In late June this year, there was a video doing the rounds on Twitter of a local snake handler from Canacona, Goa, dragging a King Cobra out of a patch of green and onto the tarred road, as a bunch of people watched on. The man had his hands firmly clamped down on the head of the snake, another man joined in to grab it by the tail, and they initially laid it down to show the onlookers how it measured the entire breadth of the tarred road. As the reptile tried to free itself, the man mercilessly stamped down on the animal multiple times to subdue it as he called on another apprentice to help him put the snake into a sack. The video ends with both of the man's feet planted on the animal as he succeeds in pushing its head into the plastic sack.
The kind folks from Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology pursued this highly unethical rescue incident and wrote to the concerned forest department. In the end, appropriate action was taken, with the King Cobra safe at a rescue centre and the offender in custody. But this incident could have had a number of different outcomes, which would have either meant the death of the animal or the handler or worse, of one of the onlookers.
The King Cobra, the longest venomous snake on the planet, in reality, is a shy animal that stays away from human-inhabited spaces. But as more and more forests make way for agricultural and industrial lands, human-animal conflict such as this is only bound to increase. And, when the animal in question is the 'dangerous and aggressive' King Cobra, human retaliation can be fatal for the species, which is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
Here, we bust myths and bring you some fascinating information on the King Cobra. We hope this knowledge can help reshape the public narrative around the species and prompt some much-needed love for the king of reptiles.
1 – The King
King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the sole member of the Ophiophagus genus, which describes species in the Elapidae family (venomous snakes characterised by a set of permanently erect fangs at the front of the mouth) with an inclination to feed on snakes. The species is widely distributed in South and Southeast Asia, from Nepal and India across southern China, southward to the Philippines and Indonesia, all the way down to Malaysia. Depending on the geographical location, the dorsal colours of the King Cobra can vary from grey, black, dark olive green and yellowish-brown, and with or without yellow or white bands throughout its body.
2 – Topping the Charts
King Cobra holds the title of the longest venomous snake on the planet. They average 3-4m in length and can reach well over 5m. To put that in perspective, the average height of an adult human male is 1.71m. The longest specimen on record is a 5.54-metre-long King Cobra found near Port Dickson in Negeri Sembilan in the Malay Peninsula. Captured in 1937 and later put on display at the London Zoo, it had attained a length of 5.71m before it was put down prior to the Second World War. King Cobras are also one of the snakes with a long lifespan, known to live for an average of 20 years in the wild.
3 – Enough to Bring Down a Tusker
The toxicity of King Cobra venom is measured at 1.91mg/kg LD50 (the amount of a material, given all at once, which causes the death of 50 per cent of a group of test animals, mice in this case). Whereas, the lethal dose of the world's most venomous terrestrial snake, the Australian Inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), is just 0.01mg/kg. But a King Cobra bite can deliver up to 400-500mg of venom on average in comparison to the taipan which yields just under 50mg. So even though the venom is not as toxic, the greater volume injected means that a King Cobra bite can kill a full-grown elephant in a few hours. The main constituent of King Cobra venom is a postsynaptic neurotoxin that causes paralysis, respiratory failure and death. There is no therapeutic antivenom in the Indian subcontinent to treat a King Cobra bite.
4 – Far-reaching Kingdom
The King Cobra is found in a variety of habitats, primarily in pristine forests, mangrove swamps, degraded forests and agricultural areas with remnants of woodland. In India, the species has even been recorded from tea estates in the Western Ghats and Assam. So far, the species has been recorded from Goa; along the Western Ghats, the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu; along the east coastline, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha; in the Himalayan foothills, Uttrakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, northern parts of West Bengal to most of the northeast region and the Andaman Islands.
5 – Diet Maketh Monarch
Besides the title of the longest venomous snake, what makes the King Cobra the king of snakes is that it maintains an almost strict diet of snakes. Rat Snakes make up their favourite meal, but they also prey upon deadly snakes like kraits and other cobras, and even their own kind. Yes, cannibalism, which raises the question, how do they manage such a risky lifestyle. Evolution has made the species impervious to venomous counterattacks. They are unfazed by the potent neurotoxins found in snake venom, which usually mean paralysis and death. King Cobras do feed on lizards, eggs and other smaller mammals too.
6 – Can a Snake Build Nests?
Only if you are the king! King Cobras are the only snakes in the world that build nests for their eggs. The oviparous snake twists its body into a noose and gathers leaves and branches to create a tightly constructed nest, which keeps the eggs dry throughout. The heat produced from the decomposition incubates the 21-40 eggs that it lays. The mother guards the nest for almost the entire incubation period, which lasts about 90 days, and she departs just before the hatchlings come out. Breeding usually occurs from January through April.
7 – Exile
The King Cobra is deemed ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. There is no specific count of King Cobra numbers in India, but what can be inferred from the last few decades is that they have become rare in most areas. It is estimated that India has seen a 30 per cent reduction in numbers over the last 75 years, owing primarily to habitat destruction. A recent survey of the snake in northeast India shows that although the species can be considered a generalist with a wide ecological amplitude, the majority of the sightings were either inside or adjoining protected areas with large, intact undisturbed forests. Habitat destruction and fragmentation remain the biggest threat to the snake in India.
8 – No Mercy
As the world's longest venomous snake, the King Cobra also suffers high levels of persecution by humans throughout its range. In India, the King Cobra falls under Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, a classification that implies that the species attracts the highest safeguarding and maximum penalties. Yet, wanton killings of the species when spotted near human-occupied spaces is one of the major threats to King Cobra population numbers in the country. A 2013 study from Agumbe, Karnataka, to try and understand the nature of human hostility to King Cobras, found that people wanted the snake killed rather than left alone in 80 per cent of the cases when a rescue call was made. At the same time, the people of Agumbe consider the King Cobras to be sacred, and the species is known to co-exist peacefully in the region. The study also revealed that smaller snakes were more likely to be killed, which could lead to the possibility of a population bottleneck occurring, especially when habitat degradation and fragmentation are driving more snakes into human habitations. A threat assessment report from the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand highlighted the death of four King Cobras (three hatchlings and one adult) by vehicular traffic, suggesting that roadkill mortality may be a significant yet overlooked threat.
9 – Research is Scant
Besides habitat fragmentation and human persecution, the limited research that has been undertaken, particularly in India, leaves us with little knowledge to draw up effective conservation measures for the species. Further research into monitoring and the population status of King Cobras is of paramount importance. Due to the wide distribution of the species, many herpetologists believe that the King Cobra is a species complex (a group of closely related organisms that are so similar in appearance that the boundaries between them are often unclear). Taxonomic research is required to determine the same. When we know so little about a species, conservation becomes almost impossible.
10 – What Can You Do?
Education and awareness creation are the primary weapons in our arsenal to conserve this majestic animal. Apart from the fact that the King Cobra plays a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance by feeding on other snakes, the predominant narrative of the snake as a dangerous and aggressive adversary needs to change. King Cobras are shy reptiles that stay away from human presence as much as possible. They only come into contact with humans when driven out of their preferred habitats, which are folly to the anthropogenic pressures of logging and agricultural expansion. Educational and awareness programmes can help minimise the persecution of the species.