Utilising the king cobra as a flagship species for India’s vanishing rainforests

The Malnad region of Karnataka State in South India is part of a unique ecosystem known as the Western Ghats, an area famous for its biodiversity. Due in part to the mountainous biotype and the effect of yearly monsoons, which bring high annual rainfall, the Western Ghats has an incredibly rich assemblage of endemic plants, reptiles and amphibians, many of which remain unknown to science. The rainforest is also the home of the largest venomous snake in the world – the much respected and feared king cobra.

The king cobra is a powerful and ancient religious icon in India and Southeast Asia, and has long been respected. However, today these majestic and ecologically valuable snakes are under threat from loss of habitat and human persecution as new generations of people lose their cultural tolerance for living alongside dangerous wildlife. Much of the king cobra’s rainforest habitat has unfortunately already been lost to deforestation is response to increasing demand for timber and agricultural land, fuelled by spiralling human population growth. The remaining rainforests of the Western Ghats are heavily fragmented, and the area is in urgent need of research, conservation and education activity, both for the survival of the cobra’s habitat, and the welfare of the millions of people dependent on the forest for resources and water.

Romulus Whitaker, an expert herpetologist, author and naturalized Indian citizen, has spent most of his life studying the reptiles and amphibians of South India, working closely with Irula Tribals to ensure the conservation of India’s snakes. An authority on the king cobra, in 2004, Rom acquired eight acres of land surrounded by the last great tracts of rainforest in the region. Utilising funds from the Whitley Award, Rom and his team are now building a unique rainforest research and education facility, the first of its kind to be built along the whole 1,000 km length of the Western Ghats. The station will make long term studies, until now logistically impossible, a reality. Rom’s vision is that this will be the nucleus for the world’s first king cobra sanctuary.

Using the charismatic king cobra as a flagship species in the same way as the tiger is used elsewhere, the research station will provide a logistics base for a wide range of rainforest studies, conservation action, local participation and education. It will not only enable researchers to maintain a scientific presence in the area, but will also be a vital networking centre for the local people, NGOs and Government agencies involved in conservation of the Western Ghats.

Rom has published over 200 scientific and popular articles plus several books, including ‘Common Indian Snakes, A Field Guide.’ He has produced, directed and presented a number of films for National Geographic Television, Children’s Film Society of India and others. Rom lives close to the snakes that are his passion, about 2 hours outside of the southeast coastal city of Madras.

ROM USES ROLEX PRIZE FUNDS TO ESTABLISH CLIMATE CHANGE MONITORING IN WESTERN GHATS

Dec 15th 2009

As the world devates climate change at the Copenhangan summit, a silent effort to study its impact on the rain forests of the country has begun in the tiny village of Agumbe in Karnataka.

To learn more, please click here.

HEAR ROM INTERVIEWED ON THE ANIMAL PLANET WEBSITE

March 28th 2006

Learn more about King Cobras and what it is like to work in one of the wettest jungles on earth on the Animal Planet website.

To hear the interview, please click here.

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