March 21, 2010

Monsoon Herpetological Expedition 2010

Western Ghats, Southern India.

The Western Ghats of India are internationally recognized as one of the 18 Biodiversity hotspots in the world that need to be preserved. Much of the area is covered in low altitude ‘Shola’ forest. Sholas are tropical montane evergreen forests nestled in the folds and valleys of mountains covered with grasslands (typically above 1700m). These shola-grassland eco-systems are unique to the Western Ghats of India and harbor a great diversity of flora and fauna a great deal of it endemic to the region.

The grasslands act like sponge absorbing the monsoon rains and releasing the moisture slowly. Here one can see an abundance of evergreen and semi-evergreen rainforest trees, ferns, shrubs (many which have medicinal properties) and over 40 species of endemic wild orchids. In addition to tigers, leopards and elephants, this area has a very rich ‘small animal’ diversity. Among the animals occasionally spotted here are wild boar, jackal, civet cats, squirrel (including Malabar Giant), mongoose, porcupine, and rare deer species. More common are the many species of snakes, vipers, cat snakes, wolf snakes, cobras, kraits and the elusive King Cobra.


Gerry Martin: Herpetologist & Tour Leader:
Gerry Martin was National Geographic’s first Indian Adventurer and is a herpetologist who has spent his whole adult life involved in herpetological research and conservation.
He lives in southern India and is particularly passionate about teaching and sharing his unique knowledge of India’s flora & fauna.

Paul Greig Smith: Tour Organiser/Leader:

Paul has been a tour operator specialising in India, Sri Lanka and Indochina for 5 years and has over 23 years experience in keeping reptiles as well as various invertebrates. He prefers nothing better than seeing animals in their natural habitat and it was whilst on his extensive world travels that he decided that most commercial wildlife trips did not cater for the serious or “hardcore” wildlife enthusiast (in particular “herpers”) and so he decided to devise his own expeditions with the help of leading professionals. This led him on to collaborate with India’s finest herpetologists, and naturalists to create genuine eco tourist experiences which would appeal to the hardcore herper as well as support conservation efforts.

On this expedition we will travel through South India, stay at the rainforest research station in Agumbe (ARRS), Gerry Martin’s Farm, the Madras Crocodile Bank and end at a beach resort overlooking the Bay of Bengal.

During the course of the trip we will trek through all sorts of habitats, from farmland and scrub forests, to rivers and rock pools, tropical montane rainforests to the coastline and sea in our search for the fascinating herpetofauna of India. 

Pit stops during the course of the Expedition

Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS)
 Born out of Rom’s desire to create a research station deep in the heart of the forest surrounded by King Cobras, the station concentrates its research into the natural history of Ophiophagus hannah and its conservation.

During our time here, Gerry will give demonstrations highlighting important aspects of snake handling and snake behavior. We will then search the surrounding forests looking for wildlife.  On previous visits some of the species we have found include Malabar rock pit-vipers, green tree vipers, Bibron's Coral Snake, common kraits, Beddome’s cat snakes, vine snakes, rat snakes, Whitaker’s earth boas, cobras, Bengal monitor lizards, various garden lizards, flying lizards, caecilians and a host of other herpetofauna including the King Cobra.

If the researchers are called upon a King Cobra rescue (to remove them from areas of human habitation), we will be able to accompany them on the rescue. In addition we can also join them as they radio track the tagged Kings each day and record data.


Here we will camp out and will be able to explore the area at our leisure as well as go fishing in coracles on the lake as well as see a vast array of birdlife. During our time here we will search the surrounding area for reptiles and amphibians and will be able to hone our photographic skills.

 Just some of the species commonly found here include chameleons, spectacled cobras, and common kraits. In addition over 200 species of birds have been identified around the farm. Among the water-based birds, you can spot the grey-headed fishing eagle, spot billed duck, small pied kingfisher, black-bellied river tern, osprey, and many more. There are also a number of rare land-based birds such as the honey buzzard, tawny eagle, pied crested cuckoo.


Nagarhole National Park is 650 km2 contains one of the finest deciduous forests in India and is home to a wide variety of fauna and flora. It is one of the best places to see animals such as the giant Malabar squirrel, fruit bats, Indian wild dogs (dholes), as well as wild elephants and tigers.


As well as being a haven for reptiles & amphibians, Ranganthittu sanctuary is also home to a myriad of bird & mammal species such as cormorants, darters, white ibis, storks, egrets, herons, terns, swallows, streaked weavers, ducks, teals, sandpipers, kingfishers, fruit bats, bonnet macaques, palm civets, common mongoose and common otters.


The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, founded in 1976 by Romulus Whitaker and few other like minded people is a public Trust managed by a Board of Trustees. Starting with 30 mugger adults, the Bank has bred over 5000 and now holds over 2400 crocodilians of 14 different species.

By 1987 the Croc Bank developed a much broader focus, and became the Centre for Herpetology, India’s premier institution for herpetofaunal conservation, research and education. Besides hundreds of crocodilians, the Bank currently maintains 12 endangered species of turtles and tortoises, five species of snakes, including the King Cobra, Ophiophagus hannah, two species of pythons and albino cobras
Irula walks:
The Irula tribe are expert snake trackers who used to catch & kill snakes for their skins until the introduction of protective wildlife legislation in 1973. They banded together and with the help of Romulus Whitaker established the Irula Cooperative. Today the Irula’s earn a better living now, catching snakes, milking them for their valuable venom which is used to make anti venom and then releasing the snakes back into the wild. This is one of the few sustainable uses of a species in India today.

We will go out with the Irulas as they go about their daily work searching for the “Big Four”. The big four are those species which are responsible for the most snake bites in India the spectacled cobra, Saw Scaled Viper, Russell’s viper and the Common Krait. At the end of the day captured specimens will be taken back to the Irula Cooperative Society and we will be able to observe the extraction of their venom.

 Mahabalipuram is a sleepy coastal town an hour and a half south of Chennai. Famed for shore temples and stone carvings, it is the ideal place to purchase intricately shaped and skillfully carved statues.
The beach resort just 50 km south of Chennai is a haven of tranquility. Featuring air conditioned cottages which are spacious and comfortable; the resort overlooks the picturesque Corromandal coastline and the Bay of Bengal. It is also conveniently close to the fascinating architectural ruins of Mahabalipuram.