Photograph by Cedric Bregnard, Rolex Awards
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In Romulus Whitaker's hands, a snake becomes an educational tool at a school in Agumbe, India.

Photograph by Cedric Bregnard, Rolex Awards

The Unconventional Life of India's Snake Man

World-renowned herpetologist Romulus Whitaker has spent the past six decades devoted to reptile research and rain forest conservation.

With his shoulder-length white hair, perpetual tan, and soft-spoken demeanor, it would be easy to dismiss Romulus Whitaker as an aging disciple of Jimmy Buffett or the Grateful Dead.

But at 73, Whitaker is anything but the easygoing beach bum type.

“People often mistake me for a rabid hippie conservationist,’’ says Whitaker, a world-renowned herpetologist. “But I’d like to be remembered as the reptile freak.”

Whitaker’s fascination with snakes began in upstate New York, where he caught his first one as a four-year-old and then quickly amassed a collection—an obsession that grew into a lifetime pursuit following his family's move to India in the 1950s. There he’s affectionately known as "the Snake Man of India," the founder of the Chennai Snake Park, and an expert on the habits of the king cobra, the world's longest venomous snake.

Whitaker’s work on king cobras and snake venom research has been featured in books, magazines, and documentaries, including the Emmy-winning King Cobra.

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Whitaker surveys a river channel near his Agumbe Rainforest Research Center.

“It’s an incredible snake, the only one to create a nest to protect its eggs,’’ says Whitaker, who has placed radio transmitters inside king cobras to learn more about their patterns.

Whitaker also works to protect the gharial, a critically endangered reptile that lives in India’s rivers. His Gharial Ecology Project, run by Jeffrey Lang and now in its ninth year, was initially sparked by a mass die-off of reptiles in India’s National Chambal Sanctuary. To date, Whitaker and his team have radio-tagged more than 50 gharials to monitor their breeding, nesting, and migratory patterns. In tandem with his reptile research, Whitaker, a Rolex Laureate, has been involved in establishing a network of rain forest research stations across India over the past decade.

So far he has established three of the seven stations planned, including the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. Designed as educational and research facilities, the centers help document climate change and the impact on local rivers, which are under increasing encroachment from mining, logging, dams, and agriculture.

At a time when most people his age are well into retirement, Whitaker has no plans to slow down.

Next month, he’ll be in the Florida Everglades, where he’ll teach snake-catching techniques to snake wranglers trying to rid the state of some invasive Burmese pythons. “My wife just shakes her head,’’ Whitaker says.

“I haven’t had to do a nine-to-five job ever in my life, and that is a very envious situation to be in if you like the wild.’’ he says. “Life has been much like a river in that it picks you up and carries you along.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.