Romulus Whitaker

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 1991


This profile was prepared when Romulus Whitaker was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991.
The New Idea
For Rom Whitaker, wildlife conservation must be more than an emotional appeal to protect endangered species. In an increasingly crowded world, parks without people can only be the rare exception. For the world as a whole, people and animals must learn to live together. Rom is demonstrating the kind of creative adjustments that India must learn to make if it is to achieve equilibrium.
The founder of several cooperative societies of the South Indian Irula tribal group, Rom has helped them work out new ways of earning income using traditional skills developed over generations. The Irula are traditional hunter-gatherers who are finding that their traditional sources of income are drying up as modern society presses in on all sides. They are, among other things, masters at catching snakes, and they used this skill to sell snakeskins until a ban on such trade was passed in 1972. Rom thought of an alternative – a snake venom industry. This co-op extracts venom from poisonous snakes and sells it to companies that need it to produce anti-venom serums. After three extractions, the snakes are released back into the wilderness.
The Irulas are also adept at catching rodents, having long used them as a supplementary food source. Rom has studied the efficiency with which the Irulas can control destructive rodent populations where food is being grown and stored, and has concluded that they are as effective as rodenticides, without the latter's harmful side effects. The Irulas charge a fee for rooting out the rats and also sell their carcasses as feed to the Madras Crocodile Bank, as protein for poultry feed, and for other experimental uses.
Rom's concern for reptiles, which dates from his boyhood, also led him to more direct efforts to educate the public. He founded and built up the Madras Snake Park, which is now visited by a million visitors a year. He has since founded and is building up the Madras Crocodile Bank, which breeds crocodiles, carries on research, and helps educate the public regarding these feared animals.
Now he's starting to influence even larger audiences with his vision of a world where people and the world's other creatures live both together and in creative harmony. Specifically, he's been learning to master the film and radio media. With several award-winning documentaries to his credit, he has now conceived and won basic support for a feature film designed for the mass entertainment market but containing authentic wildlife photography and a powerful environmental message.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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