Conservationist Romulus Whitaker talks about his farm that sustains a variety of bird and animal life, and his efforts to protect bio-diversity

The heat wave having subsided due to an unexpected spell of rain, the mid-summer drive to Chengalpattu is pleasant. When we turn into the road leading to Thirupporur, the temperature plummets to a new low. Knots of trees and shrubs roll past us, as we drive down to Romulus Whitaker's 11-acre farm, ‘Pambukudivanam'.

For well over four decades, Rom has lived and worked only in untamed wildernesses. Why should it be different now?

While welcoming us, the 67-year-old wildlife conservationist inadvertently calls the farm his retirement home. “There is no retirement for me. It was a mistake,” he corrects himself.

Working with snakes

Rom's goal is to spend considerable time at the farm, but he always falls short of it. He still travels regularly. Unsurprisingly, the snake-man talks first about the King Cobra telemetry project that keeps him away from Chengalpattu. This work, which seeks to throw an intimate light on the snake and aid efforts to protect it, is centered in the Malnad region of Karnataka.

Interest in another endangered reptile takes him in a different direction. Chambal is the focal point of his Gharial Conservation Project. He's also committed to protecting the bio-diversity of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands; a well-used angling rod reclined against a wall of his sparsely-decorated office is the evidence.

All in the family

In recent years, Rom has substantially reduced his involvement in many projects. The Crocodile Bank and the Gharial project are managed by his sons, Nikhil (qualified in wildlife management) and Samir (microbiologist). He also delegates work to others with impressive credentials. This gives him time to work on his farm and write (He, however, rues that he has not proceeded beyond three sentences in 17 ongoing writing projects).

In 12 years, he has turned around his farm from a rice field into a haven for wild animals. He has a problem with rice fields, because they use up a lot of water.

Located in the middle of a forest, his farm now has a diversity of trees and attracts numerous animals. Except for the odd frangipani, the landscape is devoid of exotic, ornamental plants. It is an experiment in afforestation. There is a profusion of timber trees. Some, as local as the vengal; and others, as foreign as the Australian acacia. Fruit-bearing trees also abound.

Wringing his hands in mock worry, he complains about the monkeys that get the mangoes before he can. “They can take all the kodukapuli. But, let them leave a few mangoes for us!”

On the ground, he contends with other ‘thieves'. Groundnut plants were being rooted out. The culprits were discovered after a ‘camera trap' was set up. To his bewilderment, jackals, apart from monkeys and porcupines, invaded the field at night, pulled up the crops and ate the peanuts. “Jackals have a varied diet. But, their taste for peanuts was a revelation.”

The camera trap has helped Rom and his wife Janaki, a wildlife film-maker and writer focussing on conservation issues, arrive at a clearer understanding of life in their backyard. They also maintain a logbook of birds that visit their home. He compares the situation to the one in the popular wildlife book, Watcher At The Pond. “It is about a guy who meticulously looks at the creatures in a small pond, from the smallest to the biggest.”

Rom and Janaki know their land, from the smallest to the biggest inhabitants. “There are rabbits, hares and even leopards.”

Sometime ago, one of their three dogs was attacked by a male leopard. Rom thinks he might have company, for an expert in wild cats told him that a male leopard would leave an area unless it had a mate. But, leopards don't scare Rom. “When a predator is around, you become more alert. It hones your skills.” A predictable response from a man who is at home in the wild!

On familiar terrain

As Romulus Whitaker takes us around his farm, our photographer expresses concern about failing light and an overcast sky. Rom lightens his mood with his Tamlish, “Cyclonea konja nerum turn off panalama?”

During the interview, Rom switches to Tamil at will. Fluency in the local language has aided his conservation work. “When people know you can speak their language, barriers break down,” he says.

Following the ban on snake trading, Irulas (traditional snake catchers) lost their livelihood. Rom worked towards getting them an alternative employment that did

not require them to learn new skills. He wanted Irulas to be allowed to catch snakes and extract their venom to make anti-venom vaccines.

Between 1978 and 1982, Rom literally lived in the State Secretariat to push the Irulas’ case. As he spoke in Tamil to the staff, they were more attentive and interested.

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