Whitaker’s award winning documentaries, books and passion for wildlife conservation have inspired many. “I’m neither American or Australian, I’m an ‘asli’ Indian”, the herpetologist told Devika Sequeira of Deccan Herald at the global symposium on sea turtles in Goa recently.
You’ve lived in India for over 50 years. Have you ever felt the ‘outsider’?
I came to India when I was seven years old, in 1951. It was a very different India then with much less pressure and only half the population we have now. I started real conservation work in the late ’60s and while I’ve always put reptiles first, it gradually became very clear that conservation is a holistic game and it requires looking at big landscapes as well as the people in them. Ultimately, the fate of our wild places and wild creatures will be determined by the people who live in and around them, not the decision makers and armchair conservationists deliberating from comfortable locales in Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore. I’ve never really felt like an outsider in the racial sense, but I’ve certainly felt like an outsider when I’ve proposed somewhat radical approaches to conservation and sustainable management of wildlife resources. But has that ever stopped me? Not likely.
You’ve often said the king cobra is the ‘real’ king of the jungle. Is the romance still on?
The presence of king cobras in the rainforest is a sign that the forest is reasonably intact, that the prey base still exists, that the vegetation, humidity and temperature are still optimum. Once we mess things up so badly by our mismanagement or overuse of the forest’s bounties, we see the big predators disappearing. King cobras cannot survive long in trashed landscapes any more than a tiger or a shark can survive with its habitat damaged beyond repair. The presence of the king cobra, like other prominent wild icons such as the elephant, rhino and crocodile is what creates that aura you feel when you are truly in the wild, all by yourself, with the peace and time to contemplate what’s around you. The rush, noise and bustle of human creations like the city and highways are left behind and when you come back to them you feel a yearning for that peace and solitude you can only get from the wild.
What in your view is the biggest threat to the biodiversity of the Western Ghats, home to the endangered king cobra?
Right now the biggest threat comes from mindless mining, ill-conceived dams and other water projects — such as the disastrous river-linking plans — pollution, and general misuse of the land that causes erosion, sedimentation of water sources and loss of microhabitats essential for the survival of creatures and plants that have evolved in these rainforests over millions of years. Perhaps the basic problem is lack of knowledge of what we have and how valuable it is, and a lack of political will.
How serious is India’s looming water crisis?
You would think that it should be obvious to most of us in India that we are already facing a water crisis that will eventually be far worse than the worst food famine the country has ever faced. Yet we continue to treat our water sources as sewers and garbage dumps. From big industry all the way down to little village households we continue to pollute the streams, rivers and wetlands that have supplied abundant freshwater since time began. This is the time in history for us to wake up, to have a Save Natural Water Sources movement that involves everybody and makes industry, politicians and ordinary people responsible and answerable for the disasters we are creating in our clean water sources.
What about Karnataka where your Agumbe rainforest research station is located?
There is an annual water shortage in Agumbe in the dry season, but it is not severe so far. The irony is of course that one of the highest rainfall areas in the world faces an annual shortage during the dry months from about March to June. This has been much more severe in the famous Cherrapunji in the Northeast and it is an excellent way to show people that we cannot be complacent in a world which is already struggling for fresh water supplies.
One sees far more young people these days involved in issues of eco-development and conservation. How encouraging is the trend?
When I look back to my early days in conservation in India it was a somewhat lonely task. Finding young people who looked beyond just getting a good job was a real challenge. Nowadays a day doesn’t go by when I don’t get at least one email from some interested young person wondering what he/she can do for conservation. This is highly encouraging but I strongly urge any youngsters out there to seriously research what needs to be done to save habitats and species, to help make other people aware of the problems and solutions facing our ecosystems, plants and creatures. I am totally foxed by questions like ‘what can I do for conservation?’ If you don’t know what you can do, you obviously haven’t been looking around to see what is going wrong!