Nikhil's kukri

Nikhil’s Kukri

I was but a wee lad, all of four years old, when I found myself on the long and winding road up to Kodaikanal. The year was 1982, and I was with my dad, the herpetologist (someone who studies reptiles and amphibians) and conservationist Rom Whitaker, and Shekar Dattatri, a filmmaker renowned for his work in wildlife and conservation. We had stopped at Tiger Shola and were out looking for reptiles (of course!). 

Back then, culverts weren’t properly cemented structures, so rocks were moveable, and one never knew what lay beneath them. Every rock had the potential of a magical underbelly. Let’s be clear though—turning over random rocks can be quite risky. Being Rom Whitaker’s son, I had been well groomed in the perils of dealing with not only snakes but also rocks, even by the age of four. 

Some of Dad’s herping highlights up to that age had already included: 

  • Never put your fingers under a rock, because there might be something that’ll nail you. 
  • Always pick up the rock from the top, not the sides.
  • If you can’t pick up the rock, Son, don’t bother—someone older will. 
  • Always leave rocks, logs, etc as you found them, so that geckos, snakes, and other critters don’t have their homes destroyed. 
  • (And most importantly) Don’t touch anything you can’t identify. 
Rock solid advice

I share these with you today hoping that you too will share them with the little friends around you.

That day, however, I decided to wander away from the others and came across a group of loose rocks over a culvert. I picked up a medium-sized one, and underneath it lay a small beautiful snake. Taking a deep breath, I shouted out loud, ‘Snake! Snake!’ Dad and Shekar rushed over and, on spotting the coiled reptile, seemed mighty surprised and somewhat pleased. I would come to learn that they had never seen anything like it before.

Nikhil’s kukri (Oligodon nikhili)
Nikhil’s kukri (Oligodon nikhili) (Photo courtesy Rom Whitaker)

And that’s how a new snake species was discovered. Dad and Shekar initially called it Nikhil’s kukri. Kukri snakes are named after the kukri knife because their teeth are curved like the blade of the traditional Nepali knife. This specific specimen came to be called Oligodon nikhili, an entire species of its own because of its different scalation pattern as compared to other kukri snakes. This species of snake has not been seen since it was discovered—perhaps a challenge for the budding herpetologists out there in Kodai. 

That beautiful little snake was sent to the British Natural History Museum, where Frederick Wagner, one of the world experts on kukri snake taxonomy, was working at the time. 

Shekar and Dad wrote up the description of the new species, which was then published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1982. 

Dad is not certain, but he thinks that considering I was four years old at the time, I might just be the youngest discoverer of a new species of snake.

Nikhil Whitaker

Nikhil Whitaker is curator at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology. He has studied environmental science and wildlife management at Charles Darwin University in Australia. An editor at journals including Tabrabonica, Journal of Contemporary Herpetology, and Herpetological Review, he is a member of the IUCN/SSC crocodile and freshwater turtle and tortoise specialist groups. A former resident of Kodai, he now lives in Chennai.

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