I came to India when I was seven years old in 1951 with my American mother, Doris Norden, and my Indian step-father, Rama Chattopadhyaya, son of Kamaladevi and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. Since then I’ve made India my home and nationality and have spent most of the past 50 years working on conservation of wildlife, particularly reptiles and other related social issues. One of the innovations I’m most proud of is the alternative livelihood project that I helped the Irula tribals set up in 1978, called the Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative. The project now supplies the venom to produce millions of vials of India’s life-saving antivenom for people bitten by venomous snakes. And indeed, the big social and health issue I’m deeply wrapped up in right now is snakebite.
After finishing school in South India, I went to the United States in 1961 to go to college. Not being very academic, I soon quit and went to work for my guru, William Haast, who then ran the largest snake venom production center in the world, also a reptile zoo, called the Miami Serpentarium. That’s when I hatched the idea of setting up the Madras Snake Park, thinking, “What the heck? ‘The Land of Snakes’ doesn’t even have a snake park. People need to know the truth about snakes–which ones are venomous, how to avoid being bitten, and how important snakes are to farmers as the top rodent controllers.”
I got back to India in 1967, and by 1969, I had set up a rudimentary snake park on the outskirts of Madras (now Chennai). Amazingly, the Chief Conservator of Forests of Tamil Nadu then asked me if I wanted to set up the Snake Park at Guindy Deer Park in the middle of the city! We opened the new Madras Snake Park in 1971 and the rest is history. In the first year, we had over a million visitors. This just proves that people may fear snakes, but they are also fascinated by them! The snake park, now called Chennai Snake Park, remains one of the major tourist attractions in Chennai. When we started breeding endangered species of crocodiles in the mid-1970s, my wife at the time, Zai Whitaker, and I decided to set up the now world famous Madras Crocodile Bank on the East Coast Road near the shore temples of Mahabalipuram.
Very early on in my snake career, it became obvious that if the mostly negative attitudes toward snakes are going to change, we have to do something about snakebite. This meant teaching people that:
- Snakes are not ‘out to get you,’ and in fact are very frightened of humans and only want to be left alone.
- Rodent-eating snakes are ‘friends of the farmer,’ and there are only a few snakes that are dangerous.
- There are simple ways to avoid snakebite by using a light at night while walking, wearing protective shoes when walking in bushy areas, using a mosquito net at night, and several other simple preventive measures.
- There is one sure cure for snakebite, called antivenom. Country remedies and praying just don’t work!
Besides me and my colleagues’ personal goal of wanting to turn people on to tolerating and respecting snakes, snakebite is a fascinating field to work in since it covers all the disciplines of ecology, venomology, social science, health and the economic well being of over half a billion rural Indians.
Every year, as many as 60,000 Indian farmers, men, women, and children are killed by snakebite and about 200,000 snakebite survivors suffer permanent, debilitating injuries and mental trauma. Several highly venomous snakes are commonly found in and around agricultural areas where prey such as rodents and amphibians are abundant. Four species, referred to as the Big Four, are responsible for most of the serious and fatal bites: Spectacled Cobra, Russell’s Viper, Common Krait and Saw-scaled Viper. Polyvalent antivenom is made to treat bites from these four species, but public awareness and distribution of this life-saving drug is inadequate. Many rural people still believe in local herbal and other bogus ‘remedies’. In our education campaigns, we emphasize that snakebite is a medical emergency, like a heart attack or road accident and the patient must get to the hospital immediately.
For the past 3 years, we have been actively engaged in various measures to curtail the incredible loss of life and limb due to snakebite in India, primarily affecting our farmers, their wives, and children. These measures include vigorous rural education campaigns for the prevention of snakebite, collecting venom samples around the country to test the effectiveness of antivenom, working with government and private medical facilities to standardize the protocol to improve snakebite first aid and treatment, liaising the Indian Council for Medical Research and Department of Biotechnology and with antivenom producers to improve the strength and quality, and distribution and availability of antivenom. All this work has been supported by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) donors, such as USV Pharmaceuticals, the Infosys Foundation, Deshpande Foundation, and Oracle Foundation.
For the past three years the Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank and its partners are conducting a Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation Project, funded by CSR and foundation donations, which includes venom sampling and research, snake and snakebite treatment centre mapping, and a nationwide awareness campaign which includes 3 short videos, being dubbed in most regional languages in the links below–please do watch them!
We are reaching out for partnerships with interested individuals and organizations in India and abroad to help solve the huge burden of snakebite in rural India. We feel that we have made a good start but to spread the work around this vast nation we need much more support and many more partnerships for the ongoing work. We know we can succeed. We have a dedicated team and a list of our numerous partners and supporters is below.
- The Gerry Martin Project (TGMP)
- Into The Wild
- Nature Works
- World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
- Australian Venom Research Unit, University of Melbourne
- Organisation for Wildlife Studies (OWLS)
- Humane Society International (HSI)
- Kenneth Anderson Nature Society (KANS)
- People for Animals – Angul unit (PFA)
- Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE)
- Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society (EGWS)
- Wild Bihar
- Global Snakebite Initiative (GSI)
- Adavi Trust
- Agastya International Foundation (AIF)
- Evolutionary Venomics Laboratory, Indian Institute of Science
- USV Pharmaceuticals
- INFOSYS Foundation
- Deshpande Foundation
- Oracle Foundation
- United Way, Chennai (UWC)
People can become more involved with snakebite in India by reading about some of the work being done by the Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank and our partners around the country and joining us in our ongoing efforts to conserve snakes and to save lives. For a start, please see:
Also please communicate directly with us:
Ajay Kartik, Coordinator, Snake Conservation and Snakebite Mitigation Project of the Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank can be reached at: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Romulus Whitaker is an American diaspora and Indian citizen, living in India for the past 70 years. He is the founder of the Madras Snake Park, Madras Crocodile Bank, Irula Snake-catchers Cooperative, Andaman and Nicobars Environmental Team, Agumbe Rainforest Research Station and winner of awards such as the Order of the Golden Ark, Peter Scott Award, Rolex, Whitley Fund for Nature, Salim Ali Award, Sanctuary Asia Award, and Padmashri from the Government of India in 2018. Romulus is now the Project Manager (India) for the Global Snakebite Initiative.