An Article by Mohan Pai
The King Cobra
(Ophiophagus hannah) – hamadryad
Pic by Amrut Singh
The vanishing ‘Kaliya’
The King Cobra is a snake respected above all others, and for good reason. It is by far the largest venomous snake in the world, packs enough venom to kill an Asian elephant with a single bite to the trunk, and possesses a rare intelligence that scientists are only beginning to understand now. The King Cobra features quite prominently as ‘Kala Nag’ or ‘Kaliya’ in the Hindu Mythology.
Though widespread, the king cobra is uncommon in every part of its range and is considered rare in India. Habitat loss is a major threat to its survival. Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate in many parts of its range, driving the shy snake into populated areas where it’s often killed out of fear. The king cobra is also harvested for commercial purposes. Its meat, skin and bile are used in traditional Chinese medicines, and its venom is used to treat pain and illness.
The king cobra is revered as a deity in many parts of India and southeast Asia. Some believe that it controls the rain, thunder and fertility. In one Indian snake cult, a large king cobra is brought to the village in a basket. When the lid is open, the snake rises up and a priestess kisses it on the head, guaranteeing both human and crop fertility. Some believe that if this secretive snake is seen by 100 people, it will die. So, in accordance with this belief, the king cobra will enter a village when it’s ready to pass on to the next life.
The king cobra belongs to the family Elapidae, which includes cobras, kraits and coral snakes — all highly venomous species that share the common trait of relatively short, fixed fangs. Once classified as a cobra (genus Naja), the king cobra was eventually moved to its own genus, Ophiophagus. The name “king cobra” is therefore a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not a true cobra. Ophiophagus combines the Latin words for snake (“ophio”) and eater (“phagus”) — an accurate description of its habits. It is sometimes called the hamadryad, a Greek name for “wood nymph.” The snake was first scientifically described by a British naturalist named Dr. Thomas Edward Cantor in 1836. The king cobra ranges far and wide throughout tropical Asia. It’s found in India, southern China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, where it reaches record lengths. It prefers habitats with dense undergrowth and heavy rainfall, such as rain forests and mangrove swamps.
The king cobra possesses a rare intelligence that scientists are only beginning to understand. Some snake experts have experienced a type of communication with the king cobra that is quite unlike any other snake species they’ve encountered. It has an awareness and alertness far beyond most other snakes; for instance, the male is very conscious of its territory and will chase other males away. In captivity, the king cobra is able to distinguish its care giver from strangers, and is said to be a faster learner than other snakes. The fact that it builds a nest — the only snake to do this — is another indication of its intelligence, according to experts.
Princes and Princesses
After a 60- to 90-day incubation period, the king cobra’s eggs are ready to hatch. Just before they do, the mother departs; she’s fasted for two to three months and might otherwise be tempted to eat her young, as king cobras feed almost exclusively on snakes. At birth, a king cobra hatchling is around 14 inches in length and 1/2 inch wide. It’s glossy black with bright yellow bands, and its venom is as potent as an adult’s. Even at birth the king cobra is very alert and will flare its hood if provoked. Ten days after birth, the hatchlings molt and are ready to begin hunting. They are vulnerable to civets, mongooses, giant centipedes and army ants for the first several months. The Cannibalistic Cobra The king cobra preys almost exclusively on snakes, and will even cannibalize smaller individuals of its own species. It mainly preys on non- venomous snakes, like small pythons and rat snakes, but will also eat cobras, kraits and other very venomous snakes. It will also eat the occasional monitor lizard. In captivity, the king cobra can be “taught” to eat warm-blooded prey by making the animal — often a mouse or rat — smell like a snake. A diurnal snake, the king cobra actively forages for prey during the day, using its sense of smell to locate prey and excellent eyesight to strike.
Ready to Strike When a king cobra is under attack or about to strike at prey, it quickly coils the lower two-thirds of its body, raises the front third and spreads its narrow hood. If on the defense, it will let out a long, low hiss to warn of an impending bite. If on the attack, it will skip the hissing and strike downward at its target. Unlike many of its short-fanged relatives, which have to hold and chew their victims to inject venom, the king cobra can do so with a quick strike. If its prey flees, the king cobra will give chase in an upright position so that it’s ready to deliver the fatal blow at any moment.
Late in the dry season (January through March), the normally solitary king cobra goes looking for love. Shedding skin at the beginning of the breeding season causes the female to release hromones, which helps the male track her down in the thick underbrush. The male rubs his head on the female’s body to announce his intentions. If she doesn’t seem interested, the Casanova will butt and push her until she agrees to mate. If another male is on the scene, the cobras will wrestle, attempting to push their opponent’s head to the ground. When the female is agreeable, the male will wrap his body around her, and the two will remain in this position for several hours. It is thought that male king cobras mate with the same female in successive seasons. The female can store the male’s sperm for several years until she’s ready to have offspring.
A Protective Parent
In April, May or June, the female king cobra lays a clutch of 20 to 50 eggs in a nest made of twigs, leaves and other vegetation, which she scrapes together into a pile with her coils. No other species of snake does this. The heat created by the rotting vegetation helps incubate the eggs. Once the eggs are deposited, the mother hollows out a second chamber for herself. There she sits for two to three months, guarding the eggs against monitor lizards and mongooses, which may eat them; elephants, which may trample them; wild boars, which may do both; and other predacious or “clumsy” animals. If necessary she will fiercely defend her clutch, but if sufficiently disturbed may abandon the eggs early.
Though not as potent as its relatives, the king cobra’s venom is still deadly. What it lacks in potency the king cobra makes up in quantity, delivering more than a teaspoon of venom in a single strike. One dose contains enough toxin to kill an Asian elephant or between 20 and 40 humans. The venom acts quickly to destroy the victim’s nervous system, shutting down both the heart and lungs in a matter of minutes. The venom contains another toxin that begins digesting the prey before it even reaches the king cobra’s belly. King cobra venom is used to treat tuberculosis and cholera in India, and has been developed into two pain relievers, Cobroxin and Nyloxin, in the United States. A Growling Moan While most snakes hiss, the king cobra lets out a growling moan. This lets intruders or potential predators know that the snake is perturbed and ready to strike. To make the sound, the king cobra fills its lungs with air, then quickly constricts its body. This forces the air through the glottis, the space between the vocal cords, resulting in a long moan, which some say resembles a dog’s growl. A special resonating chamber in the snake’s tracheal lung may give the sound its characteristic low pitch, which is unique among snakes. (The tracheal lung is an enlarged throat that wraps around the windpipe, allowing the king cobra to breathe while it’s swallowing prey.)
About Romulus Whitaker
Romulus Whitaker is a herpetologist, wildlife conservationist and founder of the Madras Snake Park, The Andaman and Nicobar Environment Trust (ANET), and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. In 2005 he was a winner of a Whitley Award for outstanding leadership in nature conservation.
Work in India
Whitaker was the founder director of the Snake Park in Chennai. The park was conceived to rehabilitate the Irula tribe who are known for their expertise in catching snakes. The tribals were left jobless after the ban of snake trading. Whitaker helped the Irula tribe to get involved in extracting snake venom used for the production of antivenom drugs. Currently he is associated with the Center for Herpetology, popularly known as the Madras Crocodile Bank. The Crocodile Bank is actively involved in a crocodile breeding program.His wildlife documentary King Cobra made for National Geographic won him an Emmy award. He has also authored several books on reptiles , more specifically on snakes, and has recently co-authored a comprehensive field guide, titled “Snakes of India – The Field Guide” on the Snakes of India. He has set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in the Western Ghats of Karnataka which is involved in the study of King Cobras and plans to establish the world’s first King Cobra Sanctuary.Whitaker is currently coordinating an effort to save the Gharial (Gavialus gangeticus); a species on the brink of extinction with less than 250 individuals left in Indian waters.In February 2007, he was the subject of a critically-acclaimed documentary produced by PBS, under their “Nature” banner, on “supersized” crocodiles and alligators, which was filmed in India, East Africa and Australia.
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