A strong desire to herp at home in India, and a drive to protect the native wildlife, how'd Dr. Rom Whitaker, the leader in King Cobra and Gharial conservation, get his start? Read on to find out.
How did you first become interested in reptiles/amphibians?
Dr. Whitaker: Till I was seven I grew up in the country in New York State. At Hoosick, NY I found my first snake (a Dekay's snake) at around age 5 and I was hooked. [I] Kept a terrarium full of local snakes and moved to India (the land of snakes) when I was seven. Over the years my interest broadened to all herps.
Were your parents or friends influential in your decision to go into herpetology as a profession?
My mother in particular was very supportive of my 'unusual' interest and bought me books by Pope, Ditmars etc.
What led your interests towards King Cobras and Crocodiles?
These happened later in life. When I was in highschool in South India I saw the huge preserved head of a king cobra in a small museum collection and spent the next several years visiting the spot where it was killed but never found one. In 1972, after setting up India's first snake park I went to a place famous for kings, Agumbe, and in two days caught my first pair of adult kings. Crocs I got deeply into in 1973 when I was doing surveys throughout India and found out that crocs were so badly hammered they were going extinct.
Where is your favorite herping spot in the world?
I guess my best place in Agumbe, Karnataka State, near the west coast of India, where we have one of our field research stations.
What herp in the wild still gives you chills and sends your excitement levels through the roof?
I guess the king cobra tops the list but I get great pleasure in seeing any of the wonderful herps we have here in the wild.
What herp is at the top of your list to find in the wild?
Well, having found a lot of species in a lot of places I guess it's just the mere idea of finding 'new' species, which I've never seen in the wild, which excites me.
Is there any country/area that is at the top of your list to visit still? Why?
I would still like to explore the far Northeast of India a lot more for the pit vipers, frogs and other relatively unknown herps that occur there.
Aside from the conservation programs you’ve set-up, do you keep any herps as personal pets? If so, what species and any favorites?
Nope, no herp pets. We live on an 11 acre farm with Russells vipers, cobras, kraits, saw-scaled vipers, rat snakes, trinket snakes, vine snakes and so on, so there are rarely 'dull' moments here.
Could you share any crazy herping stories (I almost stepped on a bushmaster once in Costa Rica!)?
Well one of the dumbest things I did was lifting a bunch of stones on a rock slide in the Huachuca mtns in southern Arizona in pursuit of a small rattler which I could hear rattling. This insanity resulted in me getting a good solid bite from a green rock rattler (C.lepidus klauberi) which ended up blinding me for an hour (neurotoxins? blood pressure?) late in the night.
What has been your greatest achievement (to date) towards Gharial conservation?
Besides captive breeding the species I guess a good achievement is raising the awareness levels about how badly hit the gharial have been and how their survival is even today hit or miss because of the intense human pressures on their remaining river habitats.
Do you believe there is still hope for conservation of the Gharial and India’s other crocodiles?
The mugger can live in any sort of pond, lake, reservoir, stream or river so it is probably ok in the long run. The salty has the unfortunate habit of taking people now and then and its mangrove habitat is dwindling so it is in trouble. The gharial remains the most endangered and is seriously threatened in the long term because of our inability to use rivers properly and sustainably.
What is the number one conservation threat to India’s endangered species?
Loss of habitat is probably the main threat.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to set-up your stations?
The Madras Crocodile Bank now has three field stations (Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, Chambal River Gharial Research Station and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team. The first big obstacle in setting up these places was of course finding the funds and the right people for the job. They are all running well now with good people and we've learned a lot about finding funds to keep them going.
What’s the best avenue people can help your conservation trusts and efforts?
People can donate out right of course but perhaps more of them might be interested in coming over to India on a 'paying volunteer' program which allows people to stay on site and do work to help keep the research and general work going, bringing their own special inputs.
Any advice for students looking to get into the herpetological field? Handling venomous snakes?
I think the best way is to attach yourself to an existing herp program in any capacity just to get that experience and to work with people who are obviously doing it right and learning from them.
Could you take [Indian herpetologist] Gerry Martin in a herp id’ing contest of India’s herps?
I have never been one to have a 'life list' of herps or been especially great at i.d.ing herps. Right now Gerry is encouraging and working with some young Indian herpetologists and entomologists who are coming up with new species and its awesome.
Do you think the increase of interest in the herp-keeping hobby has helped or hindered reptile & amphibian conservation?
I can't say much about the herp keeping hobby, I know that it should be done responsibly and people should learn and know where their animals are coming from. If most of the herps on the market are from captive bred stocks fine, but taking them from the wild can be a fatal ripoff and that has hammered several species worldwide.
Is there anything you would like to share about your mentor, Bill Haast? (My condolences as well, we lost a few good people and amazing herpetologists this past year)
Bill Haast influenced me greatly. Working for him for two years was tough (we worked HARD) but it instilled a good work ethic in me and I think I have passed it on to the people who work with me today (and curse me for being their boss, no doubt).
Anything else you’d like to share?
Just that it would be good to see more American herp people travelling around the world and getting to know and understand local problems for themselves. This will naturally instill a desire to make things better in the world for herps (and for the people affected by herps! like the close to a million people who are bitten by snakes each year in India for example!).
Dr. Whitaker is one of India's leading herpetologists and conservationists. His efforts have helped to put numerous endangered wildlife on the conservation map. If you're interested in helping out, taking a volunteer vacation, or just learning more you can check out these great links: