The International Union for Conservation of Nature describes India as a “megadiverse country" that accounts for 7-8% of all recorded species, including more than 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 animal species. India is also home to around 275 species of snakes.

Snakes are not just restricted to the rural landscape. They can be found in your neighbourhood parks and deserted plots, lying quietly under rocks, out of sight. But they remain important to us in the urban setting.

Herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, who founded the Chennai Snake Park Trust (1972) and The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology (1976), has travelled through the country, working on snakes and amphibians. He was also a presenter on a recent TV show, India’s Deadliest Snakes, that aired on Sony BBC Earth on 25 February (and will be telecast again on 12 April).

In an interview, Whitaker explains why snakes are important, and why he believes people in India should learn to live side by side with animals and appreciate them. Edited excerpts:

Snakes have always been an important part of Indian tradition and folklore. What about today’s society?

As far as snakes are concerned, naturally, urbanization is going to help them very much. The nice thing about human beings is that rats love us. And rats are snakes’ primary food. So wherever there are humans, there are going to be rats. As long as there is going to be a little bit of habitat or a little vacant plot nearby, there are probably going to be snakes around too. So, although there is a lot of pressure on all of wildlife due to urbanization, snakes still remarkably survive in very urban localities in the biggest cities of India.

People’s belief in myths and superstitions becomes less and less as they become more practical and science brings more common sense into their heads. I kind of like the old-fashioned idea that snakes should be worshipped because that helps have a conservation message. But the fact is that people are dying of snakebites in huge numbers every year. So those of us who claim that they love snakes had better do something about it.

That kind of puts us in this situation right now where we are working on films, books and education programmes about snakes—how to identify them, how to avoid the venomous ones, and how to treat a snakebite. It seems fairly simple to get these messages across, but India is a complex land with all sorts of beliefs, many languages and cultural differences. It’s like many countries in one country. So, education programmes have to be tailored for the local people and have to be relevant to them.

Olive Ridley turtles nest at the beach near the Rushikulya river mouth, Odisha. Photo: PTI
Olive Ridley turtles nest at the beach near the Rushikulya river mouth, Odisha. Photo: PTI

Do you feel the TV show will help viewers understand more about coexisting with snakes?

There are two ways of looking at it. One part of the audience is going to be urban. They don’t have to usually worry about avoiding snakes or learning to identify them, but the fact (is) that they (should) understand that there are very few species of snakes that are venomous, and that the biggest part of the problem is in rural India, to our farmers. This (the show) should make them aware of this.

The other part is the rural audience. I am very happy to see that the show has gone out in several languages. In rural India, it’s very important for people to get the message from this film. The show tries to teach, for example, that when you walk around at night, you must have a light. The snake is not after you, it does not want to bite you. But if you step on it in the dark, he’s going to feel threatened and bite in defence. These are the simple messages that people will learn from this show.

We made it specifically for that purpose: to show the big four venomous snakes in India which are responsible for most dangerous bites.

You’ve lived in Chennai most of your life. Have there been changes to the coastline?

Yes, definitely. When we first made The Madras Crocodile Bank, it was just one huge empty shoreline. Now, the Croc Bank is almost a part of the city of Chennai because it’s almost non-stop construction all the way across. In those days, for example, it was wonderful to go down to the beach and see sea turtles coming on shore to lay their eggs. And now, if you’ve seen the news, you’ll find a lot of sea turtles being washed up dead on the shore, probably because of the trawling nets; they’re drowning. It’s not the urban situation as much as the general development that is affecting the sea turtles.

What kind of role has The Madras Crocodile Bank played in educating people about reptiles and amphibians?

It’s actually a marvellous place. We’ve had tens of thousands of people come here over these 40 years. It does spread the word about how interesting reptiles are—they are definitely part of our wildlife heritage. There’s a lot of mythology involved in it too, but there are a lot of practical reasons why snakes and other animals exist, and for their role in the ecosystem. The biggest (reason) is knowing that snakes eat rats, and that’s so important for us to try and control the rodent population. Without snakes, we would be overrun by them.

Do you believe Indian cities are biodiverse?

Look at Mumbai. You’ve got the Sanjay Gandhi National Park: It has the highest concentration of leopards anywhere in the world. And although there have been some problems, they are mostly getting solved by proper management of the park, the animals, and educating people. So, yes, I do think it’s possible that we can live side by side with a lot of animals, even leopards.

That’s the purpose of these films and other little things we do. They tell people that we are living with these creatures. There’s no way they’re going to go away. So let’s learn how to live with them and appreciate them.

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