By M. Rajini

Meet Jagannatha Rao, one of the earliest residents of Gandhi Nagar, a wild life photographer, and a co-founder of Snake Park at Guindy; he was the Secretary of Wild Life Film Makers’ Society for Far East. He produced a documentary on Wild Life of India which was telecast in 13 episodes in Doordarshan. At 84, he shares his memories with great alacrity in a chat with Adyar Times.

We are dying to hear about our Adyar in 1945.

I still remember the exciting rides we took in Masula sail boats along the Buckingham Canal to go to Mahabalipuram. The canal was only 10 to 15 feet wide. At places where the boats got stuck the boatmen used to pull the boat forward from both the banks using thick ropes. The Canal was a waterway which extended from Madhurandhagam to Vijayawada via Central. We also travelled from the now Kasturba Nagar to Mylapore. These boats were used to transport casuarina, coconuts, bamboo and ropes.

There was no habitation beyond the Lattice Bridge. It was all mud track studded with toddy shops selling liquor. Petrol was sold in gallons and fed into cars using hand pumps. There was not much of technology but life was easy and peaceful.

You are an engineer by profession. When did the reptile slither into your life?

I always felt that snakes were projected as deadly and people panicked unnecessarily. There are actually only 4 types which are venomous. I visited the snake park at Tambaram, founded by Romulus Whitaker. We quickly became friends because we were bonded by our love for snakes. I suggested that such a park should be in the city and we lobbied for space. We were able to establish it at Guindy, the success of which is history. I was the Secretary of Guindy Snake Park for 9 years.

So what did you do at the Cochin ship yard?

25000 workers of the Cochin ship yard called a strike because the place was galore with snakes and 11 people had died of snake bite. They requested for the help of our team at Snake Park. We found hundreds of snakes coiled under steel sheets, which were lifted using magnetic cranes. I looked for the reason for the huge snake population. I suggested a few possibilities. Left-over food packets were strewn all over the campus by the workers. This invited and fed the rat population which attracted snakes. A simple trick of shifting the focus of the lights in the campus away from the walkway helped because the insects falling dead below the light attracted frogs which were sought after by snakes.

Our team held several meetings with the workers to educate them about hygiene, and the harmless nature of snakes. Our main task was to dispel their many superstitious beliefs about snakes. It was interesting to look at the various amulets and bracelets they wore to ward off snakes.

Our mythology and folk-lore abound in tall stories. You know, childless couples bathe stones embossed with twin snakes, with milk. I do not know the reason, but the snakes coiled in a standing position is actually their mating posture.

You have a story about pelicans don’t you.

During a train journey in Andhra I was looking at the scenery through my binoculars, as is my usual practice. I happened to look at huge white patches dotted here and there. Curiosity got the better of me. I alighted from the train, and took a jeep to the spot. I found a scoop of pelicans resting on trees. On enquiring I heard that it is customary for the birds to visit the place. I reported this finding to M.Krishnan, my Guruji and a leading Naturalist of India. He was also the founder of Indian Wild Life Board. The spot is now ‘Nelapattu Sanctuary’ in Nellore district, a home to many other native as well as migratory birds.

Have you inspired your children in this field?

Yes. My son is a Ph.D in Wild Life Biology. For his project work he had to measure the time taken for a chameleon to put out its tongue and catch an insect. We had to get technical help from IIT and tape it using a special camera which can shoot 1000 frames per second. The chameleon refused to budge because of the heat of the cameras. We captured the video by placing the chameleon in a box with cooler fans underneath and coaxed it to feed on the insects. The time taken by the chameleon was 0.25 seconds.

You have travelled widely and visited sanctuaries around the world. What are your impressions?

I honestly feel that our satvic beliefs and ahimsa nature is the reason why our country is still rich in a diverse animal, reptile and bird population. There are forests in the US but it is comparatively barren of wildlife. They are struggling to keep their bison from becoming extinct.

We have to conserve our wild life and bird population to maintain a balance in our eco system. It is God’s gift to us.

Jagannatha Rao resides at Gandhi Nagar and can be contacted at 98404 48099.