Western Ghats – Chasing King Cobras (2016)

Western Ghats – Chasing King Cobras (2016)

The knotted black bundle under our feet heaves rhythmically as the occupant seems resigned to his fate of being trapped in a bag.  But then, every now and then, our vehicle hits a bump causing the bag to jerk and twitch. We hold our breath, keep our feet safely up and away from the bundle and hope we don’t get into any accident that would throw up consequences similar to those faced by Pi Patel in Yann Martel’s acclaimed survival drama, ‘’ Life of Pi’’.  In fact, the consequences could be even worse in this case, considering we are travelling with a live 11-foot long King Cobra, rudely interrupted in his quest for a mate.   The bag in which he is coiled up is made of cotton cloth and nothing more.  His fangs can easily reach out to lacerate and inject his infamous venom into any limb that strays close enough. As if guessing my thoughts, our companion on this dangerous journey, Ram Prasad Rao turns to me and says they don’t stock anti-venom serum for king cobra bite.  Very comforting indeed!

Agumbe Rainforest Research Station

My friend Veda and I are fortunate to accompany Rao and Ajay Giri, both researchers at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS), on a cobra rescue mission. The previous day, as we had landed at ARRS tucked away in a rainforest s on the outskirts of a small village called Agumbe in the Western Ghats, some 60 kilometers from Udupi. We had been told that there was little chance of spotting a king cobra in the wild; that they were shy creatures who prefer to make themselves invisible except when hungry or overcome by the urge to find a mate.  Disappointed, we had shuffled through the research station where we were shown honey bees building hives and dracos climbing areca nut palms.

Even as we were wondering whether this visit was worth the effort of travelling more than a thousand kilometers,  ARRS gets a rescue call. A live big king cobra had been spotted entering a house in Kellur village, some 15 kilometers away from ARRS.  In fact, the villagers had seen two of the species in the adjacent fields, head butting each other,  a typical ritualistic combat between male cobras fighting for the right to mate.  Mating season starts in earnest around end-March, but fortunately for us,  there are a few impatient males about!  We happily accompany Ajay and Rao on their rescue mission.  By the time we reach Kellur village it is dusk. The entire village has turned up outside the house to watch the rescue.


Villagers in this part of the Western Ghats refer to king cobras as Kalinga, the mythical seven-headed serpent on which Lord Krishna is said to have danced. They revere the snake and would not dream of harming it.  Yet, the reptile is highly venomous and it cannot be allowed to lounge around in the village.  There is an open well with no embankment just where the cobra is hiding. If it slithers into the well, not only would it be very difficult to rescue, but it might also render the well-water unusable.

As our rescue team arrives in Kellur, everyone is cautioned against stepping into the open well which is well-nigh invisible in the dark. Ajay skirts around the well with his hook, locates the reptile, expertly hooks it  and drags it away from the well. All this happens in a split second even before we realise what is happening. Ajay has been working at ARRS for the past six years and has been specialising on king cobras.  He wears an infra-red torch in a band around his head.  Flashlights can confuse the reptile.


It takes Ajay quite a while to coax the reptile into a long cylindrical bag he has brought for the purpose.  He lifts the snake with his hook and holds its rear end in his hands, trying to guide its face towards the opening of the bag. But the snake has other plans. It turns right back, forcing Ajay to drop it.  King cobras have long striking range. The snake turns away from the bag and goes looking for somewhere to hide.  His skin is a dull brown with bands.  He is easily distracted by camera flash bulbs and torch beams. So we are told to switch off all lights.


Now it is pitch dark save the infrared light on Ajay’s forehead. There is an eerie silence and even Ajay moves stealthily so as not to upset the reptile. Of course snakes have no ears, they can’t hear and this one, despite being in the prime of his life, seems to have weak eyesight too. Or he is simply confused. Yet there is not a trace of aggression in him. The ominous hood remains unopened which is a good indication that the animal is not panicking, at least not yet.  But I couldn’t resist the temptation to click; naturally, my flash confuses and then provokes the snake into opening its hood in classical cobra posture. This is a danger signal for Ajay. He now has to be very careful. The king is in an aggressive mood and might strike.

But not all king cobra bites are venomous. Rao explains to me later that less than 20 per cent of the  bites carry venom. After all, it takes several weeks for the venom glands to secrete the venom and the king would not want to waste it unless he feels absolutely threatened.  Cobras seem to have a mechanism by which they can withhold venom even as they bite.  No wonder despite the density of their population in the Western Ghats, king cobra bites are rare.

But all this knowledge is little comfort when you are confronted by an agitated and aggressive king, dazzling you with his expanded hood.  Ajay keeps his cool and somehow seems to communicate to the animal his pacific intentions. The cobra backs down and slithers into the waiting bag.  As soon as his tail disappears into the cavernous bag, Ajay pulls the string to close its mouth. Then he and Rao use a stick to gently guide the snake into the interior portion of the bag.  With the stick in place to keep the cobra from springing back, Ajay flattens the top half of the bag, knots it tight leaving little room for the beast to manoeuvre.  Then the two men hoist the knot with a stick and gingerly carry the bag and deposit it in a corner of the yard. The relieved villagers crowd around Ajay, their hero of the moment.

Showing off

In fluent Kannada (Ajay’s mother tongue is Marathi), Ajay briefs the villagers on king cobras, their characteristics, their behaviour, the potential dangers posed by a provoked reptile and how to deal with it when it enters human habitat.  He patiently answers all their questions, fills out the necessary forms and gets them signed by the village headman, phones the forest department to inform them of the rescue operation. We then go looking for the rival male reptile, but it is nowhere to be seen.  The female over whom the two fought must be hiding in an abandoned termite mound, we are told. The female is usually smaller than the male and does not risk her life when titans clash over the right to mate with her.  Males are attracted by the pheromones she secretes during mating season.

On the way back in the car, with the snake curled up underfoot, Ajay tells us about many of his encounters with king cobras. He had been witness to a similar male combat a few years ago and had followed the victor to the termite mound where ARRS staffers filmed the mating.  Since then, he has witnessed many ritual combats every year, with as many as six to seven males vying for the attention of a lone female.  “The combat itself is civilised”, he says. There is only head-butting, no biting or gore.  This is especially remarkable since all king cobras are cannibals. Normally, their diet comprises spectacle cobras, rat snakes or pit vipers.  Occasionally, they might swallow a monitor lizard but king cobras eat up each other too.  They seldom pose any danger to humans or even cattle or domestic animals since these do not constitute their diet. Being apex predators, they have nothing to fear and will not waste their venom wantonly. Besides, they are gentle in nature and will avoid human settlements except during mating times when their quest for females inadvertently bring them face to face with humans and cattle.

Bad Male Parent

The male plays no part in parenting. The female builds a nest of leaf litter on high ground, gathering leaves with sideways movement of her body.  In fact, king cobras are the only snakes which build nests. A month after mating, she lays a clutch of around 20 to 40 eggs and covers them up with leaves , but does not incubate them. In fact, she makes herself scarce when the hatchlings are ready to emerge. Ajay explains that this might probably be because she might end up eating her own babies, having gone without food for almost three months in pursuit of motherhood. The eggs hatch in about three months and the hatchlings are just as venomous as the adults. They have a rapacious appetite even as they hatch and set out in search of baby rat snakes or baby vipers. But out of the clutch of 30, probably one hatchling king is likely to reach adulthood.

Very little is known about king cobras which is why Romulus Whitaker, India’s foremost herpetologist and the founder of Madras Crocodile Bank Trust decided to set up a research project at ARRS to study these legendary reptiles with an awesome reputation.  With the help of Matt Goode, another renowned herpetologist from New Mexico, he radio-tagged kings and tracked them in the wild. The study revealed some startling facts about king cobras especially their cannibalistic behaviour.  ARRS did not get permission to tag more kings.  Back at the research station, we watch a graphic film where two males engage in ritual combat. The victor gets to mate and then leaves. The vanquished then approaches the female who rejects him. Enraged, he gores her to death and even swallows her.

King cobras moult four to five times in a year, during which period their eyes become cloudy, leading to poor vision. King cobras do not belong to the other cobra species, but form a species of their own called Ophipohagus Hannah.  But after both the tagged cobras died, ARRS could not get permission from the forest department for more tagging experiments. King Cobras have been included in the red list of endangered species drawn up by the International Union of Conservation of Nature. In India, they are a protected species and killing one could lead to six years’ imprisonment.


Our rescue mission ends with the release of the king in the wilderness. Ajay locates an uninhabited wood, carries the bagged king and releases the knot. At first, the serpent is confused, but soon slithers out and makes for the bush. In a jiffy, it is on the fence, its shiny gleaming body glinting in the flash of phone cameras.  It raises it head and watches for a while before disappearing into the darkness.

The Western Ghats is home to at least 35 species of snakes, the most ubiquitous being pit vipers and banded krait. But March is dry season when pit vipers are hibernating. Pit vipers, like pythons, have heat sensors in the pit behind their eyes and can convert their heat sensing power to a visual image corresponding to the actual size of the prey. This helps them identify their prey from other intruders like humans on whom they need not waste their venom.  I spot cat snakes, so known for their cat-like eyes and the vine snake that can flatten itself like a ribbon.

Richly bio-diverse, the Western Ghats is also home to an array of unique insects. Over the next few days, as we hike through the rainforest, we feast our eyes on a variety of insects – Preying Mantis,  Antlions, spiders spinning elaborate silken webs, even an odd scorpion.  There are several hundred species of birds in these parts.  ARRS gets regular visits from Green barbets, Yellow-crowned bulbuls, different kinds of Thrushes including the whistling schoolboys, Red-whiskered bulbuls, Parakeets, Rocket-tailed drongos, Warblers, Golden orioles and Scarlet Minivets, among others. Giant Malabar squirrels dart from tree top to tree top looking for rich pickings. At night shiny eyes give away the location of slender loris.

The rainforest is a noisy place. Even during the day, cicadas and several species of frogs set up a racket with their persistent calls while the night air resounds with the chirping of crickets.  We are told most animals are about in the night although it is difficult to spot them. However,  a slideshow of all the animals captured by the camera trap just a few hundred meters away reveals the presence of  Pangolins, Panthers, Wild Cats, Wild Dogs, Jackals etc.

The staff of the research station are a dedicated lot, tracking down and studying various species of birds and animals. Ram Prasad Rao specialises on frogs while Dheeraj is an expert on red-wattle lapwings which he chases after morning and evening.  ARRS is off the state grid, but supplies itself power through a generator set.  In the rainy season, at least half a dozen pit vipers are draped around the long dining table because their pits are flooded, says Rao.  I resolve to go back in the rainy season.

(Published in Frontline dated June 10, 2016)


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