Nestled in the midst of lush, wet-evergreen forests, Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) in Shimoga district of Karnataka is famous for two things: the mind boggling 7,000 mm of annual rainfall and, the king cobra, the longest venomous snake in the world. King cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) often reach lengths of up to 5 m and are found in parts of the Western and Eastern Ghats of India, North, Northeast India, and throughout much of Southeast Asia. They get the name ‘Ophiophagus’ from the habit of feeding primarily on a wide variety of snakes. But, they occasionally consume monitor lizards as well. The Agumbe region is also famous for the worshipping of snakes, and one can see several cultural and mythological references to snakes in the region.
Although I have had close encounters with the king cobra before, I got an intimate look into the life of the majestic serpent and of the people living alongside it, when I started to work at ARRS. Established in 2005, Rom Whitaker started a pioneering study to understand the secret lives of king cobras using advanced radio-telemetry technology. Following these snakes without the aid of transmitters is impossible. For this study, a transmitter is surgically inserted into the body cavity of the snake and the signals are tracked with an antenna by two or more researchers, from dawn to dusk. It is a unique research program in India where volunteers who are older than 18 years of age and physically fit are trained to track snakes for one month or more.
Over several years, researchers have tracked nine king cobras in and around Agumbe. Following the snakes gives us several insights, such as their ability to forage for food, chase their prey, and consume them. Such information is important to understand how such a large snake manages to survive in different habitats. Researchers working with us have regularly observed king cobras feeding on other snakes such as rat snakes, spectacled cobras, and Malabar pit vipers. Such findings have also been crucial to connect with people who live in the landscape in constant fear of snakes. It is evidence that the king cobras eats venomous snakes like the spectacled cobra and Russel’s viper which, along with the saw-scaled viper and common krait, are responsible for nearly 50,000 snakebite deaths across India each year. King cobras regularly enter human habitation in pursuit of their prey and end up inside houses and yet, no reports of them biting humans are reported.
Over the years, my colleagues have worked hard to increase people’s awareness and ensure that the snake is not harmed in any way. In the last decade, people within a 100-km radius of Agumbe have become aware of snakes, and call us when a snake gets into their house. My colleagues then go and extricate the snake from the house without harming it and release it nearby after elaborately discussing snakes with the householders.
It is this awareness and sensitivity that led us to an once-in-a-lifetime observation. It was an early evening in April 2019. Summer was at its peak and the ground was parched. It was the time of year when king cobras start to breed and I had spent all day with the field crew, tracking a king cobra. At around 6.30 pm, while we were returning to the field station, we saw a few people gathered around a vacant plot of land. We wondered if they were looking at a king cobra combat — where two male king cobras try to pin each other down, and the winner is assumed to gain access to the female.
But we did not stop. We had hardly gone half a kilometre away when my colleague Ajay Giri called to tell us that he had received a call from a villager saying that there was a king cobra in an open field near a placed called Guddekeri. This was the town we were passing through and we put two and two together, and returned to the location where we’d seen people gathered. As we got down and ran, an incredible sight greeted us — an adult king cobra lay motionless while a medium sized Indian rock python had put a stranglehold around the king cobras head. The two snakes remained motionless for nearly 20 minutes. We thought the king cobra was a goner, but continued to observe them from a distance. By now, the news of the sighting had spread and people from all around came to watch. Slowly, the python loosened its grip around the king cobra and we could see its head. The king cobra had all the while been biting the python. After another 10 minutes the king cobra stopped biting it, and the python began to uncoil. This was the first sign that the two snakes were very much alive. Soon the king cobra began to struggle and spin, presumably a final attempt to escape the python’s noose of death.
We had observed the pair for over 45 minutes when a light drizzle started. Summer showers brought much needed relief. We were all focused on the two snakes until now and when I looked back, there were nearly 200 people gathered to witness the spectacle. Many were scrambling to get closer and take a photo with their cell phones. We now has the task of crowd control, and began to ask people to keep away. All of a sudden, the python let go of the king cobra. That instant, people ran off, not wanting to come in the way of an escaping king cobra. Ajay quickly caught the snake and guided it into a bag that was already set up. The python was also placed in a bag, and both snakes were loaded on to the field vehicle. They were taken to a forested patch nearby and released. The python measured nearly two meters and weighed approximately four kilos, while the king cobra was approximately four metres long. When the python was examined at noon the next day, it was dead, possibly from king cobra venom. The king cobra however, had probably gone away in search of an easier meal.
My colleagues tell me that they have heard reports of king cobras feeding on pythons. In fact, there are well documented reports of king cobras feeding on the reticulated python in Southeast Asia. It is no doubt that king cobras do occasionally consume large prey such as monitor lizards or even pythons. One cannot but wonder how the snake is able to make dynamic decisions and evaluate the risks and gains of pursuing prey such as a rock python, which can potentially kill the cobra by constricting it. It is an indication that snakes are very indeed smart, intelligent creatures.
Studies such as the king cobra radio-telemetry project are essential to understand their ecology. Gathering information helps us convince people that they mean us no harm, but in fact, help us by keeping the population of other venomous snakes in check. That’s all the more reason to respect, revere, and, let the king cobra be.