STUDENT SPEAK Studying the Cobra
Gowri Shankar’s interest in snakes motivated him to enrol as a visiting student at Indian Institute of Sciences Centre for Ecological Sciences, and pursue a PhD from the North Orissa University
Reptiles, especially snakes, have interested me for as long as I can remember. It would have been really easy had I pursued science, attended herpetology camps, volunteered with reptile parks and met people in the field, which most kids have access to these days. That was not to be. Lack of exposure and guidance led me to follow the mainstream. But when my passion got the better of me, I dropped it all. I joined the Madras Crocodile Bank and soon realised my forte was King Cobra. I worked on captive King Cobras there, and later worked on wild King Cobras at Agumbe.
While at Agumbe, I opted for a correspondence course in MSc Ecology, field work always took priority. Under Rom Whitaker’s guidance I collected data on wild king cobra nests, hatchlings, king cobra rescues and breeding biology. I teamed up for the pioneering king cobra radio telemetry project.
While looking for options for my PhD I came to the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES),Indian Institute of Science (IISc).The support and encouragement I receive here is incredible. I’ve enrolled as a visiting student under the guidance of Dr Kartik Shanker. He takes time to discuss, urges me to ramp up academically, offers lab space, and access to the library, and even allows me to attend regular classes. Faculty and fellow lab members are extremely supportive and even though I lack formal basics in ecology I’m able to catch up with their help.
Admission to CES is through an all India common entrance test. Research initiatives underway at CES include animal behaviour, evolutionary and socio-biology, community and habitat ecology, molecular genetics and conservation biology, large mammal and forest ecology and climate change. IISc also holds an open day every year where all departments open to the public to share their work offering an opportunity to interact and network. Their library is open to students all through the year for references.
My journey so far has been anything but conventional. But I have progressed. Today I have several scientific papers to my credit,been part of wildlife films for the National Geographic and Discovery Channels, completed my MSc and now have enrolled as a PhD candidate at North Orissa University under Dr S K Dutta. It still feels like I have just begun.

Gowri Shankar handling the King Cobra              

Gowri, along  with his wife Sharmila have started an environmental education camp site,  Kālinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology at Agumbe, where their focus is to open  doors of opportunity to people from varied backgrounds to learn scientific  tools of conservation through workshops and camps.

As told to Poonam Jain

A Kings Platter


It may be offensive to people if they were named or nicknamed after their eating habits, but that is precisely how our mighty king cobra got its name. King Cobra – Ophiophagus hannah. Ophio means snake and phagus means eating. King cobras are primarily snake eaters but occasionally feed on monitor lizards.


During monsoon malabar pit vipers and hump nosed pit vipers appear in these forests. It is during this time that king cobras mostly feed on them.

Rat snakes(Ptyas mucosa), Common cobras(Naja naja) and Pythons (Python molurus) are among their well known prey. But the king cobra radio telemetry study in Agumbe made a remarkable discovery where king cobras were observed to be feeding on Malabar pit vipers(Trimeresurus malabaricus) and Humpnosed pit vipers(Hypnale hypnale).Prior to this it was hard to reckon that a 12 feet king cobra would care to expend energy to hunt a 3 feet pit viper for a meal!

This article “Observations on a Wild King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), with Emphasis on Foraging and Diet: Dhiraj Bhaisare, Vipul Ramanuj, P.Gowri Shankar, M.Vittala, Matt Goode, and Rom Whitaker” published in IRCF Reptiles & Amphibians • Vol 17, wild king cobra No 2 • JUN 2010 discusses this in detail. Download paper.

Like most reptiles king cobras are opportunistic. Our observations typically indicate that king cobras feed at an interval of approximately 15-20 days but this varies. For e.g. they usually feed soon after ecdysis(shedding
of skin that happen approx. 7-8 times a year), king cobras do not feed for days during breeding season, a gravid female king cobra may eat only after building her nest, laying eggs and securing it (which might take more than a month), during monsoons the king cobra may feed more than thrice a week depending on the size of the prey. Only detailed studies can present any pattern or offer definitive explanations.

Watching a king cobra hunt and devour its prey is awe-inspiring and warrants attention.

Rat snakes are among the most hunted prey by king cobras. They even chase after them up and across canopies!

Rat snakes are among the most hunted prey by king cobras. They even chase after them up and across canopies!

King cobras rarely hunt in ambush. Instead they stalk their prey, chase after them in hot pursuit and then grab them close to neck (sometimes mid body too). But their strategies may vary while hunting a venomous snake, e.g. Cobra(Naja naja) where they will avoid being bitten back. Captive breeders also mention about them avoiding long fanged snakes like the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii).

Once captured no prey is match to a king cobras size, strength or the quantity of venom. However powerful the struggle may be, in most cases it is the king cobra that triumphs. It then starts jaw-walking i.e. starts moving its jaws in a chewing motion towards the head of the prey without loosening its grip and then swallows head down.

The below video explains the feeding behaviour. It is an excerpt from the film ‘Secrets of King cobra’ by the National Geographic Channel (NGC).

Hunting and feeding are among the top reasons for human – king cobra conflict. Humans attract rats (due to improper methods of waste disposal, lack of effective storage of food etc.), rats attract snakes and snakes in turn attract king cobras. King cobras end up in peoples bedrooms, roof tops, backyards, trees, bathrooms, wells, store house, cow sheds and kitchen, either chasing after their prey or while resting after a meal.
King cobra under a shoe rack. The owners thanked their luck for spotting the snake much before they slid their feet into those flip-flops.

King cobra under a shoe rack. The owners thanked their luck for spotting the snake much before they slid their feet into those flip-flops.


King cobras often seek refuge next to water heaters (‘Hande’) in bathrooms during monsoon. The warmth gives the much needed energy during those cold months.

When I get such a rescue call it is a true test of my skills. This means the rescue has to be done really quick, with precision and minimal stress; else it may regurgitate its meal (a method of escape adopted by many reptiles).  The king cobra in the below image had taken refuge after a meal for more than four days in the attic and was not noticed until it defecated.


King cobra resting in the attic after a meal.


The defacation gave away its hiding place and the stench forced the owners to call us immediately


Balancing on weathered tiles that could break any time, ensuring a firm grip, maintaining sane distance and making sure the king cobra is least stressed was quite a task.

This rescue was not only a test to my rescuing skills but also my agility and acrobatic skills!

Until recently it was believed that king cobras always ate freshly caught prey. But this was proven wrong when I observed a king cobra eating the carcass of a road-killed rat snake. Though the king cobra retreated after being disturbed by traffic it came back the next day to finish its meal. This behaviour was confirmed by the radio telemetry team who observed the radio tracked individual eating the carcass of a cat snake (Boiga sp.).


In spite of being disturbed several times this radio tracked king cobra returned to finish the carcass

It is only during the mating season that king cobras are spotted in close proximity to one another else they steer clear from each other’s path fearing being eaten up.


Size and strength play a major role in deciding the hunter and the hunted. A big king cobra would most likely kill a smaller one


The calf succumbed to the bite in 20 minutes

I was called for a rescue call in a cow shed where a large male king cobra had bitten a smaller one and was engaged in probably the last fight. During the tussle a buffalo calf was bitten by the larger male. The smaller king cobra succumbed and was eaten by the larger male.

We also observed cannibalistic behaviour in two mating pairs in 2008. In both cases the male killed the female, regurgitated and left the scene. The motive behind this killing is not clear but does not indicate feeding.

Like most reptiles, king cobras start hunting as soon as they hatch. King cobra hatchlings are believed to survive on small snakes. But very little is known about the feeding habits of juvenile king cobras in the wild. Studies are needed to uncover this facet of a king cobras life.


The king cobra is the top predator among snakes and an apt indicator of the health of herpetofauna in its habitat. As a flag ship species its protection is imperative and most necessary today.

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar


Many people cannot tell between a Common Cobra(Naja naja) from a King Cobra(Ophiophagus hannah). It may sound absurd to a few but from my experience the majority belong to the latter category. I have watched television anchors and news readers confidently make this mistake, newspapers whose editors care less to be corrected in spite of my efforts to explain and sadly the rest would rather believe these poorly researched mediums than a lamenting herpetologist! Hence this article to list the basic differences between the two snakes but does not delve into detailed taxonomic or behavioral differences.


Common Cobra: Usually grows up to 5.5 feet ; King Cobra: In India they grow up to 15 feet


Common Cobra: Broad ;  King Cobra: Narrow


Common Cobra: Varies between light to dark shades of brown.
Has a spectacle mark behind its hood.
King Cobra: Shades of black, brown and olive green.
Has light yellow to cream coloured chevron shaped markings from head to tail


Common Cobra:  Cuneate scale is present
King Cobra: Cuneate scale is absent

Common Cobra: Occipital scales absent
King Cobra: Occipital scales present


Common Cobra:Frogs, lizards, birds, snakes and small mammals like rats and hare. They are opportunistic  and sometimes eat their own kind.
King Cobra: Eat only other snakes. E.g. Rat snakes(Ptyas mucosa), cobras(Naja naja), malabar pit vipers(Trimeresurus malabaricus). They occasionally feed on monitor lizards. They are cannibalistic.


Common Cobra: Lays eggs in holes and crevices (Pic taken during rescue)
King Cobra: Builds a nest to lay eggs.

Summary and few more differences…

  Common Cobra (Naja naja) King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)
Size (length)  Usually grows up to 5.5 feet In India they grow up to 15 feet
Hood Broad Narrow
Color and markings Varies between light to dark shades of brown.Has a spectacle mark behind its hood. Shades of black, brown and olive green.Has light yellow to cream coloured chevron shaped markings from head to tail
Scales Cuneate scale is presentNo occipital scales Occipital scales are presentNo cuneate scale.
Food Frogs, lizards, birds, snakes and small mammals like rats and hare. They are opportunistic sometimes eating their own kind. Eat only other snakes. E.g. Rat snakes(Ptyas mucosa), cobras(Naja naja), malabar pit vipers(Trimeresurus malabaricus). They occasionally feed on monitor lizards.They are cannibalistic.
Reproduction Lays eggs in holes and crevices Builds a nest to lay eggs
Genus Naja meaning true cobra Ophiophagus meaning ‘snake eating’.  King cobras are monotypic, meaning only one type under this genus
Venom toxicity (Neurotoxic) Highly toxic but quantity is low. Less toxic but quantity is high
Venom quantity 2cc 7cc
Habitat Mainland India except the north-east. Western Ghats, West Bengal, north-east, Orissa and parts of Eastern Ghats(AP)

Feel free to share your thoughts and more differences which you think might help people in understanding these snakes better.

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

Acknowledgements: Ashwini VM, Vivek Sharma, Avinash Bhagat, Vaibhav Patwardhan

After the success of two batches in January and March 2012 the third batch completed level one of the STORM (Scientific Training on Reptile Management) series of workshops. Students, professionals, researchers, snake rescuers and reptile enthusiasts made up the team and a common passion for snakes and reptiles set the tone.

Here’s the enthusiastic bunch…


From left to right:
Sitting: Vinod Krishna, Richa Vyas, Kausaer parvin, Shyam’s son, Kumara Swamy, Gowri
Standing front row: Ashwini, Prakash, Snake Shyam,Vinodh, Supreeth, Veeraraj, Prashanth, Shivakumar
Standing back row: Dr. Suraj, Balaji, Frank Benjamin, HPR Prasad, Prajwal, Anne mathias, Sharath, Raghavendra, Ramprasad sampath, Anuroop, Akshaeya Ashok.


…. And this is what they have to say:


” it was a fantastic workshop, very informative and useful for all levels irrespective of whether they had any prior knowledge or experience with snakes. I have been rescuing snakes for years now and though I knew some basics, I felt the information shared was very useful and did not seem repetitive. I however felt that we should be given an opportunity to handle a venomous snake during the workshop” — Frank Benjamin, snake rescuer, Valparai,TN.


“very informative, enjoyed the rescue calls and also learnt more about behavior of snakes”

Richa, Scientist


“The workshop was very well organized, it was a perfect blend of theory and practicals”— Anne Mathias, professional


“I learnt about Do’s and Dont’s while snake handling, which I think is very vital for this profession”Kausar, MBA


“very informative, gave me confidence to take it to the next level”Veeraraj, Entrepreneur


“working with the masters like Gowri Shankar and Snake Shyam, it was an excellent experience. Learnt a lot about rescue and relocation and identification of snakes will become easier now”— Dr. Suraj, Doctor


“Liked the structure of the workshop, basics about snakes, the big 4,legal issues, first aid for snake bites, rescue & relocation, Snake Shyam was a celebrity to be with and loved the live rescue calls”Rangaprasad Sampth, Entrepreneur


” I gained good knowledge on Snake identification, scale counting particularly helped a lot”Prajwal, Software Engineer


“Excellent workshop! it helped me overcome the fear of snakes and I also got an idea how rescues can be done without causing any damage to the snake”Akshaeya Ashok, BSc Graduate



STORM: Level Two  : Captive Management of Reptiles,  is scheduled for the 10th & 11th November 2012.

STORM: Level Three: Research Methodologies,  will happen at Agumbe from the 28th to 30th December 2012.

For more details check : https://pogirigowrishankar.wordpress.com/workshops-camps/

For registration please write to info@rainforestecology.com

A fresh batch of the STORM series will begin from January 2013.

Interesting piece of news. It is not very common that serious action like this has ever been taken for killing a King Cobra.


“Best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray” there is no better way than this to explain our trip to Mizoram last month (9th to 15th August 2012). It is not called as Mysterious Mizoram for nothing! These lands of Blue Mountains welcomed and wrapped us (a bunch of 10 people) in her folds while we watched the blue skies smiling at us. Now wait it was monsoon , all of us were dressed top to toe in rain gear but a bright, sweltering sun sucked up our energies and hopes as soon as we set our foots in Aizwal. We were all dazed and exchanged helpless glances at each other.

But  Mr.H.T.Lalremsanga, professor, Department of Zoology, Mizoram University, held the key to bring smiles back on our faces. He showed his long list of rescued snakes and got us all excited:

  • Short nosed vine snake (Ahaetulla prasina),
  • Monocled Cobra (Naja kaouthia),
  • Pope’s Pit Viper (Trimeresurus popeiorum popeiorum),
  • Checkered Keelback (Xenochrophis piscator),
  • Red-necked Keelback (Rhabdophis subminiatus),
  • Green Cat Snake (Boiga cyanea)
  • Spot-tailed Pit Viper (Trimeresurus erythrurus),
  • Stoliczka’s Stripe-necked Snake (Liopeltis stoliczkae), a snake recently rediscovered in the north-east and
  • 3 juvenile king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) from this year’s hatching

Seeing juvenile king cobras from Mizoram was a first timer for me and they looked very similar to their counterparts in the Western Ghats.

The next day we were in for more excitement at Mr.Hrima’s place. Hrima is among very few people up here who rescue and relocate snakes and is now working on bringing snake rescuers across Mizoram under one banner to ensure better reach. His set of rescued snakes comprised of:

  • Cherrapunji Keelback (Amphiesma xenura),
  • Mountain Pit Viper (Ovophis monticola),
  • Painted Bronzeback Tree Snake (Dendrelaphis pictus),
  • Green Trinket Snake (Elaphe prasina),
  • Mock Viper (Psammodynastes pulverulentus),
  • Copper-headed Trinket Snake (Coelognathus radiatus) and
  • A juvenile King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

1. Copper-headed Trinket Snake (Coelognathus radiatus) -Vinod Krishna | 2. Green Trinket Snake (Elaphe prasina) -Vinod Krishna | 3. Painted Bronzeback Tree Snake ( Dendrelaphis pictus)- Srihari Ananthakrishna | 4. Yellow-speckled Wolf Snake (Lycodon jara)-Vinod Krishna | 5. Mock Viper (Psammodynastes pulverulentus) -Vinod Krishna | 6. Mountain Pit Viper (Ovophis monticola)- Vinod Krishna | 7. Cherrapunji Keelback (Amphiesma xenura)- Vinod Krishna | 8. Short nosed Vine Snake (Ahaetulla prasina) -Vinod Krishna | 9. White-lipped Pit Viper (Trimeresurus albolabris)- Vinod Krishna | 10. Monocled Cobra (Naja kaouthia)- Vinod Krishna |
11. King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) -Vinod Krishna

On the third day when the rains still remained behind black clouds we decided it was time to go up the mountains with minimal gear.  We trekked up the Reiek Mountain, home for fascinating variety of hill birds. No sooner did we take our baby steps the clouds broke loose and we stood in dismay. Now this was what rains looked like in Mizoram. Trekking steep slippery slopes was a challenge and by the end of it, all of us had slipped and most fell but everyone had laughed their guts out. It was fun!

Mizoram had a knack of throwing surprises at us and probably enjoyed looking at our faces every time. Our plans to visit the Dampa Tiger reserve, Murlen National Park and the Champhai town all came crashing down with a landslide on those routes. So our next destination was a place totally unheard of, the Tamdil Lake. But this time we were glad and thanked Mizoram for her plans.

Tamdil lake nestled among towering trees was beauty unmatched.

For the next two days we explored new paths into the forest and discovered amazing life. Apart from myriads of birds, butterflies, beetles, spiders, crickets and fungi, our primary focus on snakes yielded us sightings of a Juvenile Cherrapunji Keelback (Amphiesma xenura),Red-necked Keelback (Rhabdophis subminiatus), and a Checkered keelback (Xenochrophis piscator).The highlight was witnessing a Red-necked Keelback (Rhabdophis subminiatus) hunt a frog and swallow it.

A Red-necked Keelback (Rhabdophis subminiatus) with its meal.

Travelling these picturesque hills is a pleasure but seeing road kills is not. Road kills included an Indo-chinese Rat Snake (Ptyas korros), Black Krait (Bungarus niger) and a White-barred Kukri Snake (Oligodon albocinctus).

Back in Aizwal we got to see a female Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) at a friend’s place and a Yellow-speckled Wolf Snake (Lycodon jara) at Hrima’s place.

Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus)

On our way back to the airport we witnessed an accident where a motorcycle dashed into a jeep. Believe it or not none of the drivers raised their voice or bad mouthed the other and there was no commotion whatsoever. All they did was clearly marked the accident spot, each one called their bosses and settled things peacefully.  This is an attitude that everybody all over India need to learn and emulate. Women here seemed to be far more enterprising and managed most business centers. I personally felt that Mizoram seemed to have a fairly advanced society compared to other states in our country.

The Gang

I want to specially thank H.T.Lalremsanga, Siama, Hrima, Lindaji (a multitalented celebrity and extremely kind lady who is a model, rescues snakes and a great singer), for their help and support, Saipari Sailo who took us shopping in Bara Bazaar and all my friends who rolled up their sleeves for all our unplanned adventures.

We bid good bye to amazing Mizoram towns and watched life go by with guys on roads, their T shirts folded up till their chest washing their super cool bikes, stylish carefree ladies walking along, and kids playing on road sides.

A very different life style, very lovely and hospitable people, interesting cuisines, extremely rich wildlife and wonderful landscapes, all this made our trip to Mizoram one of the most memorable one…once again.

We will be back next year and I am sure more surprises awaits us!

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

Acknowledgement: Ashwini VM

Today most love to be part of a virtual club called “I’ve been there and done that” and one of the activities that tops the list is ‘snake wrangling’! Thanks to umpteen programs on television channels that have promoted awareness and increased tolerance for reptiles, but have also induced people to blindly try what herp experts after years of training do on screen. Then there are others who rescue snakes ill equipped in terms of knowledge, equipments or protection. Some who have mastered the skill lack basic knowledge about snakes in general, but can be trained to do the job right. There are some who possess theoretical knowledge about snakes and want to study them but need training in handling them. Some are genuinely keen to expand their knowledge about reptiles.  Then there is the “I know it all” group, who are beyond fixable.

Many snake rescuers keep rescued snakes under unhygienic conditions for days. Reasons may vary from showing it to friends and relatives or out of excessive ‘love’ for the snake. Though this is illegal not many are aware or they just ignore.  Majority of them are ill equipped and with increasing numbers each rescuer also seem to have a territory which when crossed could prove a problem, ultimately ignoring the very cause i.e. the welfare of snakes.

As a keen reptile enthusiast I recognize this trend and believe that now is the time to educate and empower people on right and ethical methods of handling snakes or any other reptile. Hence we conceived a three series program called, STORM- Scientific training on Reptile Management which starts with basics on reptiles, right and ethical rescue methods, captive management, and field techniques to study reptiles.


The first workshop takes place at Mysore in collaboration with ‘Snake Shyam’, who has rescued over 22,000 snakes in and around Mysore! We work together to share our knowledge about the importance and methods of identifying snakes, measures to be taken before a rescue, using right equipments in the right way, first aid for snake bites, Do’s and Don’ts of snake rescue, information to collect before reaching the rescue location, legal issues with snake rescue, methods of recording data, creating awareness at the rescue site, and identifying relocation sites. The main highlight is the opportunity for participants to accompany us on live rescue calls where all the above topics are shown practically and participants learn by watching us at work.


The second workshop takes place in Centre for Herpetology, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT), a gene pool for crocodiles. It is an ideal place to explore the world of reptiles and understand the big picture of captive management. Participants learn about unique designs of different crocodile pens made to suit habits of each species and assist in their maintenance. They get to help researchers in ongoing research by capturing crocodiles in their pens, measuring, and recording data. Understanding dietary requirements by feeding snakes, crocs, turtles and tortoises is a rare opportunity to get close to these reptiles. A visit to the venom extraction centre managed by the Irula tribe and a walk with these expert snake locators presents a different perspective to learning methods of locating snakes in the wild and appreciates the way the Irula co-operative society has given a reason for snakes and humans to co-habit these arid landscapes.


The third workshop focuses on sharing scientific methods of studying snakes in the wild. This takes place at the Centre for Rainforest Ecology in Agumbe. Part of the Western Ghats and home to the King Cobra, Agumbe offers every reptile enthusiast a platform to explore the world of snakes and other reptiles. With over 225 (i.e. 12%) endemic reptiles one gets an opportunity to appreciate this niche eco system rich in herpetofauna.   Starting with a basic introduction to snakes found in this region participants then learn different sampling techniques, methods of surveys and data collection Photo-taxonomy is another important topic that is ignored by many but has good potential if used right.

At the end of the series each participant will be in a position to identify the snake they are going to rescue and use appropriate methods, will consciously rescue snakes with minimal stress, will be in a position to explain to public about reptile conservation, read and understand herpetological studies underway, may be inspired to pursue further studies themselves and above all become eco-custodians of these misunderstood creatures.


Centre for Rainforest Ecology

Email: info@rainforestecology.com

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar