Romulus Whitaker: Mixing films and conservation in India

A young volunteer gets to know a snake at Agumbe research station - photo courtesy Rolex Awards

Romulus Whitaker introduces a young volunteer to a snake at Agumbe research station, Tamil Nadu, India – photo courtesy Rolex Awards

“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. Life has been much like a river in that it picks you up and carries you along. I have got into things as they come towards me.”

That’s how Romulus Whitaker, reptile and amphibian specialist, conservationist and filmmaker sums up his long, eventful and illustrious career. At 65, he is full of zest for life, ready to take on new challenges in protecting India’s forests and wildlife.

His current ambition, for which he has just been selected as an Associate Laureate in the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, is to create a network of rainforest research stations throughout India.

I caught up with this American-born, naturalised Indian citizen a few days ago when he and fellow Indian Moji Riba were presented with their Rolex awards at a ceremony in New Delhi.

Of course, I’d heard about Romulus (Rom) Whitaker for years and seen some of his natural history films. In some ways, his style was a bit like that of ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin — putting himself in the picture, sometimes in daring encounters with potentially dangerous animals…all in the name of bringing nature a bit closer to us in our living rooms.

But such similarities go only so far. Rom takes a less dramatic and more philosophical approach to humans’ relationship with Nature. For him, television is only a means to an end. As Rolex award profile put it, “the combination of a foreign name, mildly Viking looks inherited from his Swedish mother, an unexpected fluency in local Indian dialects and a thoroughly irreverent attitude” makes him “a highly unconventional yet effective conservationist in a country far from his birthplace”.

To catch a glimpse of this remarkable man, watch this ‘Incredible India’ PSA featuring Romulus Whitaker:

Rom was the founder director of the Snake Park in Chennai. The park was established in 1972 ‘to preserve the endangered reptile species in the sub continent’.

Rom’s career in film making was a byproduct of his life-long desire to bring people and Nature closer. He chronicled his venture into the world of television and film in a chapter he wrote for a book published by India’s Centre for Environment Education and TVE Asia Pacific in 2002. In that book, titled Wild Dreams, Green Screens, eight leading Indian film-makers shared insights about their careers, including how and when they decided to get involved in this field. They also talked about some of the exciting — and frustrating — experiences they have had while filming nature and wildlife.

From dreams to screen...

From dreams to screen…

In the early 1970s, Rom worked with a Russian film crew who turned up to do a sequence on snakes for a film based on the famous Kipling story, Rikki Tikki Tavi. “It was fun for me to help them figure out how to film a snake stealing an egg from a bird’s nest – and it took a whole week to do it. I was impressed by their patience and persistence,” Rom recalled in the book.

After that, every few months, some film crew would show up to do either a short news story on the Snake Park, or a short film on Indian snakes for foreign audiences. India’s stereotyped reputation as a land of snakes and snake-charmers partly fueled this interest.

Rom continues: “By the 1980s, I started thinking I knew something about making wildlife films – even though I didn’t have a TV, and there weren’t really very many such documentaries screened anywhere in India. I was aware that films could show and teach people about my beloved reptiles like nothing else. Surely the Snake Park with nearly a million visitors a year could make good use of such films, and I knew the visitors would go away with a new awareness of how beautiful, graceful and interesting reptiles are. A single broadcast on a TV channel and 20 million people would be able to see it all at once!”

Determined to do his own films, Rom teamed up with two school friends John and Louise Riber, and Shekar Dattatri, to make a film on India’s snakebite problem. They had a tiny budget (Indian Rupees 50,000, which is approximately US$ 1,000 today), an old Arri camera and ‘a lot of enthusiasm’.

One thing led to another. “‘Snakebite’ turned out to be a good little half-hour film which was translated into several Indian languages… Amazingly, this little film won a first prize at a festival in the United States, and was awarded the Golden Eagle by the American Movie and Television Federation. Lo and behold, I was a filmmaker!”

‘Snakebite’ (1985), made on 16 mm film, also launched the career of Shekar Dattatri, a multi-award winning Indian filmmaker who worked as an assistant director on this production. Coincidentally, Shekar was an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Award in 2004 for his ‘Wild India Project – Changing Hearts and Minds through Moving Images’.

Vikram Akula (left) presents Rolex Awards certificate to Romulus Whitaker in Delhi, 22 January 2009

Vikram Akula (left) presents Rolex Awards certificate to Romulus Whitaker in Delhi, 22 January 2009

We missed Shekar at the Delhi event – he couldn’t make it due to scheduling difficulties. But as Rom has written, the Whitaker-Dattatri partnership continued for several years while they struggled with ‘very crude equipment’ and tiny budgets. Films like ‘Seeds of Hope’ (on tree planting) and ‘A Cooperative for Snake Catchers’ followed.

Rom further writes in his chapter: “We worked hard on these films, learning as we went along month after month, working with really good people like the tree planters of Auroville and the Palni Hills Conservation Council, and, of course, the fantastic Irula tribals. We did have a few narrow escapes with snakes, but we always felt we were in much more danger driving down National Highway 45, than from any of our venomous subjects!”

Rom’s film making in the past two decades has taken him not only to the far corners of India, but to other biodiversity hotspots of the world – such as Indonesia. As the years passed, his enhanced reputation attracted big names in wildlife films, such as National Geographic, Discovery/Animal Planet and BBC Natural History. Combining his conservation knowledge with public education skills, Rom has also been presenter of several films.

The King (Cobra) and I

The King (Cobra) and I

These multiple involvements have earned him a string of awards – his documentary King Cobra made for National Geographic won him an Emmy award, considered the television equivalent of the Oscars.

Despite the rigorous demands of film making (and the occasional lure of television medium), Rom has remained active in conservation circles both within India and at global level. While many conservationists in India focus their attention on charismatic megafauna like tigers and elephants, Rom has stayed faithful to his chosen field of reptiles and amphibians. Years ago he realized that his beloved species cannot survive unless their natural habitats do. So, like many others, he evolved from naturalist to conservationist.

“A lot of us get wrapped up in our own little special animal and then we wake up and start thinking it has got to be habitat and it has to be eco-development that involves people and, now, in my case, it has crystallized into the whole idea of water resources,” he says.

Read his detailed CV for details on his conservation, publishing and film making accomplishments.

Rom’s colourful career has itself become a subject for other filmmakers. In 2007, he was featured in a critically-acclaimed documentary produced by PBS, under their “Nature” banner, on “super-sized” crocodiles and alligators, which was filmed in India, East Africa and Australia.

And in January 2009, Whitaker returned to the small screen in another “Nature” documentary on real-life reptiles such as Komodo dragons and Dracos that inspired tales of dragons.

Extract from The Dragon Chronicles, which premiered on PBS in January 2009:

Read the PBS/Dragon Chronicles interview with Rom Whitaker

The man who turned to moving images in the 1980s to move people’s minds towards conservation is still engaged in that business. He is a conservationist who puts a premium on public engagement, and especially on working with children and young people.

He says: “We are doing a lot of work with young people, bringing them to the forest and showing them what happens here and why it matters. It can be very difficult to change adult attitudes, but with the young, it is easier to get across the knowledge that what we are doing to the forests we are doing to ourselves.”

In Romulus Whitaker's hands, snakes become educational tools for children and icons of nature conservation. Photo courtesy Rolex Awards

In Romulus Whitaker\’s hands, snakes become educational tools for children and icons of nature conservation. Photo courtesy Rolex Awards

Pay-back time for film-makers: Go back to your locations!

“These days it’s simply not good enough to use the old response… “If people know about it they’ll care for it and do something”. Wrong. They’ll just go on being conned that it’s all perfect out there, with endless jungles, immaculate Masai Maras, and untouched oceans. What planet are they on about?”

These words come from Richard Brock, one of the world’s leading and most senior natural history film makers.

If you haven’t heard his name, chances are that you know at least some of his many creations: he worked in the BBC Natural History Unit producing, among others, the highly successful Life on Earth and Living Planet series presented by David Attenborough.

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative Image courtesy Brock Initiative

The BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) is a department of the BBC dedicated to making TV and radio programmes with a natural history or wildlife theme, especially nature documentaries. It celebrates 50 years in 2007.

Richard Brock worked with them for 35 of those 50 years. He left them a few years ago, according to his own website, ”concerned by the lack of willingness to address the real current state of the environment”.

He then started his own independent production company, Living Planet Productions, which has made over 100 films on a wide range of environmental topics, shown all over the world. As his archive of films and footage mounted up, Richard felt that there was something more, better, that could be done with this resource.

“We’ve been celebrating nature by bringing its wonders to the TV screen all over the world. Now that world is changing, faster and faster, and nature needs help. Films can do that, at a local level, be it with decision-makers in the government or in the village,” he says.

He adds: “When you consider the miles of footage and thousands of programs sitting in vaults out there unused, it seems tragic that the very wonders they celebrate are dwindling, often because no one tells the locals and tries to help. That is why I believe its Payback Time for the wildlife television.”

Thus the Brock Initiative was born. To quote from their website:
“He decided to set up the Brock Initiative, to use his archive of footage, and to ask others to do the same, to create new programs, not made for a general TV audience, but made for those who are really connected to the situation in hand: local communities, decision makers, even that one fisherman who uses dynamite fishing over that one coral reef. Its about reaching those who have a direct impact; reaching those who can make the difference.”

As he emphatically says: “Showing the truth on some minority channel is not the answer. Showing it where it counts, is.”

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative

I hope those development donors and corporate sponsors, who try to outdo each other in supporting programming going out on BBC World (an elite minority channel in most markets) hear people like Richard Brock — long-time BBC insiders who know what they are talking about.

Those who make documentaries on wildlife, natural history or environment (and wild-life of humans) are trapped in their industry’s many contradictions. They go on location filming to the far corners of the planet, capturing ecosystems, species and natural phenomena. Yet for a long time, many have avoided talking about or featuring the one species that has the biggest impact on Nature: Homo sapiens (that’s us!).

Whole series of wildlife documentaries have been made, by leading broadcasters and production houses of the east and west, without once showing a human being or human activity in them. Almost as if humans would ‘contaminate’ pristine Nature!

In recent years, more film-makers have broken ranks and started acknowledging the human footprint on the planet and its environment. But a good many documentaries are still made with ‘pure’ wildlife content, with not a thought spared on the wild-life of our species.

Richard Brock is one who has refused to follow the flock. And he has also punctured the highly inflated claims — promoted by BBC Worlds of this planet — that broadcast television can fix the world’s problems.

As we have found out here in Asia, it’s a judicious combination of broadcast and narrowcast that can work – and we still need the participation of teachers, activists and trainers to get people to think and act differently.

At their best, broadcasts can only flag an issue or concern to a large number of people. For attitudes and behaviour to change, that needs to be followed up by narrowcast engagement at small group levels.

Taking films to the grassroots need not be expensive, says Brock. In fact it can be done inexpensively.

These are not programmes for broadcast to western audiences demanding BIG productions – you are often showing films to people who have never even seen TV. The effort comes in showing the right thing, to the right people, in the right way, and not about expensive effects, top quality cameras or cutting edge effects.”

Using donated archive footage cuts costs dramatically. New footage, important for putting a film in a local context, can be taken on small miniDV cameras and editing can be done on any home computer. In this way, it becomes feasible to put together a film even for a very small, but crucial audience.

The Brock Initiative, started and funded by donations from its founder, has projects in Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania, the UK and Indonesia.

Read more about the Indonesia project

They also offer wildlife and nature footage free to those who want to use moving images to make a difference.

Read Richard Brock’s formula for making films that make a difference!

As our species’ wild-life pushes our living planet closer to peril, we need many more Richard Brocks to try and reverse disturbing trends at the edges of survival — almost all of them in the global South.

It’s pay-back time, film-makers!

Related blog posts:
End this callous waste – open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance

Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the Development Pill

Contact The Brock Initiative

The lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree

nalaka-with-neil-and-brenda-curry-at-jwf-2005-awards-night-aug-2005.jpg
This photo was taken in August 2005 in Toyama, Japan, which is some 200km east of Tokyo. The occasion was during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival, held in Toyama every other summer since 1993.

I am seen with Brenda and Neil Curry, my film-maker friends from South Africa. That was a memorable night for Neil, whose remarkable film, The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, won the festival’s highest award.

The 50-min film captures the delicate relationship between the elephant, the Emperor Moth and the Mopane Tree (scientific name: Colophospermum mopane). It was produced by Oxford Scientific Films for BBC Natural World, bringing together the creative talents of Neil Curry, Alastair and Mark MacEwen, and Sean Morris.

Here’s the full official synopsis of the film:
Mopane woodland has been symbolic of African bush for centuries but its ecology is often misunderstood. Its importance to the fragile ecosystem is paramount. In this programme we show the delicate relationship between the elephant, the emperor moth and the incredible mopane tree. We also show the vital impact this ecosystem has on a local family who depend upon the delicious harvest of mopane worms to supplement their diet, and the precious resources the mopane tree provides in order to survive in the mopane woodland of Botswana.

Foreign delegates, staff and volunteers of JWF2005 Neil Curry accepting the Best of JWF2005 award on behalf of his team

I was in Toyama as a guest speaker, talking about TVE Asia Pacific‘s Children of Tsunami media project, which was then in progress.

Brenda and Neil, originally from the UK, now live in wine country off Cape Town. Neil is the quintessential natural history film-maker: meticulous in his approach to a story, passionate in what he covers, and with tons of patience.

Most natural history film-makers go for animal subjects. It’s much harder to do an interesting film about a plant or tree that stays in one place and does not have an annual breeding cycle like animals.

That’s just one of many reasons why The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree is outstanding. It tells a complex story of an ecosystem that is inter-dependent and in balance.

The film, made in 2004, also won the top award at WildScreen (Bristol, UK), considered to be the oscar awards in wildlife and natural history film-making.

A stand of Mopane laden with seed pods - image courtesy Africa Hunter Image courtesy Tourism Botswana

Now here’s the rest of the story, which is not as upbeat. Neil spent many months in Botswana filming this story, and wanted to take the finished film back to the communities where it was shot. The wildlife parks and schools in the area, he knew, could make good use of the film to educate the local kids, adults and visitors.

What would be simpler than that? Get a VHS or DVD copy and pass it on to them, right?

Wrong. When I met Neil in the summer of 2005, it was more than 18 months since the film was made. For much of that time, he had been trying to obtain permission from the BBC to share a non-broadcast copy of his film with the people in Botswana. His request was passed from person to person, and from division to division, with no clear decision made, and no permission granted.

The BBC had invested funds in making the film, and had a legal right to decide how and where it was to be used. Focused on ‘revenue optimisation’ and ‘returns on investment’, its bean-counters could not care less whether the film-maker wished to share his creation with the local people whose reality he had captured.

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is alarmingly wide-spread: every year, excellent environmental documentaries and development films are produced, most of them using public funds (who pays the BBC license fee? The British public!). Yet these films are locked up in complex copyrights that prevent them from being used by anyone outside broadcast circles.

As I said in my recent speech to Asia Media Summit 2007:
Even where the film-makers or producers themselves are keen for their creations to be used beyond broadcasts, the copyright policies stand in the way. In large broadcast organisations, it is lawyers and accountants –- not journalists or producers -– who now seem to decide on what kind of content is produced, and how it is distributed under what restrictions.

I don’t know if Neil Curry ever cleared the rights to screen the film to small groups of people in Botswana or elsewhere in Africa. But I think of this every time BBC World cries its heart out for the poor and suffering in Africa.

This is one global broadcaster that does not put its money where its mouth is.

In fact, the BBC’s accountants must be laughing all the way to their bank.

Read my related posts: End this callous waste: Open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance!

Public funds, private rights: Big mismatch in development film-making

27 July 2007 – Neil Curry responds to my views on optimum duration of natural history documentaries

Fossil fuels and fossil fools in India

‘‘People in India, unlike the West, don’t understand the seriousness of climate change….They think global warming is a fantasy. Indians are using fossil fuel like never before. We have constructed oven-like buildings and spend enormous energy cooling them.’’

I came across these words by the well known Indian environmental film-maker Mike Pandey in an article in NewIndPress that surveyed how Indian documentary film-makers are rising to the challenge of communicating climate change.

The article, ‘Meltdown on Film’ published on 15 March 2007 highlights the formidable task of raising awareness in India, now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, consuming larger volumes of fossil fuels every year.

Mike knows what he’s talking about: his film Global Warming went largely unnoticed when it was released in India three years ago.

And he is one of India’s top notch film makers on environment, wildlife and natural history. He has won three Panda Awards — also known as the ‘Green Oscar’ — at the Wildscreen Film Festival held every other year in Bristol, UK — and considered to be the most important festival of its kind in the world. (Modest cough: I was on the jury of Wildscreen 2000, when we gave Mike one of his three Green Oscars.)

Viewer apathy is not the only problem that India’s environmental film-makers have to contend with. Here’s an extract from the article:

Like any environmentalist, our documentary filmmakers are “concerned” about issues like global warming. But the lacklustre reactions of research agencies (who ‘‘support” the cause but don’t really come forward to fund documentaries), zero interest from broadcasters who, according to one filmmaker, prefer ‘‘sexy environmental stories’’, together with viewer apathy, are the reasons why the few impressive documentary films on climate change vanish after a few screenings at festivals. Take the Public Service Broadcast Trust’s (PSBT) Open Frame, for instance, the annual documentary film festival held in Delhi. Or the roving environmental and wildlife film festival CMS Vatavaran, where open discussions are held after every screening. Barely a couple of films are chosen by the public broadcaster Doordarshan after they are screened at these two festivals, which is why most of the documentaries don’t ever reach the masses.

‘‘Public interest stories and documentaries are the last thing broadcasters want to show,’’ quips Pandey. ‘‘People like me are lucky to have found space on DD. Value-based programmes are nudged out so easily by broadcasters these days.”

The article continues:

A few years ago, when Mike Pandey returned to his favourite spot in Austria to capture a snowcap for one of his films, he was shocked to see it had melted. He says, ‘‘I had seen the ice cap the previous year. I had to go deeper into the area to get my shots. It’s common in Austria to see ice caps vanishing. You see blossoms and splendid crops in many areas.’’ After Earth Matters, which is being shown on Doordarshan, Pandey is coming up with a series of six films on global warming, which will talk about ‘‘using alternative energy for the future.’’

Whenever out for shoots at Lakshwadeep, Kochi and Gujarat, Mike has been noticing ‘‘visible changes’’ in ‘‘ocean ferocity’’ and where the sea neighbours the land. ‘‘The water has come in a bit more into the land over the years,’’ he observes.

‘‘You don’t have to be a scientist to notice these changes; you can see it all happening now. Unfortunately, people living along the Indian coastline will be the first ones to face any kind of major impact,’’ he adds.

On my visit to Hyderabad last week, I was told that there are now close to 50 TV channels that cover news and current affairs on a 24/7 basis (in English and other Indian languages). Yet this kind of news hardly seems to make the headlines….it’s probably moving too slowly.

Mike Pandey and other environmental film-makers have their work cut out for them.

“If (Indian cricketer) Sachin Tendulkar or (Bollywood star) Shah Rukh Khan loses his cell phone, the news will reach every nook and corner of the country, but the fact that iodine is essential for the human body is still not known widely,” Mike told India’s Frontline news magazine in 2004. Read full article: Nature’s film-maker in Frontline of 18-31 Dec 2004

Read TVE Asia Pacific website feature on Mike Pandey’s 2003 film on the whale shark in India

Capturing Asia’s Wild…Life

To paraphrase Woody Allen, 90 per cent of success in life has to do with just showing up.

That’s one reason why I travel extensively in Asia and beyond. The other reasons are networking, meeting interesting people and being inspired by them.

Last month I was at two international film festivals. I’ve already posted several items from the DC Environmental Film Festival. On my way to Washington DC, I stopped over in Singapore to catch the first day of the inaugural Wildlife Asia film festival, held from March 13 to 17.


The festival organisers asked me to speak on a panel on the indie (independent film-making) scene in Asia. I used that opportunity to take stock of TVE Asia Pacific productions, which rely largely on freelance TV and film professionals across Asia. We have a policy of engaging locally-based, native talent wherever we film.

But we are not into wildlife. So I had to clarify where we fit in:

For a moment, I was wondering whether I’m at the wrong film festival -– because we don’t cover any wildlife!

But what we do cover, with great interest and passion, is wild…life –- we chronicle life itself going ‘wild’ in different parts of Asia Pacific. Disasters, conflicts, pandemics, migration and desertification -– these are a few among many topics, themes and subjects in the television and video films that TVE Asia Pacific produces and distributes.

I continued:

Everywhere in the media we hear of Asia rising –- economies, cultures and people are all on the move. Indeed, things are happening at a mind-boggling pace. But not everyone is part of this frenzy. Many people -– and societies -– are being left behind. We are interested in both those who run ahead as well as those who get left behind….and we try to find out why.

That’s the small challenge we have set for ourselves. ‘We’ are Television for Education Asia Pacific -– trading as TVE Asia Pacific –- a small media foundation trying to tell this big story of our times. We are driven by a strong belief that what is happening in the world’s largest and most populous region has far-reaching impacts not just on our region, but on the entire planet.

Read the full text of my panel remarks on TVEAP website.