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  • I want you to put off your preconceptions,

  • your preconceived fears and thoughts about reptiles.

  • Because that is the only way I'm going to get my story across to you.

  • And by the way, if I come across as a sort of

  • rabid, hippie conservationist,

  • it's purely a figment of your imagination.

  • (Laughter)

  • Okay. We are actually the first species on Earth

  • to be so prolific to actually threaten our own survival.

  • And I know we've all seen images enough to make us numb,

  • of the tragedies that we're perpetrating on the planet.

  • We're kind of like greedy kids, using it all up, aren't we?

  • And today is a time for me to talk to you about water.

  • It's not only because we like to drink lots of it,

  • and its marvelous derivatives, beer, wine, etc.

  • And, of course, watch it fall from the sky

  • and flow in our wonderful rivers,

  • but for several other reasons as well.

  • When I was a kid, growing up in New York,

  • I was smitten by snakes, the same way most kids are

  • smitten by tops, marbles, cars, trains, cricket balls.

  • And my mother, brave lady,

  • was partly to blame,

  • taking me to the New York Natural History Museum,

  • buying me books on snakes,

  • and then starting this infamous career of mine,

  • which has culminated in

  • of course, arriving in India 60 years ago,

  • brought by my mother, Doris Norden,

  • and my stepfather, Rama Chattopadhyaya.

  • It's been a roller coaster ride.

  • Two animals, two iconic reptiles

  • really captivated me very early on.

  • One of them was the remarkable gharial.

  • This crocodile, which grows to almost 20 feet long

  • in the northern rivers,

  • and this charismatic snake, the king cobra.

  • What my purpose of the talk today really is,

  • is to sort of indelibly scar your minds

  • with these charismatic and majestic creatures.

  • Because this is what you will take away from here,

  • a reconnection with nature, I hope.

  • The king cobra is quite remarkable for several reasons.

  • What you're seeing here is very recently shot images

  • in a forest nearby here,

  • of a female king cobra making her nest.

  • Here is a limbless animal, capable of gathering a huge mound of leaves,

  • and then laying her eggs inside,

  • to withstand 5 to 10 [meters of rainfall],

  • in order that the eggs can incubate over the next 90 days,

  • and hatch into little baby king cobras.

  • So, she protects her eggs,

  • and after three months,

  • the babies finally do hatch out.

  • A majority of them will die, of course. There is very high mortality

  • in little baby reptiles who are just 10 to 12 inches long.

  • My first experience with king cobras was in '72

  • at a magical place called Agumbe,

  • in Karnataka, this state.

  • And it is a marvelous rain forest.

  • This first encounter

  • was kind of like the

  • Maasai boy who kills the lion to become a warrior.

  • It really changed my life totally.

  • And it brought me straight into the conservation fray.

  • I ended up starting this research

  • and education station in Agumbe,

  • which you are all of course invited to visit.

  • This is basically a base wherein

  • we are trying to gather and learn

  • virtually everything about the biodiversity

  • of this incredibly complex forest system,

  • and try to hang on to what's there,

  • make sure the water sources are protected and kept clean,

  • and of course, having a good time too.

  • You can almost hear the drums

  • throbbing back in that little cottage where we stay when we're there.

  • It was very important for us to get through to the people.

  • And through the children is usually the way to go.

  • They are fascinated with snakes. They haven't got

  • that steely thing that you end up

  • either fearing or hating or despising or loathing them in some way.

  • They are interested.

  • And it really works to start with them.

  • This gives you an idea of the size of some of these snakes.

  • This is an average size king cobra, about 12 feet long.

  • And it actually crawled into somebody's bathroom,

  • and was hanging around there for two or three days.

  • The people of this part of India

  • worship the king cobra.

  • And they didn't kill it. They called us to catch it.

  • Now we've caught more than 100 king cobras

  • over the last three years,

  • and relocated them in nearby forests.

  • But in order to find out the real secrets of these creatures

  • [it was necessary] for us to actually insert

  • a small radio transmitter inside [each] snake.

  • Now we are able to follow them and find out their secrets,

  • where the babies go after they hatch,

  • and remarkable things like this you're about to see.

  • This was just a few days ago in Agumbe.

  • I had the pleasure of being close to this large king cobra

  • who had caught a venomous pit viper.

  • And it does it in such a way that it doesn't get bitten itself.

  • And king cobras feed only on snakes.

  • This [little snake] was kind of a tid-bit for it,

  • what we'd call a "vadai" or a donut or something like that.

  • (Laughter)

  • Usually they eat something a bit larger.

  • In this case a rather strange and inexplicable

  • activity happened over the last breeding season,

  • wherein a large male king cobra actually grabbed a female king cobra,

  • didn't mate with it, actually killed it and swallowed it.

  • We're still trying to explain and come to terms with

  • what is the evolutionary advantage of this.

  • But they do also a lot of other remarkable things.

  • This is again, something [we were able to see] by virtue of the fact

  • that we had a radio transmitter in one of the snakes.

  • This male snake, 12 feet long, met another male king cobra.

  • And they did this incredible ritual combat dance.

  • It's very much like the rutting of mammals, including humans,

  • you know, sorting out our differences, but gentler, no biting allowed.

  • It's just a wresting match,

  • but a remarkable activity.

  • Now, what are we doing with all this information?

  • What's the point of all this?

  • Well, the king cobra is literally

  • a keystone species in these rainforests.

  • And our job is to convince the authorities

  • that these forests have to be protected.

  • And this is one of the ways we do it,

  • by learning as much as we can

  • about something so remarkable and so iconic in the rainforests there,

  • in order to help protect trees, animals

  • and of course the water sources.

  • You've all heard, perhaps, of Project Tiger

  • which started back in the early '70s,

  • which was, in fact, a very dynamic time for conservation.

  • We were piloted, I could say,

  • by a highly autocratic stateswoman,

  • but who also had an incredible passion for environment.

  • And this is the time when Project Tiger emerged.

  • And, just like Project Tiger,

  • our activities with the king cobra

  • is to look at a species of animal

  • so that we protect its habitat and everything within it.

  • So, the tiger is the icon.

  • And now the king cobra is a new one.

  • All the major rivers in south India

  • are sourced in the Western Ghats,

  • the chain of hills running along the west coast of India.

  • It pours out millions of gallons every hour,

  • and supplies drinking water to at least 300 million people,

  • and washes many, many babies,

  • and of course feeds many, many animals,

  • both domestic and wild,

  • produces thousands of tons of rice.

  • And what do we do? How do we respond to this?

  • Well, basically, we dam it, we pollute it,

  • we pour in pesticides, weedicides, fungicides.

  • You drink it in peril of your life.

  • And the thing is, it's not just big industry.

  • It's not misguided river engineers

  • who are doing all this; it's us.

  • It seems that our citizens find the best way to dispose of garbage

  • are in water sources.

  • Okay. Now we're going north, very far north.

  • North central India, the Chambal River

  • is where we have our base.

  • This is the home of the gharial, this incredible crocodile.

  • It is an animal which has been on the Earth

  • for just about 100 million years.

  • It survived even during the time that the dinosaurs died off.

  • It has remarkable features.

  • Even though it grows to 20 feet long,

  • since it eats only fish it's not dangerous to human beings.

  • It does have big teeth, however,

  • and it's kind of hard to convince people

  • if an animal has big teeth, that it's a harmless creature.

  • But we, actually, back in the early '70s,

  • did surveys,

  • and found that gharial were extremely rare.

  • In fact, if you see the map,

  • the range of their original habitat

  • was all the way from the Indus in Pakistan

  • to the Irrawaddy in Burma.

  • And now it's just limited to a couple of spots

  • in Nepal and India.

  • So, in fact at this point

  • there are only 200 breeding gharial left in the wild.

  • So, starting in the mid-'70s

  • when conservation was at the fore,

  • we were actually able to start projects which were

  • basically government supported

  • to collect eggs from the wild from the few remaining nests

  • and release 5,000 baby gharial

  • back to the wild.

  • And pretty soon we were seeing sights like this.

  • I mean, just incredible to see bunches of gharial

  • basking on the river again.

  • But complacency does have a tendency to breed contempt.

  • And, sure enough, with all the other pressures on the river,

  • like sand mining, for example,

  • very, very heavy cultivation all the way down to the river's edge,

  • not allowing the animals to breed anymore,

  • we're looking at

  • even more problems building up for the gharial,

  • despite the early good intentions.

  • Their nests hatching along the riverside

  • producing hundreds of hatchlings. It's just an amazing sight.

  • This was actually just taken last year.

  • But then the monsoon arrives,

  • and unfortunately downriver there is always a dam or

  • there is always a barrage,

  • and, shoop, they get washed down to their doom.

  • Luckily there is still a lot of interest.

  • My pals in the Crocodile Specialist Group of the IUCN,

  • the [Madras Crocodile Bank], an NGO,

  • the World Wildlife Fund,

  • the Wildlife Institute of India, State Forest Departments,

  • and the Ministry of Environment, we all work together on stuff.

  • But it's possibly, and definitely not enough.

  • For example, in the winter of 2007 and 2008,

  • there was this incredible die-off of gharial, in the Chambal River.

  • Suddenly dozens of gharial appearing on the river, dead.

  • Why? How could it happen?

  • This is a relatively clean river.

  • The Chambal, if you look at it, has clear water.

  • People scoop water out of the Chambal and drink it,

  • something you wouldn't do in most north Indian rivers.

  • So, in order to try to find out the answer to this,

  • we got veterinarians from all over the world

  • working with Indian vets to try to figure out what was happening.

  • I was there for a lot of the necropsies on the riverside.

  • And we actually looked through

  • all their organs and tried to figure out what was going on.

  • And it came down to something called gout,

  • which, as a result of kidney breakdown

  • is actually uric acid crystals throughout the body,

  • and worse in the joints,

  • which made the gharial unable to swim.

  • And it's a horribly painful death.

  • Just downriver from the Chambal is the

  • filthy Yamuna river, the sacred Yamuna river.

  • And I hate to be so ironic and sarcastic about it

  • but it's the truth. It's just one of the filthiest cesspools you can imagine.

  • It flows down through Delhi, Mathura, Agra,

  • and gets just about every bit of effluent you can imagine.

  • So, it seemed that the toxin that was killing the gharial

  • was something in the food chain,

  • something in the fish they were eating.

  • And, you know, once a toxin is in the food chain

  • everything is affected, including us.

  • Because these rivers are the lifeblood of people all along their course.