Rom: the snake man in the 1970s
Romulus Whitaker is a famous herpetologist. I first met him over forty years ago
Recently — in January 2020 — I travelled to Chennai, India, to attend a special chess course that was held for Indian super-talents, who are as numerous as rice in a paddy field. It was a very inspiring and pleasant experience, and it was made especially so by Sagar and Ashwin, who looked after every minute of my stay. Sagar is the CEO of our company, ChessBase India, and Ashwin a senior project manager at Intel Bangalore. I asked the latter for an extra favour: find an old friend of mine, someone I had not seen for a very long time. Arrange a reunion.
The friend was Romulus Whitaker, a New Yorker who moved to India and became a leading herpetologist, a wildlife conservationist. In the late 1960s he founded the Madras Snake Park, which later morphed into the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. Most recently he built the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka, for the study of King Cobras and their habitat.
Well, Ashwin traced Romulus and arranged a meeting at the Crocodile Bank. So on a January weekend these two old friends met again, for the first time in forty years.
It was very moving to meet Romulus after such a long time, to retell the stories of our adventures back in the 1970s. But there was an ulterior motive as well: I wanted my son Martin to verify that the stories he has heard since childhood, about Rom ’n Fred, were actually true. It worked like a dream: usually when I started a story, Romulus would take over and fill out the details. Now we have at least two witnesses who can testify to the accuracy of my narrative (Martin and Ashwin).
Before I tell you about the time with Rom, here is some background: my father, Alois, a German clock maker and “horologist,” who migrated to Asia to set up navigational stations for ships, was imprisoned during WWI in a British POW camp in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat. At the time it was a fairly rural place, surrounded by jungles. The camp had a snake problem, about which my father wrote in a chapter in his autobiography: Deadly poisonous snakes. One of the leading herpetologists at the time was called in to conduct research. Colonel Frank Wall was a member of the Bombay Natural History Society and had published a number of scientific articles and books on snakes.
Col. Wall needed an assistant, but none of the British guards were willing to touch snakes. Then he heard about a “crazy German prisoner” who, he was told, was handling reptiles with equanimity.
So Wall recruited Alois to be his assistant. Together they studied the four poisonous snakes of the region and in fact developed the first anti-venoms against their bite (they injected horses with small amounts of snake venom, until they were immune, drew their blood and centrifuged it to get the serum, which was used to produce the antidote).
My father retained his expertise and fascination with snakes, and I spent part of my early youth in a remote research station on the Western Ghats, roaming the Indian jungles in search of food — lizards, small rodents — for my father’s snakes. I had a very good knowledge of the various species (especially the poisonous ones), and was well able to handle them. I have written about my revisiting the jungle lodge, about my interactions with Indian snake charmers, and my encounters with poisonous snakes (in case you are interested).
After permanently moving to Germany, in my late teens, I studied philosophy, abandoned the aspired university carrier and became a science journalist for German television. After producing a dozen or so documentaries, I proposed doing one on Indian snakes. We never actually produced it, but I put in a fair amount of research. One of the things I discovered was that there was a big snake park in Madras, run by a very interesting American herpetologist.
In the early 1970s I paid a number of visits to the Madras Snake Park and discussed the plan with it founder Romulus Whitaker. He was very cooperative and showed me around the farm and the South Indian countryside. I want to share some memory pictures of the early encounters. (Rom was enchanted to see them on my visit this January).
The Irula are very dark-skinned Dravidians (the word Irula means “dark people” in Tamil and Malayalam). Their main occupation was snake and rat catching, as well as honey collection. They were Rom’s main helpers. Today they work as field labourers – and some of them are studying computer science at the university. Times really change.
Part of the deal with Romulus was: if I was going to make a film with him, if we were going to roam the jungles together, I had to learn to administer anti-venom, to myself. I had to be able to insert a needle into a vein in one arm, and a second syringe with adrenaline into the other arm. This in case I went into anaphylaxis from the anti-venom. Rom said I could learn IV injection in a hospital or from drug addicts. At the time I was working in the Hamburg university clinic, which made the first option the obvious choice.
A very brave nurse volunteered to help — she wanted to learn IV herself. So we spent a number of romantic nights in the hospital: I stuck a needle into her arm, she stuck one into mine (I have written about the results). I became quite adept, and Romulus was satisfied.
At one stage Rom took me to the Irula settlement in the jungle. It was part of his screening — whether Fred could handle what we were planning. We got there in the late afternoon, and he said we were spending the night. Rom pointed to a grassy patch: “That’s your bed,” he said, and touching my forearm: “That’s your pillow.” Not a problem — I had done it often with my father in my youth.
Then came the next test: “We will eat with the Irulas,” he announced. “Do you want to know what, before we start eating, or afterwards?” I assured him I could take anything, and so he told me: what the Irulas were cooking in the dented metal pot was — a rat curry! Actually not rats, but jungle bandicoots, which are frighteningly big. Often their body length is more than 12 inches.
Actually the curry was good (tasted like chicken). They served it with white rice. “Where did that come from?” Romulus asked me to guess. They bought it in the village store? Nope. Got it from local farmers? No.
The answer: the Irulas got at the rats by digging open their burrows. While doing this they often find storage granaries the rodents were maintaining. The rats had stolen the grain from the farms, and the Irulas got it from them!
It was very moving to meet Romulus after so many years, to recall our adventures back in the 1970s. And to have another witness now to confirm that my stories are not invented.
So did you enjoy reading all this? Then you can do me a favour (actually do yourself a favour). Google Romulus Whitaker, or better still, search for him on YouTube, and listen to scores of lectures by and on him. You will really not regret. And search for the documentary One Million Snakebites. It was streamed by the producers, BBC Natural World, for a while. I got a copy from Rom on DVD and have watched it a number of times. You have to admire his laid-back informative style.