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Leading the way in wildlife conservation

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IN RECOGNITION: V.Gnanaprakasam, former Vice–Chancellor, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, presenting ‘For the sake of Honour award’ for wildlife conservation to Romulus Whitaker (right), at a function in Chennai on Thursday.
IN RECOGNITION: V.Gnanaprakasam, former Vice–Chancellor, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, presenting ‘For the sake of Honour award’ for wildlife conservation to Romulus Whitaker (right), at a function in Chennai on Thursday.

Sarah Hiddleston

Romulus Whitaker given Rotary’s ‘For the sake of honour award’

Chennai: He is India’s Steve Irwin. He is to reptiles what Jim Corbett was to tigers. But the unwanted predators he comes across become his pets, his film stars, his research and his passion. And on Thursday the president and members of the Rotary Club of Chennai East RA Puram bestowed on him the ‘For the sake of honour award’ for his outstanding leadership in wildlife conservation.

Romulus Whitaker, founder of Madras Crocodile Bank and Chennai Snake Park Trust, has, as he confesses, pretty unique feelings about snakes and crocodiles — there aren’t many that would describe the biggest salt water croc in town as “friendly as a puppy dog”. An obsession that began at age five when he brought his first snake home to his mother in New Jersey, developed when he moved to India at seven and found a whole host of exciting new animals in its forests.

His most heart stopping moment? Leaping forward to grab a female king cobra and finding himself on his stomach staring up at her puffed out face. A picture of him beaming behind a hand full of baby king cobras who are, “kind of poisonous but they haven’t really learnt to bite yet,” speaks volumes. “Reptiles usually come second place behind cute furry things like tigers,” he says. “They’ve always got bad PR.”

But, reptiles are immensely important in the ecosystem. Take for example, the gharial crocodile, which, Romulus explains, is “the keystone to understanding the health of our rivers.” Unfortunately today, gharials, most of which live in the River Chambal, are dying in droves — less than 200 are left in the world. No one knows exactly why, but if the gharials are dying what does that say about the health of our rivers, he asks.

“We, in India are doing a lot for animals but not enough for wild animals,” said V. Gnanaprakasam, former Vice-Chancellor, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Chennai, while conferring the award.

Perhaps, saving the gharials for posterity is India’s chance to change that, perhaps not. Either way, Romulus Whitaker is leading the way.

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