Romulus Whitaker
Romulus Earl Whitaker

(1943-05-23) 23 May 1943 (age 80)
New York City, United States
EducationBSc (wildlife management)
Alma materPacific Western University
Occupation(s)Herpetologist, Conservationist
Known forWildlife film-making, Herpetology, Rolex Award
Spouse(s)Zahida "Zai" Whitaker née Futehally (m. 1974; divorced)
Janaki Lenin
RelativesZafar Futehally (father-in-law)
FamilyTyabji family (through Zai)

Romulus Earl Whitaker (born 23 May 1943) is an American-born Indian herpetologist, wildlife conservationist, and founder of the Madras Snake Park, the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust (ANET), and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. In 2008, Whitaker was selected as an associate laureate in the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise for his efforts to create a network of rainforest research stations throughout India.[1] In 2005, he was a winner of a Whitley Award for outstanding leadership in nature conservation. He used this award to found the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka, for the study of king cobras and their habitat.

For his work in wildlife conservation, he received the Padma Shri award in 2018 by the Government of India.[2]

Background and personal life

Whitaker (known as "Rom") was born in New York City, United States, to an American couple. His mother, Doris Norden, was an artist, and his father served in the United States Army. He has one older sister, Gail (b. 1939). After his parents divorced, his mother (who had custody of her children) married Rama Chattopadhyay, son of Harindranath and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.[3] The family, including Rom and Gail, initially settled in New York City. In 1951, after the birth of Rom's half-sister Nina, they all moved to Bombay (now Mumbai). Rom's stepfather Rama Chattopadhyay was a pioneer in color film processing; he established India's first colour motion-picture processing lab in Worli, Mumbai. Rom's half-brother Neelkanth was born in Mumbai in 1953.

Rom continued his education (begun in New York) at the Kodaikanal International School (class of 1960). He studied briefly at the University of Wyoming. During the early Vietnam era, as an American citizen of the correct age, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he trained and served as a medic on a military base hospital in Japan.[citation needed] After his Army tour of duty, he apprenticed from 1963 to 1965 at the Miami Serpentarium with Bill Haast, whom he affectionately calls "guru". A short career in the Merchant Navy brought him back to India, and he has lived here ever since. He is now a naturalized Indian citizen.

In 1974, Whitaker married Zai Whitaker, and the couple had two sons, Nikhil and Samir.[4] However, the marriage eventually failed, and the couple were divorced. He later married again and his wife, Janaki Lenin, is an Indian. They live on a farm just south of Chennai, on the outskirts of Chengalpattu town in Tamil Nadu.[5][6]

In 1986, well into his 40s, Whitaker earned a B.Sc. in wildlife management from Pacific Western University. This was merely a by-product of his lifelong passion for wildlife, especially of the reptilian variety. He is also a licensed amateur radio operator, holding an Indian callsign, VU2WIT.[7]

Work in India

Gharial and turtles at the Crocodile Bank

Whitaker was the founding director of the Snake Park in Chennai. The park was conceived to rehabilitate the Irula tribe, who are known for their expertise in catching snakes. The tribals were left jobless after the ban of snake trading. Whitaker helped the Irula tribe to get involved in extracting snake venom used for the production of antivenom drugs. Rom is the founder-director of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust Centre for Herpetology, actively involved in crocodile breeding and conservation programs. [8]

Whitaker is currently coordinating an effort to save the gharial, a critically endangered species of Crocodilia on the brink of extinction, with less than 250 individuals left in Indian waters.[9]

King Cobra at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station

On 27 December 2010, the Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, during a visit with Rom at the Madras Crocodile Bank, announced the formation of a National Tri-State Chambal Sanctuary Management and Coordination Committee for gharial conservation on 1,600 square kilometres (620 sq mi) of the National Chambal Sanctuary for gharials along the Chambal River in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The committee will comprise representatives of the states' water resources ministries, state departments of irrigation and power, Wildlife Institute of India, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, the Gharial Conservation Alliance, Development Alternatives, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Worldwide Fund for Nature, and the divisional forest officers of the three states. The committee will plan strategies for protection of gharials and their habitat. This will involve further research on the species and its ecology and socioeconomic evaluation of dependent riparian communities. Funding for this new initiative will be mobilized as a subscheme of the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats in the amount of Rs.50 to 80 million (US$1 to 1.7 million) each year for five years. This project has long been advocated by Rom Whitaker. [10][11]

Professional affiliations

Whitaker is a member of the advisory committee and the editorial board of the Bombay Natural History Society, correspondent of The Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, USA, advisor of Irula Tribal Women's’ Welfare Society, Afforestation Project, member of the Centre for Science and Education, New Delhi, and of the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. He co-founded the Tamil Nadu Society for Social Forestry Research and the Palni Hills Conservation Council. He is chief technical advisor of Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society and convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Chapter.[12] He is honorary consultant of International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources/Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC), vice chairman (Western Asia), IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group, member of IUCN/SSC Reptile and Amphibian Group and of IUCN/SSC Sea Turtle Specialist Group.[citation needed]

Popular culture

He was producer of the 1996, 53-minute, Super 16-mm wildlife documentary, The King and I, made for the National Geographic Channel Explorer program. This film on the natural history of the king cobra, the largest venomous snake in the world, received the Emmy Award for Outstanding News and Documentary Program Achievement, 1998. It also received Best Photography Award, Progetto Natura 8th Stambecco d'Oro Nature Film Festival, Turin, 1997; it was nominated for Best Cinematography, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival 1997; Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft-Cinematographers and News and Documentary, 1998, and Best Animal Behaviour, Wildscreen Film Festival 1998.

In February 2007, he was the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary produced by Icon Films and WNET (and broadcast as Supersize Crocs on PBS's Nature series) on oversized crocodiles, which was filmed in India, Ethiopia, and Australia.

In January 2009, Whitaker was in another Nature documentary on real-life reptiles, such as Komodo dragons and dracos that inspired tales of dragons.

In February 2011, BBC Natural World followed Whitaker during his ongoing research into the causes and prevention of snake bites in India.

He has authored several scientific articles and popular books on reptiles, especially on snakes, including the comprehensive field guide, titled Snakes of India - The Field Guide in 2004. [13] on the snakes of India. [12] [14]

In 2018, he received the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian awards in India for distinguish services in wildlife conservation.[15]

Honors, awards, and other recognitions


  1. ^ Dickie, Phil (2008). "Romulus Whitaker, Unconventional conservationist". The Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The Rolex Institute. Archived from the original on 13 February 2009. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
  2. ^ Crocodile Specialist Group (2018). "Minutes of CSG Steering Committee Meeting, Santa Fe, Argentina, 6 May 2018: 3.5. Zoos" (PDF). CSG Steering Committee Meetings (2018): 10.
  3. ^ "Meet Rom Whitaker". Retrieved 18 August 2019.
  4. ^ Alvares, Rahul (2005). Free from School. 1st World Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4218-0180-3. Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  5. ^ "There are no other books like 'My husband and other animals' in the Indian market: Janaki Lenin". Zee News. 25 December 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  6. ^ "There's never a dull moment in life: Janaki Lenin". The Times of India. 5 February 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  7. ^ "VU2WIT Callsign Page".
  8. ^ Raghavan, T. L. (2009). "Romulus Whitaker - His Story". Environment. Chennai Online. Archived from the original on 14 December 2008. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
  9. ^ "Mystery of crocs' mass die-off". Science and Environment. BBC News. 2008. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
  10. ^ Lenin, Janaki (2010). "New Government of India initiative for gharial conservation". Janaki Lenin's Facebook Notes. Madras Crocodile Bank, Chennai, India.
  11. ^ Oppilli, P. (2010). "A sanctuary coming up for Ghariyals". S & T, Energy & Environment. The Hindu, Chennai. Retrieved 27 December 2010.
  12. ^ a b "Earl Whitaker". Resume. Wildlife Central. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
  13. ^ Whitaker, Romulus; Captain, Ashok (2004). Snakes of India: The Field Guide. Archived 28 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine Chennai: Draco Books.
  14. ^ "Alumni Profile: Romulus "Rom" Whitaker (Class of 1960)" (PDF). KIS Alumni Newsletter. KIS Alumni Association. August 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 November 2010. Retrieved 29 January 2009.
  15. ^ "6 Padma awardees are pride and joy of Tamil Nadu". The Times of India. 26 January 2018. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
  16. ^ "King Cobra Research Station, Western Ghats, India". whitleyaward. Whitley Fund for Nature. 31 December 2004. Retrieved 26 February 2018.
  17. ^ "romulus whitaker". rolex awards. Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Retrieved 26 February 2018.
  18. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Whitaker, R.", p. 284).
  19. ^ Sunagar, Kartik; Khochare, Suyog; Senji Laxme, R. R.; Attarde, Saurabh; Dam, Paulomi; Suranse, Vivek; Khaire, Anil; Martin, Gerard; Captain, Ashok (2021). "A Wolf in Another Wolf's Clothing: Post-Genomic Regulation Dictates Venom Profiles of Medically-Important Cryptic Kraits in India". Toxins. 13 (1): 69. doi:10.3390/toxins13010069. PMC 7832344. PMID 33477742.
  20. ^ Desikan, Shubashree (23 January 2021). "Lookalike snakes but with self-styled venoms". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 31 January 2021.
  21. ^ "Chennai: Padma Shri for Whitaker gladdens ecologists' hearts". Deccan Chronicle. 26 January 2018. Retrieved 31 January 2021.

External sources