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Archive for the ‘King cobra rescues’ Category

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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.

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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.

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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.

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King cobra resting in the attic after a meal.

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

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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.).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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Kings & Wells!

My venture into the world of reptiles was thanks, to a deep passion to understand these creatures; rescuing them was the first step in learning and appreciating their lives. After landing in Agumbe to study king cobras, my direct association with these reptiles began at the door steps of people in whose homes or farms, king cobras had wandered into. Slowly, I learnt that rescuing an eleven foot highly venomous snake from cozy, dark Malnad houses amid crowds was indeed a daunting task.

A thousand questions around me and a thousand ideas in my mind

From being bombarded with  questions from crowds, planning my rescue strategy, being extremely alert, ensuring safety of the snake, people around and my own, my mind was reeling in a different realm. But, of course, the impression that followed after each of my rescues was of an easy catch. As it is said, “Always keep a smile on your face…It makes people wonder what you’re up too!!!”.

I have had my own learning during these experiences. I have shared some methods and skills that have evolved over time in accomplishing the same task:

King Cobra rescues from  wells

In  2005

I was called for a King Cobra rescue at Thallurangadi, approx 13 km from Agumbe. Being a new face at Agumbe, my name and rescue acts had gained lot of popularity and people were very eager to see who this crazy guy was. A King Cobra (approx 10 ft) had fallen into a 50 ft well with water up to 20 ft.

King cobra resting on stone lined ring of the well

He was desperately trying to get out. Typically, every Malnad house has a well that serves as the only source of water during summers. These are usually lined with stones that seem to droop under the burden of moss after heavy rains. Short, dwarf like trees (like Bonsai) and ferns grow on the inner lining of these wells. Spiders, ants, glow worms, skinks and sometimes even snakes like checkered keel-backs and rat snakes reside in this habitat. But these human structures also interfere in the way of wildlife. Apart from King Cobras, there have been instances of leopards falling into these wells while chasing dogs!

After assessing the scene, I offered a simple suggestion- to place a bamboo pole or hang a thick rope and leave the snake alone for it to climb out. Many scorned this suggestion because it seemed to dampen their enthusiasm of watching me rescue the King! They wanted to see it being rescued and released far away from their place. My insistence to not disturb the snake only took absurd turns in their minds and they started discussing gruesome ideas of how they could kill the snake. From electrocuting, to throwing a huge boulder, to strangling, each idea was atrocious compared to the other. It was a tricky situation. Since it was already getting dark (and it is very risky to rescue the king under dull light) I managed to buy time and convinced them that I would come back for the snake early the next morning.

As promised I reached the place before 7 A.M. The snake lay on a groove of the stone lined well, almost touching the water.

Seemingly tired King!

People were already at the well, their eyes gleaming with anticipation to watch if the snake was going to be removed or if I was going to be bitten. In any case the air was filled with palpable excitement.

I had worked my brains the previous night and had come up with a couple of ideas. I first attempted to lower a basket with leaf litter to coax him in. But the King took this object to be an intruder and tried to strike at it continuously. Not wanting to stress him any more, I moved on to my next plan. I requested for a bamboo pole to be placed close to the snake hoping he might take this route, but with a hundred heads peering down, this seemed far fetched too. My last resort was to go in myself.

I lowered a bamboo ladder, which is basically a bamboo pole with sudden small jutting at cross angles acting as steps. Unique to this part of the state, these ladders are used while harvesting areca. Though it requires practice to use one, my situation did not offer much time for that. With my feet on the ladder and grasping on to rough edges of the stone wall I went down almost 25 feet, hardly 5 feet from the serpent! The King by this time was in the water swimming frantically.

Balancing on the ladder and face to face with the king

He suddenly shot up from the surface of the water hooding up and tried to strike. I stood baffled and bewildered. It took a while to register that a snake as heavy as 5kgs could hold its ground on the surface of water and lunge at that speed.

Assessing the King’s attitude, I understood that though the snake was tired, he did have a lot of stamina that could put to shame any of my attempts to approach him. I soon devised an idea to prepare two nooses and use these to retrieve him. Time was running ahead of us and the King was getting stressed. Whatever I had in mind, I now had to execute in as short time as possible. Balancing on the ladder, with a hook in one hand and two nooses in the other, I managed to coax the snake into both the loops. I gently fastened one loop ~70 cm from his head and the other at ~100 cm from his tail. The noose was just steadfast enough to hold the snake (not too tight not too loose), lest he break his vertebrae in his struggle to free himself. I let the snake remain in water and I clambered up the ladder to the mouth of the well. The next step was the most crucial. We had to gently draw him up, release the noose and bag him in seconds (to ensure least stress). After warning to keep a safe distance and ensuring nobody in their excitement messed with things I requested a few volunteers to control the crowd.

Just as planned, with help from Shivraj (a resident) I drew up the snake as quickly as I could. Once out of the well, the snake as expected was quite agitated and seemed to exhaust all his remaining stamina in striking at me to get away. I managed to loosen the nooses and let him free for a while and then bagged him. People were exhilarated, amazed and wore faces of accomplishment.

End of an ordeal...for both!

As for me it was one of the most challenging rescues I had ever carried out and my reward was the safe release of the snake close to the spot of rescue.

Two days later I heard of people spotting another King Cobra close to the same area. Given it was the breeding season, I suspected that these could have been mating pairs. I secretly hoped that their courtship continued far away from human eyes!

In  2010

Five years later – I was called for a rescue and the situation was the same. A King Cobra had fallen into a well, the call came in the evening, people wanted it to be removed in front of them and this King was part of a mating pair! The difference now was that I had rescued over 127 king cobras, was more accepted by people and had been trained in tree climbing.

People had witnessed a male King Cobra chasing a female resulting in her fall into the well. When I reached, the male was still very close by, hiding under fallen logs, probably keeping a watch. That evening I removed the male and promised to return for the female the next morning.

I went back early next morning. I found the female king cobra around 10 feet above water level, resting on a groove of the stone lined wall. I now had to descend a well that was 40 feet deep and just 6 feet wide. Using conventional methods in the most unconventional situations is what I felt innovation and creativity was about. True to this belief, I decided to use my tree climbing skills and equipment to go down the well and retrieve the snake. I thank Tim Kovar of New Tribe (Thanks Tim!) for teaching me the tenets of tree climbing – I got to use these skills in the most unexpected and unorthodox situation.

I used the single rope technique (SRT) and harnessed myself to a tree and then hung from the rope over the bar across the well and went straight down using an ID (an equipment used to descend) to meet the king eye to eye.

Meeting the King

With my feet precariously toed on stone edges I stood diametrically opposite to the slightly tired yet alert snake. Any minuscule error in judgment or movement would take me straight into her mouth.

Prashanth, my colleague lowered a rope with a loop at its end and I used my hook, which was also sent down by a rope to coax the snake into the noose. Though she raised her hood, she played along. To avoid any injuries and suffocation, I further coaxed her to move in so that the noose was at her mid body and fastened it.

Coaxing the king into the noose

A steadfast noose....not too tight, not too loose.

This being the breeding season I also had to keep in mind that she could be gravid. This was one of the reasons to avoid using two nooses as compared to the earlier case.

I then climbed up soon and was back on foot. We now had to pull her up as soon as possible. We did it in less than 20 seconds. Soon, the King was on the wall of the well, staring face to face.

King and I...face to face

Though according to people she seemed thankless, I knew it was only our perception. She was true to what she truly was….a king!  I then released the noose and went on with the standard procedure of bagging the snake.

Conclusion

With over 127 King Cobras rescued so far, the most adventurous and nerve-racking have been the five snakes that were rescued from wells. Each situation has been unique, challenging and has demanded different methods based on the situation.

Concentration, common sense, presence of mind and focus have been key elements in successfully rescuing them.

However, after every rescue it has been quite a task to explain to people that their water is not really poisoned, but nevertheless they prefer to pump the well almost dry, and then to perform rituals to sanctify.

Religion and Rituals, powerful tools for conservation.

I accepted this and have rarely objected – for religious beliefs are one of the strongest (sometimes the weakest too!) conservation tools that we have today that will ensure that the King Cobra survives in these parts of the Western Ghats.

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar | Edited by: Shweta Harish

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This blog was in the offing for a while and is finally seeing the light of day. I would like to start off with a declaration that all posts will be a coordinated effort by Sharmila, my wife and me to reach out to all of you.

Please feel free to candidly share your comments, views and suggestions.

The road to wisdom?-Well, it’s plain and simple to express:
Err and err and err again
but less and less and less.
– Piet Hein, Danish inventor and poet.

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