a promising future if they read, listen to talks, and learn about snakes. Wildlife studies often overlook snakes, favouring animals such as birds and tigers. So, being interested in snakes gives them an advantage. There's still a lot to discover about snakes, and very few people are studying them compared to other animals like birds. Some young people might face discouragement from parents or others when choosing to study something like snakes, but I would encourage them to hold onto their interest and not let it go. If it's something they're passionate about, they should pursue it wholeheartedly.

 Arefine: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our WildHub members?

Rom: I want to encourage everyone to see snakes as a fascinating field of study. By learning more about snakes, we can help people avoid snake bites and change their attitudes towards snakes for the better. 

Arefine: You have shared insightful lessons. In my opinion, you have led a life that may be a fairytale to others.

 

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Go to the profile of Thirza Loffeld
30 days ago

Thank you for sharing Arefine and Rom! Wonderful interview and thank you for sharing your insights with us once again Rom. I'm happy that you were able to connect especially given your overlap in work! 

Go to the profile of Rezoana Arefine
30 days ago

Thank you, Thirza, for your inspiring words. I have learned from the lifelong experience of Mr. Rom, which, in my sense, will inspire others to conserve snakes. 

Go to the profile of Léa Kaplani
24 days ago

This is a wonderful interview! I learned so much about snakes and Rom is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing :) 

Go to the profile of Rezoana Arefine
22 days ago

Dear Léa,

Thank you for your appreciation. It’s meant a lot to me. 

Best,

Arefine 

Go to the profile of Zoe Melvin
23 days ago

Such an interesting interview Arefine! Great inspiration for aspiring herpetologists! Thank you for sharing!

Go to the profile of Rezoana Arefine
22 days ago

Dear Zoe,

Thank you for your appreciation. It’s really great to get feedback from you❤️❤️

Warm regards,

Arefine