Romulus Whitaker & The Gharial

The conservation and environmental movement carries many cliches. Although guardians of the natural world come in all shapes and sizes, there are particular kinds of people the world thinks about when it comes to professional animal-lovers. One would be the white lab-coated climate scientist or biologist, tirelessly working away collecting data and conducting experiments. 


Then there would be the kind that looks more like Romulus Whitaker. White hair flowing beyond the shoulders, a gentle but fiery soul that wonders the forests and rivers of India in constant, deep reverence of our mother planet. This, however, is only the surface. Whitaker is the embodiment of a passionate and imaginative conservation champion.


Growing up in upper New York, the young Romulus demonstrated an inherent love for all things wild. He even managed to build up an impressive collection of reptiles searching his surroundings on the East Coast of North America. When him and his mother moved to India in the 1960s, he landed in an aspiring herpetologist’s paradise. Soon his fascination with snakes, lizards and crocodilia would blow into a very well-satisfied obsession. 


Whitaker successfully founded India’s first snake farm, the Chennai Snake Park, in 1972 to protect and study the various snake species of India, not least of all the infamous King Cobra. Only four years later he helped to found the Madras Crocodile Bank, designed specifically to breed crocodiles back from the brink of extinction. Almost 50 years later, the Bank has over 3,000 crocodiles of 15 different species. This includes the critically endangered Gharial.


Whitaker’s endeavour to save the Gharial began in 2009 after the prehistoric reptile suffered a mass die off in its native north India, sparking fears of an impending extinction. As with his snake conservation efforts, Whitaker has approached the problem by tracking the Gharials to discover their habits to discern exactly what threats they are currently facing. 


40 million years ago the Gharial formed its own branch in the Crocodilian family and has since evolved separate from the more common crocodile species. With a long and thin snout with razor sharp teeth protruding from its mouth, the Gharial truly looks like a creature belonging to another age. It can grow tup to 6 meters in length and yet, despite its size and fierce appearance, this particular river monster poses no significant threat to humans. 


And yet Romulus Whitaker’s research has been pointing to man as the cause of the Gharial’s rapid decline. The pollution and waste leaking into India’s essential waterways appears to be literally poisoning these giant reptiles, causing painful death. Coupled with over-fishing, disturbances to river-flow and loss of habitat, mankind is undoubtedly pushing this ancient creature into the clutches of extinction.


The information Whitaker has collected is helping to provide the basis for further scientific study and conservation action in India. Furthermore, his breeding program is helping to establish an in-captivity population to safeguard against extinction. The efforts of Whitaker and all those now involved in the Gharial’s conservation have now perhaps secured the future of this species on our planet for many years to come.


In 2005 Whitaker also set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Southern India, a field station right in the heart of the Agumbe Reserved Forest. The Station is a perfect base of operations in studying the magnificent flora and fauna of the Western Ghats. One project that gained particular notoriety, however, was the first ever radio-telemetry project on the King Cobra. By being able to track the movements and habits of the world’s largest venomous snake, Whitaker and his team managed to discover the King Cobra’s most intimate secrets. As with the Gharial, this information forms the basis of connecting mankind to nature and ensuring its survival.


For his long and distinguished career, Romulus Whitaker received the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest honour for civilians. Whitaker has also been the centre of a number of different wildlife films bringing people closer to our planet’s reptiles. 


It is for this work and much more that we at Wildscreen Festival would like to recognise and celebrate Romulus Whitaker. 

Written by Liam Curran.

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