Extract: Romulus Whitaker's Transformation Into India's Snake Man

Snakeman Romulus Whitaker's memoir takes readers on a journey through his life, delving into hurdles such as habitat degradation and cultural disparities concerning wildlife conservation
Extract: Romulus Whitaker's Transformation Into India's Snake Man

Imagine a childhood fuelled by a deep love for the wild, nurtured in the American countryside and blossoming into a lifelong dedication to India's incredible wildlife, particularly its most misunderstood creatures—snakes. This is the world of herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, the "Snakeman of India," whose recently released memoir, "Snakes, Drugs And Rock 'N' Roll," co-authored by journalist and writer Janaki Lenin, offers a glimpse into his journey.

"I didn't give myself the nickname 'Snakeman of India.' However, having established India's first Snake Park over five decades ago and dedicating years to documenting and studying the reptiles through writing and filming, the title naturally stuck to me," said the American-born Indian wildlife conservationist while speaking to OT.

Whitaker attributes his fascination with the natural world to a healthy dose of childhood rebellion. Disenchanted with academics, he found solace in the untamed beauty of wild places and creatures. This passion intensified when his family moved to India, which he fondly calls "the land of cobras." The book chronicles this early exposure to snakes, sparking a lifelong love affair that continues to shape his work.

Romulus Whitaker with a prairie rattler that bit him in El Paso
Romulus Whitaker with a prairie rattler that bit him in El Paso

Digging Deeper

The book also explores the challenges faced by local communities that coexist with wild animals, highlighting the need for solutions that address their concerns. Whitaker points to the reverence for cobras in certain regions as a prime example.

"There are villages in West Bengal's Bardhaman District where people live with cobras. The cobras are so comfortable with people that they don’t even spread their hoods when encountered. We can learn a lot from these people and snakes to reduce the tremendous snakebite problem in India," he said.

Not only this, the book tackles the ethical complexities of intervention in natural ecosystems. Whitaker shares his experience with Tamil Nadu's Irula tribe, who traditionally hunted snakes for their skins.

Whitaker with an American crocodile in Miami Serpentarium, 1963
Whitaker with an American crocodile in Miami Serpentarium, 1963

"Previously, in the region, traditional snake-catching practices were unsustainable, particularly considering the vital role snakes play in controlling rodent populations and maintaining agricultural health," he said. He devised an innovative solution to tackle this: establishing a cooperative for sustainable snake venom collection.

"The Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative emerged as an ingenious solution. This initiative allows members to continue their snake-catching skills but with a crucial shift: the captured snakes are now milked for their venom, a vital ingredient in lifesaving antivenom. These snakes are then released back into their natural habitat," Whitaker added.

"Snakes, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll" by Romulus Whitaker and Janaki Lenin (HarperCollins)
"Snakes, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll" by Romulus Whitaker and Janaki Lenin (HarperCollins)

From Anecdotes To Insights

The book is not your typical wildlife narrative. The title itself hints at the unconventional path Whitaker takes the reader on. It's a tale weaving encounters with venomous giants and a shift from hunting to conservation. Talking about this change, he said, "My transformation happened over a while and really hit me when I travelled around India in the early 1970s surveying crocodiles and found that they had been all but wiped out."

Beyond personal anecdotes, the book tackles the broader challenges and triumphs of wildlife conservation in India. Reflecting on this, Whitaker remarked, "While raising public awareness about the loss of India's wild habitats and creatures to development remains a significant hurdle in wildlife conservation, there have been triumphs. These include the establishment of magnificent Protected Areas, the encouraging resurgence of critically endangered reptiles like the gharial, and the dedication of young researchers actively involved in conservation efforts."

Finally, for aspiring conservationists, Whitaker's message is clear: "Follow your dream. Unwavering passion and dedication are key, whether it's a specific species or a particular habitat. And most importantly, don’t let adults (who, chances are, have not had the delightful experience of being in the wild) dissuade you."

Excerpt From "Snakes, Drugs And Rock 'N' Roll"

Early in the morning, I lay in bed by the open door, watching seven peccaries rooting in the apple orchard. With them were two coatimundis searching for ripe fruit. One peccary ambled up before realising how close I was. It looked at my face in surprise, coughed once, and all of them took off like midget racehorses. I savoured the moment, but there were snakes to be caught. I busied myself making four peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwiches with thick slices of wheat bread, which went into a clean snake bag.

I headed straight up the canyon, crawling through barb-wire fences and into the woods along a well-worn trail that took me through the narrow Box Canyon and through the pine forest. Deer scattered through the brush, and the occasional one streaked away with its white tail flashing. Insect sounds reverberated through the air. The sun rose high, brightening the floor of the canyon.

Holding his first snake in Hoosik, New York, 1947
Holding his first snake in Hoosik, New York, 1947

I walked carefully across a massive rock slide, alert for the soft buzz of a small rattler. At the first sound of one, I excavated the rocks, but the rattle grew fainter. The snake had retreated inside. I had to be faster next time.

Careful not to start a landslide, I made my way. Another snake disappeared under a flat rock. On lifting the stone, I caught sight of a slate grey coil near my hand. Too late. The small lance-shaped head of a green rock rattler shot out and bit deep into my left thumb.

'You dumb shit,' I berated myself.

My thumb burnt like a hot iron drilling into flesh. This was no dry bite. Although in pain, I wanted the snake. I grabbed it with my tongs and dumped it into a bag. Not knowing how bad the snakebite was going to be, I didn't waste my time in that remote spot and retraced my steps for the three-hour hike back to Nell's barn.

Exhausted from the agony, I slumped beside a stream and drank deeply. I made an improvised sling with a bag for my throbbing hand and rested in the shade of a tree for a few minutes. The swollen thumb had turned blue like an overripe fruit, stiffened and oozed fluid from the puncture wounds. I wiped it with a damp handkerchief and tied it loosely around the bite to keep the flies away. My small medical kit contained no painkillers. I did, however, have a stash of marijuana. I tamped a thimble-full into a corncob pipe for a smoke. The familiar high took the edge off the agony.

I felt better enough to continue on my way. About a mile later, I began sneezing non-stop, which made me even more tired. Then my armpits, crotch and head started itching. I had no time to dwell on this new, unfamiliar symptom of an allergic reaction to venom.

Checking out the fangs of a water moccasin in Florida Everglades, 1964
Checking out the fangs of a water moccasin in Florida Everglades, 1964

The distance passed in a blur. The sneezing abated, but I continued to scratch as if bedevilled by fleas. A parked car stood in Nell's yard, and the sound of people's voices came from the house. If her guests saw my puffy face with a snotty nose while I raked my privates like an uncouth simpleton, they would run a mile. I stumbled behind the barn without being spotted and sat under an apple tree with my back resting against the trunk. Sweat trickled from my brow, and my shirt was damp.

On lifting the stone, i caught sight of a slate grey coil near my hand. too late. the small lance-shaped head of a green rock rattler shot out and bit deep into my left thumb

I toked on the corncob pipe, which eased the pain. Two snake bags stuffed with dry leaves made good pillows, and I stretched out, gazing into the branches. I sank into a deep sleep, listening to redstarts warbling among the overhead foliage. On waking up, I had no sense of how much time had gone by since my watch had busted days earlier. A troop of coatimundis surrounded me, chewing on fallen apples. Am I hallucinating? They kept a wary eye on the prone human. When I propped myself to a sitting position, they scattered and watched me from a distance.

The swelling had now reached the elbow. A deep, dull ache that throbbed with my pulse replaced the burning pain. I peeked around the barn. The car had left. I knocked on the door and told Nell about the bite. My swollen arm concerned her, and she urged me to leave for the hospital. The nearest one at Bisbee was an hour's drive away, and my last excruciating experience at Beaumont lingered in my memory.

'It was a tiny snake, I reassured her. 'It couldn't be dangerous. The swelling has stopped, and it's not even painful any more. I'll be fine.' 'It doesn't look good, she said. 'Anyway, you better stay in the house.'

After we had a sumptuous dinner of deer steak and baked potatoes, she pointed me to her guest room. At night, I got up in the pitch dark to take a leak but lost my balance and fell down. I was blind. A hundred worries assailed me as I lay there. I should have taken Nell's advice and gone to the hospital. Now it's too late. Should I call for help? Am I dying? Nell hadn't seen my face on her windowpanes, so I must be all right. I smiled at the thought. Should I ask her to drive me to Bisbee? I had already worried her enough. I sat upright, paralysed by fear and uncertainty.

About an hour later, my vision started returning, like an old TV set warming up. The night light and the furniture were blurred at first, and then they came into sharper focus. Unsteadily, I stood up and leaned against the wall, waiting for my balance to return. I staggered into the bathroom and returned to bed.

I woke to birdsong and the morning sun streaming in through the window. My hand was stiff and sore but much better than the previous day. After a breakfast of French toast with maple syrup washed down with strong coffee, Nell bandaged my thumb. Against her advice, I went into the mountains to catch snakes despite the discomfort. During the following two days, I caught three more green rocks, two Willard's and two black-tailed rattlers with my right hand.

Photos and excerpt used with permission from HarperCollins India

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