In the king’s own country

Print edition : June 10, 2016

The king cobra in an aggressive mood at Kellur village near Agumbe. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Ajay Giri of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, wearing an infrared torch in a band around his forehead, locates the reptile, and drags it away from the well. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Ajay Giri hooks the king cobra. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Ajay Giri lifts the king cobra. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Ajai Giri.

Ajay Giri coaxes the reptile into a long cylindrical bag, trying to guide it towards the interior portion of the bag. As soon as its tail disappeared into the cavernous bag, the string was pulled to close the mouth of the bag. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The reptile being released in an uninhabited wood. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The snake slithers away towards the bush, and then raises its head and watches for a while before disappearing into the darkness. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The research station was set up by Romulus Whitaker, India's foremost herpetologist. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

THE knotted black bundle under our feet heaves rhythmically as the occupant seems resigned to its 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 do not 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 that we are travelling with a live 11-foot-long king cobra, rudely interrupted in its quest for a mate. The bag in which it is coiled up is made of cotton cloth and nothing more. Its fangs can easily reach out to lacerate and inject its 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 do not stock anti-venom serum for a king cobra bite. Very comforting indeed!

My friend Veda and I are fortunate to accompany Ram Prasad Rao and Ajay Giri, both researchers at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS), on a cobra rescue mission. The previous day, as we had landed at the ARRS, tucked away in a rainforest on the outskirts of a small village called Agumbe in the Western Ghats, some 60 kilometres from Udupi in Karnataka, we were told that there was little chance of spotting a king cobra in the wild; that king cobras were shy creatures who preferred 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 honeybees building hives and dracos climbing areca nut palms.

Even as we were wondering whether the visit was worth the effort of travelling more than a thousand kilometres, the ARRS got a rescue call. A live king cobra had been spotted entering a house at Kellur village, some 15 km from the research station. In fact, the village residents had seen two of the species in the adjacent fields, headbutting 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 Ram Prasad 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.

The people in this part of the Western Ghats refer to king cobras as “Kalinga”, the mythical seven-headed serpent on which Krishna is said to have danced. They revere the snake and would not dream of harming it. Yet, the reptile is so venomous that it cannot be allowed to lounge around in the village. There is an open well with no embankment where the cobra is hiding. If it slithered into the well, not only would it be very difficult to rescue it, but it might also render the well water unusable. As our rescue team arrives in Kellur, everyone is cautioned against going anywhere near the open well, which is difficult to spot 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 the ARRS for the past six years and has been specialising in king cobras. He wears an infrared 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 a long striking range. The snake turns away from the bag and goes looking for somewhere to hide. Its skin is a dull brown with bands. It is easily distracted by camera flashbulbs 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 cannot hear, and this one, despite being in the prime of its life, seems to have weak eyesight, too. Or, it is simply confused. Yet, there is not a trace of aggression in it. The ominous hood remains unopened, which is a good indication that the animal is not panicking, at least, not yet. But I could not resist the temptation to click. Naturally, my flashlight confuses and then provokes the snake into opening its hood in the classical cobra posture. This is a danger signal for Ajay. He now has to be very careful. The king cobra is in an aggressive mood and might strike.

But not all king cobra bites are venomous, Ram Prasad Rao explains to me later. Fewer 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 cobra would not want to waste it unless it feels absolutely threatened. Cobras seem to have a mechanism by which they can withhold venom even as they bite. No wonder then that 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 cobra dazzling you with its 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 its tail disappears into the cavernous bag, Ajay pulls the string to close its mouth. Then he and Ram Prasad 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 manoeuvre. Then they 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, the hero of the moment.

In fluent Kannada, Ajay (his mother tongue is Marathi) 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 up 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 its life when titans clash over the right to mate with it. Males are attracted by the pheromones female secretes during the mating season.

On the way back in the car, with the snake curled up under our feet, Ajay tells us about his many encounters with king cobras. He had witnessed a similar male combat a few years ago and had followed the victor to the termite mound where the ARRS staff filmed the mating. Since then, he has witnessed several 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 said. There is only headbutting, 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.

Cobra nest

The male plays no part in parenting. The female builds a nest of leaf litter on high ground, gathering leaves with sideways movements of its body. In fact, king cobras are the only snakes that build nests. A month after mating, it lays a clutch of around 20 to 40 eggs and covers them up with leaves, but does not incubate them.

In fact, it makes itself scarce when the hatchlings are ready to emerge. Ajay explains that this might probably be because it might end up eating its 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 only one hatchling king cobra is likely to reach adulthood.

Whitaker’s study

Very little is known about king cobras, which is why Romulus Whitaker, India’s foremost herpetologist and the founder of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, decided to set up a research project at the ARRS to study these legendary reptiles with an awesome reputation. With the help of Matt Goode, another renowned herpetologist from New Mexico, United States, he radio-tagged king cobras and tracked them in the wild.

The study revealed some startling facts about king cobras, especially their cannibalistic behaviour. After both the tagged cobras died, the ARRS could not get permission from the Forest Department for more tagging experiments.

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 it. Enraged, it gores the female to death and even swallows it. King cobras moult four or 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. King cobras have been included in the red list of endangered species drawn up by the International Union for 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 cobra in the wilderness. Ajay locates an uninhabited wood, carries the bagged snake and releases the knot. At first, the reptile 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 its 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 kraits. 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 vine snakes that can flatten itself.

The Western Ghats, known for its rich biodiversity, 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 invertebrates—preying mantis, antlions, spiders spinning elaborate silken webs, even an odd scorpion. There are several species of birds in these parts. The ARRS gets regular visits from green barbets, yellow-crowned bulbuls, various thrushes, including the whistling thrush, red-whiskered bulbuls, parakeets, rocket-tailed drongos, warblers, golden orioles and scarlet minivets, among others. Giant Malabar squirrels dart from treetop to treetop looking for rich pickings. At night, a pair of shiny eyes gives away the location of the 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 metres away reveals the presence of pangolins, panthers, wild cats, wild dogs and jackals among others.

The members of the research station are a dedicated lot, tracking down and studying various species of birds and animals. Ram Prasad Rao specialises in frogs while Dheeraj is an expert on red-wattled lapwings.

The ARRS is off the State electricity grid but supplies itself power through a generator set. In the rainy season, at least half a dozen pit vipers drape themselves around the long dining table of the research station because their pits get flooded, Ram Prasad Rao says.

I resolve to go back in the rainy season.

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