mobile - desktop
Available Now at RodentPro.com!
News & Events:
Reptile & Amphibian
Keep up with news and features of interest to the reptile and amphibian community on the kingsnake.com blog. We cover breaking stories from the mainstream and scientific media, user-submitted photos and videos, and feature articles and photos by Jeff Barringer, Richard Bartlett, and other herpetologists and herpetoculturists.
Tuesday, July 19 2011
Tue, July 19 2011 at 12:56
.....” My eyes wide, sitting in rapt attention, I digest his descriptions and find that his moments far exceed my own. I recall a time I had a moment with a 20 foot tiger retic on camera, and share this with Rom. Shaking his head and laughing, Rom quickly sits up and with bright eyes full of mischief describes one of his own on-camera incidents.
“We were following this gold poacher into a protected forest on Osa peninsula, me and the whole film crew, Brit cameraman, Chinese/Brit sound man, two guides, gold miner, looking for fer-de-lance and anything else we could find. The miner led to a cave which they had been re-excavating (very dangerously, no supports, nothing) to find gold and he said they often see snakes, maybe because of all the bats. So the cameraman says 'You go first Rom, in case there is really a snake, camera rolling'. I put my head torch on, duck my head and proceed into the darkness, thinking 'mmmm, fer-de-lance'. Suddenly there is a blur of movement from just beside me and the wide open white gape of a snake's jaws next to my elbow. 'F********K' I bleat, and recover my cool after seeing and saying 'It's a bloody tree boa!'. So Richard, the cameraman says, 'can we do that again? that f**k isn't going to wash with Nat Geo TV'. I argue with him, tell him to bleep it, people won't lip read anyway in that darkness, etc. and so on. But we did it again anyway, from several angles.”
Speaking of his film work, I am once again reminded of how Janaki describes Rom’s adventures:
“Dissatisfied with the reach of his books, papers, brochures and talks, Rom was caught by the magic of both television and the silver screen. He teamed up with old school friends, Louise and John Riber and film maker Shekar Dattatri to make a series of movies on snakes, snakebite, tree planting, rainforests and the Irula Cooperative he had helped set up. Eventually he produced a children's feature film in Tamil called 'Boy and the Crocodile' - India's most popular children's film to date and winner of the UNICEF’s Best Feature Film award in 1989. He travelled to the United States to sell more film ideas and in the corridors of National Geographic Television met Carol and Richard Foster who were keen on returning to India where Richard Foster was brought up. Together they produced 'Rat Wars' for NGT. Later Rom followed that with his highly ambitious 'King Cobra' - an Emmy award winner. It was the first film made featuring a single species of snake and most of the sequences were filmed for the first time ever. Twenty more films followed including 'Spunky Monkey', 'Thunder Dragons', 'Muggers of Sri Lanka', 'Snake Hunter' for National Geographic Explorer.
"Feeling a bit over-stretched, Rom quit the Croc Bank in 2001 as Director; he still remains its Managing Trustee. Recently he and his co-author, Ashok Captain, came out with India's first comprehensive color field guide to snakes, published by Draco Books, run by Rom’s partner, Janaki Lenin. He continues his interest in spreading conservation awareness through film making and recently developed and presented several films made for BBC, Animal Planet and National Geographic by Icon Films in Bristol, England. These include: 'The King Cobra and I', 'Supersize Crocodiles', 'Dragon Chronicles' and 'Crocodile Blues'. The latter film is about the plight of India's critically endangered gharial crocodile, the conservation of which is an ongoing preoccupation of this reptile man with a mission. His most recent film is ‘Million Snakebites’ documenting the problems of rural Indians, 50,000 of whom die from snakebite each year, and his efforts to mitigate these tragedies and facilitate the production of antivenom serum.”
Shaking my head in wonder, I inwardly appreciate the many experiences we all have, gratefully, off-camera. I am glad the newer generation has not witnessed many of the spectacular moments “The Family” has displayed! I decide to ask about the current world of herpetology and the massive shifts he has witnessed.
“It's been growing by leaps and bounds that’s for sure. Earlier there were more academics and now there are more hobbyists. Herp people were always a bit weird (thank gods), but the newer generation has some real live wires with incredible senses of humor along with their sharp minds.”
I agree with this assessment because I, too, have witnessed the same phenomena. In thinking of what I would have liked to hear when I started out, I ask Rom about advice for the newer generation, like Chris M. Law. Chris is a dedicated, intelligent and fun young member of “The Family” and soaks up any advice given to him by us ‘elders!’ (Chris is extremely well versed in crocodilian care and we are all proud of him.)
As eloquent as ever, Rom complies with a heartfelt answer. “I guess one bit of advice is to put into it just as much or more than you get out of it. I always think kharmically I guess, even though I don't believe in anything that even stinks slightly of religion. It's just natural to think that if you do bad s**t you will (eventually) receive bad s**t and the converse works too.”
I am in complete agreement. Stretching my back and putting the more logical side of my brain into gear, I begin thinking of some of the questions that people frequently ask ME. I perform a difficult sideways glance (I like to call it my IBS. Inconspicuous Blonde Spy glance) at Rom and decide that he is fair game and should also put some thought into answering these same questions.
"What is your favorite animal to work with?"
“Well, I usually expect myself to reply 'king cobra of course', and indeed it is a joy to behold and to be with. But as with questions about favorite anything I don't restrict myself to individual species. It's kind of generic. Along with loving my gal I have this collective love for the opposite sex. So it is with reptile species: I have really fond memories of working with a host of crocs, turtles, snakes and lizards, and even some frogs and salamanders!”
Ignoring the blush I know is now gracing my face and causing mirth in Rom, I grunt and continue on the subject of species other than humans. Knowing full well what it takes to work with king cobras and crocodilians, I can’t help but ask Rom: What is the most difficult species he’s worked with?
“The gharial, initially because we didn't know what made it tick, how to breed it and now because it's river specialization is giving it more grief than any other croc in the world and we really don't feel too good about its future since all our rivers are virtually f**ked.”
If you are not familiar with the massive undertaking Rom has taken on regarding the gharial, I can’t describe it any better than the following description based on his bio on from Wikipedia:
His love of crocodilians has led Rom to currently coordinate an effort to save the gharial, a critically endangered species of crocodylia on the brink of extinction, with less than 250 individuals left in Indian waters. On December 27, 2010, the Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, during a visit with Rom at the Madras Crocodile Bank, announced the formation of a National Tri-State Chambal Sanctuary Management and Coordination Committee for gharial conservation on 1,600 km2 of the National Chambal Sanctuary for Gharials along the Chambal River in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The Committee is comprised of representatives of the states Water Resources Ministries, State Departments of Irrigation and Power, Wildlife Institute of India, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, the Gharial Conservation Alliance, Development Alternatives, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Divisional Forest officers of the three states. The Committee plans strategies for protection of gharials and their habitat. This involves further research on the species and its ecology and socio-economic evaluation of dependent riparian communities. Funding for this new initiative will be mobilized as a sub-scheme of the ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’ in the amount of Rs.50 million to Rs.80 million (USD 1 million to 1.7 million) each year for five years. This project has long been advocated by Rom.
In reading this description, Rom made the following correction: with less than 250 individuals left in Indian waters. SHOULD BE: less than 200 breeding adults.
The only BETTER description of Rom’s work, once again comes from Janaki: “Rom extended his interest to other beleaguered reptiles - crocodiles, sea turtles, and lesser known exotic reptilian creatures around the country. He wrote about creatures that nobody had even paid attention to before and started realizing that India’s rapid development was fragmenting their habitats. Conservation was still in its infancy in India, but when Rom and colleagues hit the headlines with their campaign to save Silent Valley, an iconic Kerala rainforest, the movement started snowballing. Then Rom set up Madras Crocodile Bank, a gene pool for all the world's crocodilians and now India's premier research centre for herpetology. Many endangered crocs were bred here and rehabilitated to the wilds, many young careers in herpetology were launched, many forests were saved by relentless campaigning.
It was at this point that Rom discovered the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India guarded these islands jealously and no foreigner had been allowed to work in these islands for a few decades since the British left India. And that's where Rom wanted to go. The price was his US citizenship which he gave up for the privilege of visiting and working in the islands. The kind of "development" that the Indian government was exporting to the islands prompted Rom to put down an organization there, Andaman and Nicobar Island Environmental Team (ANET). ANET did everything - coral reef surveys, botanical surveys, mammalian surveys, island ecology studies, besides sea turtle and crocodile surveys. Today ANET remains the premier environmental NGO in the archipelago and is called the Centre for Island Ecology.
Rom was then contracted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to help set up a network of tribal crocodile rearing stations across Papua New Guinea. Rom surveyed the remote swamps of the country to assess the wild population, worked out the logistics and set up a Management Plan for the country over two hectic years. Then FAO sent him back to the island, to the Indonesian administered Irian Jaya, to do similar work. Subsequent years saw him travel to Bangladesh to see if a lizard leather industry was sustainable (he concluded that it wasn’t), to Mozambique to set up a village level croc farming operation, to East Malaysia to survey the wilds for crocs. He was canoeing up remote streams, jumping out of helicopters onto croc nests, trekking over mountain ranges in search of elusive reptiles. Rom was Asia's reptile man: straddling conservation, scientific study, education, sustainable utilization, tribal welfare and captive breeding of rare species.
"If you could do ONE thing… anything… what would it be?"
“Get someone good to pick up and run with all these bloody things I've started and the ideas that are making my brain explode on a daily basis!”
"What has been your biggest obstacle?"
“Only 24 hours in a day and getting the right people to help me accomplish my driving need to get the 'right' things done (not to mention the small item of finding the money to do them!).”
We can all appreciate the need for funding in the world of animals. I sometimes think that lack of money is the Mother-of-Invention in our field, however. Thinking on the lines of the various “creative tools” I have seen pop up in our field over the years brings up the thought of what we can do differently both with animals and with people.
There are many situations those of us who have been around herps would do differently. As we look back on our accomplishments and learning lessons (I refuse to call them failures), certain situations come to the forefront. For Rom however, there are things in life he would choose not to do again both in the profession and in life in general.
“Lotsa things: get married, get snakebit, go to a Rotary Club meeting and the list goes on…”
Provided with this description, I can’t help but laugh in sympathy. The fact that these three situations rate in unison in Rom’s mind is not lost on me. His mention of Rotary is somewhat deceiving because working with wildlife is not the sole path Rom has chosen to travel. His intensive work in wildlife has also given him the ability to provide important humanitarian contributions. He was the founder of the Irula Snake-Catchers Cooperative (1978) in Chennai. The Cooperative was conceived to rehabilitate the Irula tribe who are known for their expertise in catching snakes.The Irula were severely impacted economically when the ban of snakeskin collection and trade was instituted. Rom taught the Irula tribe to get involved in extracting snake venom for the production of antivenom serum and toxicological research. When discussing this major humanitarian achievement, Rom says: “I guess besides creating awareness for reptiles and facilitating conservation action for the critters, my most original and helpful act was to help create the Irula Snake-Catchers Cooperative Society; it helped a bunch of really savvy and cool snake hunting (but very, very poor) tribals find a livelihood after the snakeskin industry was banned here and it now produces most of the venom used to make antivenom serum in India today.”
This short answer shows how Rom took to heart Bill Haast’s legacy: “Work quietly and doggedly, don't react to other people and (though he wouldn't have put it that way) 'just keep on truckin'.”
Rom and I sit together in companionable silence for a few moments. Bringing the interview to a close, I ask Rom if he sees the proverbial glass as half empty or half full. The answer he provides brings tears to my eyes. “Well it's half full much of the time, but I can't help but think that my cup runneth over a fair bit of the time.”
I pull my legs up and rest my chin on my knees. I wrap my arms around my legs and look up high in the sky gazing ‘beyond’ and ask Rom my last and most serious question:
“Rom, what do you want to be remembered for?”
Without missing a beat, the answer, in Rom’s gentle voice, wafts around me and settles into my awaiting ears:
"That f**ker knew how to enjoy life, oh yeah!"
Rom has authored hundreds of scientific papers and pop articles plus several books on reptiles, especially on snakes, including the comprehensive field guide, titled: “Snakes of India - The Field Guide" in 2004. I am a beaming, proud owner of a copy with a personal note that I cherish. My advice to you is to add this amazing work to your collection. Even if you are not a herper by hobby or profession, you will love this book. Available on amazon.com.
In February 2011, BBC Natural World followed Rom during his ongoing research into the causes and prevention of snake bites in India. Many snakes were considered, but one in particular, Echis carinatus sochereki of the deserts of Rajasthan, (Americans see map), held the most attention. By collecting the venom of local vipers Rom and his team are facilitating research on geographic variation in venoms that will help to produce an effective antivenom that is desperately needed in this locale.
Rom in a nutshell:
In 2005 Rom established the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka for research, conservation and environmental education in the Biodiversity Hotspot of India’s Western Ghats, the magical chain of forest-clad hills where he spent his school years. There he is heading a long term study on the ecology and behavior of the king cobra and cataloging the biodiversity of the region for which he received the prestigious Whitley Fund for Nature Award (UK). Rom received two more awards in 2009, one indigenous: the Salim Ali Award from the Bombay Natural History Society and one from Switzerland: the Rolex Award for Enterprise for his project on facilitating the establishment of a network of rainforest research conservation and bases around India. All of this keeps Rom and his dynamic team very, very busy. Rom also wants me to add that he gets to wear a real flash watch on which he promptly scratched the hell out of the crystal! ** Source: Janaki Lenin
Romulus Whitaker is a Member of the Advisory Committee and the Editorial Board of the Bombay Natural History Society, as well as corresponding member, The Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, USA; Advisor, Irula Tribal Women's’ Welfare Society, Afforestation Project; Member, Centre for Science and Education, New Delhi; Member, Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad and Founder-Member, Tamil Nadu Society for Social Forestry Research. He is also Chief Technical Advisor, Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society; Convenor, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Andaman and Nicobar Islands Chapter; and Founder – Member, Palni Hills Conservation Council. Rom is Honorary Consultant, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources/Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC), Vice Chairman (Western Asia), IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group, Member, IUCN/SSC Indian Subcontinent Reptile and Amphibian Group and Member, IUCN/SSC Sea Turtle Specialist Group. **Source: Wikipedia
Credits: My many thanks go to Rom and Janaki for all of their help and contributions to this article. Rom was very open and willing to share his humor and memories, and Janaki provided fabulous information in a very well written work of art. Rom even took working with “the blonde” in stride (I promise I will look at a map, but I am not promising to understand it. I have been known to get lost in an intersection, for God’s sake.). In an email, Rom said: “I sincerely want geography-challenged beings all over the world to see where things are happening that we're talking about. It's good to know that the huge saw-scaled vipers are from a magical desert the Thar Desert, of Rajasthan where all the women seem to wear brilliant reds and yellows (which are so wild even a colour-blind fellow can appreciate them). Or that the Croc Bank is situated on a southeastern Indian beach that was (somewhat gently, thank the gods) lashed by the '04 tsunami.” From the bottom of my heart, I am proud to have Rom and Janaki as my “ Family.”
My sincere thanks to Paul Rowley for his invaluable contributions after having worked with Rom last summer on the collection of venom for the “Million Snakebites” BBC film. Paul also provided photos that are incredible. Without his support and contributions, my work would not have been nearly as thorough. Also, thank you for all your support, Paul.
Thank you to Chris M. Law for guessing the answer to the clues I posted on the identity of the Star of the first story. I affectionately call Chris “QB” and he has been a member of “The Family” for years. I am proud of him and look forward to watching him soar in the world of herpetology.
And finally, thank you to Dr. Robert Sprackland who gently pushed me into trying my writing. Not only did he get me going, he provided insight, editing and massive moral support to keep me on track. I would not have been able to do this without his help. Always willing to give of his time and energy, I could not ask for a better Mentor.
Other Sources: Wikipedia, Romulus Whitaker, Biography
Copyright © 2011, Dawn Tipton.
This story is protected under copyright law. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
WHO WILL BE NEXT?
It could be YOU! Watch the Venom Angel page for clues!
Photo by Cedric Bregnard
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)
Standard emoticons like :-) and ;-) are converted to images.
Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.
To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.
AprilFirstBioEngineering | GunHobbyist.com | GunShowGuide.com | GunShows.mobi | GunBusinessGuide.com | club kingsnake | live stage magazine