• William E Haast • Irula Tribesmen •
By Romulus Whitaker
MOST OF the people who have influenced me throughout life (and now) are doers rather than thinkers, and there are a bunch of them. Consider William E Haast, for example, a snakeman extraordinaire with whom I had the privilege of working at his Miami Serpentarium for two years. I won’t use the word ‘workaholic’ to describe Bill’s incessant activity: meticulously caring for hundreds of snakes, extracting their venom, feeding them, processing the venom, every day of the week. He enjoyed every minute of his work and it convinced me to pursue just that: a job I love to do. Setting up India’s first snake park in Madras (now ‘Chennai’) and later the Madras Crocodile Bank and Irula Tribal Venom Cooperative, was obviously a result of Bill’s influence. His cool demeanour, total lack of self-consciousness, and his gentle calmness and concentration when confronting and handling venomous snakes like black mambas and especially king cobras, were a guide to how I should live my life and do my thing.
Earlier in life, I had been heavily influenced by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Jim Corbett. As a teenager, I was smitten by the hunting bug and my already feverishly snake-oriented brain made me put into the forests of the Western Ghats every spare minute I had. Needless to say, my education suffered irretrievably. Once in the forest, no book or professor could compete with what I was experiencing.
I’ve also had two strong influences in my life, Irula tribesmen both: Natesan and Chockalingam. I got my feet wet, so to speak, accompanying these two wizards through the scrub jungles and fields just outside Madras, and sometimes farther afield to places like the rocky hills of Gingee. They taught me to detect the minuscule signs of snake trails, rodent droppings and even their hair, to identify shedded snake skins, to listen for the alarm cry of the mynah and the white-capped babbler. Not to just listen to it, but to be able to identify it: is that palm squirrel (‘Anil’ to them since animals are ‘people’ to the Irulas) doing a mongoose/cat alarm call or a snake alarm call? Snake! Chockalingam can tell by the slow, measured ‘chik…chik…chik’ Anil is making. I would spend a lifetime writing down all the things I’ve been learning from my Irula colleagues: the way to collect ‘stick honey’ by gently blowing on the bee swarm till they vacate the honey comb; to determine when a termite mound (‘puthu’) is ready to explode with tasty, protein-rich swarms of male and female winged termites; to remember which month it is that cobras are with their eggs, and which herb to rub on for that lower-back ache. My Irula friends continue to amaze and influence me with their skills as I try to include them in the field research being done by my formally educated colleagues. For example, they know so much more about rodent biology than anyone else (rats being a major protein source for them) and should be the ones enlisted to bring down the numbers of these competitors for our precious foodgrain. But the world, being unfair as it is, prefers to depend on pesticides instead of recognising the Irula knowledge base for what it can teach us and help solve our problems.
‘They taught me to detect the minuscule signs of snake trails, rodent droppings and even their hair’
I was a bit late in realising it, but the women close to me in my developing years, my mother Doris (now deceased) and two sisters Gail and Nina, were great influences in being always there for me, encouraging me in pursuits which must have seemed pretty bizarre, pushing me to realise my dreams even when they seemed way out of reach. It all started in Hoosick, a village in northern New York state where we lived. I was five and spending whole days as though I was already an Irula tribal, searching for, finding and collecting everything from spiders to beetles and even bees. But then I found my first snake (lucky there were no venomous ones there, I was totally naïve), and my obvious obsession with it was taken to further heights when my mother got out an old fish tank and made me my first terrarium to keep my new pet. What bliss! Next she bought me Boy’s Book of Snakes and I was hooked for life.
Besides the wonderful people mentioned, it is hard to pin down exactly who else has been the biggest influence in my life. I consciously drift from one fantasy goal to the next, trying to make them realities, succeeding sometimes thanks to the perseverance instilled and encouraged in me by a stunning menagerie of family, friends and acquaintances.
Romulus Whitaker is a herpetologist and filmmaker. He founded Madras Snake Park in 1969, Madras Crocodile Bank in 1976 and Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in 2005. He lives with Janaki Lenin on a farm south of Chennai with dogs, geese, emus and snakes
Photo: Cedric Bregnard