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Posts Tagged ‘king cobra’

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.

SIZE

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

HOODS

Common Cobra: Broad ;  King Cobra: Narrow

COLOUR AND MARKING

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

SCALES 

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

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

FOOD

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.

REPRODUCTION

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

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Gowri Shankar and Snake Shyam

Date: 28 and 29th of Jan 2012. Place Mysore

Conducted by P. Gowri Shankar and Snake Shyam

Every professional is bound to tackle a set of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) and so do I. Questions such as ‘Aren’t you scared?’, ‘What should I do when I see a snake?’, ‘I want to handle snakes, will you teach me?’ and ‘Will you allow me to touch a king cobra?’ ! ; followed by a tale of “One day I saw a snake…….” Then there are ‘snake rescuers’ who exude great confidence, some out of right knowledge some due to ignorance, who of course can do better with a push in the right direction. Hence this one of a kind workshop took shape to answer all these questions and more.  The aim was to address basic ethics and right techniques of rescue, relocation and captive management of snakes.

The workshop attracted people from diverse backgrounds from full time snake rescuers, PhD students, software professionals, wildlife biologists, to photographers. Their reasons to enrol was just as diverse, some wanted to act instead of being mute spectators to snake killings, some who had handled non-venomous snakes  now wanted to start rescuing venomous ones and few others who had already rescued venomous snakes  wanted to get trained professionally.

Drill before the grill

We kick started the day with an introductory session on snakes. As all participants had filled out a questionnaire prior to the workshop it helped in understanding their levels. We then delved deep into topics on rescue, relocation and captive management.

‘Rescuing snakes’ is a very subjective term, and the way I interpret is in the interest and welfare of the snake more than anything else. Hence a point that I stressed very heavily was to ‘NOT CATCH SNAKES BY THE NECK’ unless absolutely necessary (in cases when other methods are actually stressing the snake or when there is absolutely no time to try other methods). I have seen snakes caught by neck refusing to eat for several days and one king cobra did not accept food for 95 days. Though catching by neck may give an adrenaline rush and display heroism it does more harm to the snake and risks the rescuer’s life!

Demonstrating how to use a snake hook

Hence we discussed other effective methods like ‘Butterfly net’ capture techniques, baggers, pipe and bag technique introduced by snake rescuer Anees Mohammed(from Bangalore).

The Bagger Technique

We then introduced snake hooks, baggers, snake bags (various sizes for different species) and showed how to use, clean, and keep them handy.

Not many realize that the first phone call to rescue a snake is the best opportunity for the rescuer to gather as much information, brief about steps they need to take and calm the caller. If practiced well it can save lot of time, effort and energy.

Attending live rescue calls was a pioneering idea that I conceptualized and it turned out to be a showstopper of the workshop.  Each rescue call is unique, understanding the perspective of the caller, public, rescuers and figuring out how to retrieve a snake from unique situations is what I hoped every participant would learn ;And doing this with the master himself is like icing on the cake.  Snake Shyam is an expert who has rescued and documented rescue data of over 22,000 snakes. One can imbibe a great deal from just watching him. Omer Kaiser from XTrails Expeditions http://www.xtrailsexpeditions.in/mtb.html  was kind enough to sponsor a vehicle and everyone got a chance to witness Snake Shyam handle the rescue operation.

At the rescue site, discussing methods to retrieve a snake

We rescued a sand boa and a cobra on the two calls that we attended. He made sure all understood the basic ethic of ‘NOT CATCHING AND/OR TRANSLOCATING A SNAKE IF IT COULD BE SAFELY LEFT WHERE IT IS FOUND’. He also showed how one could use this opportunity to educate public about snakes and encourage them to understand and tolerate snakes around. As Rom says “A big part of the problem could be resolved by teaching people to identify snakes and to tolerate, or even encourage the non-venomous varieties to stick around.”

Identifying snakes is very crucial for any snake handler. Participants were taught safe methods of identification through scale counts using restraining tubes and encouraged to use field books.

Participants engrossed in learning the scale count method of identifying snakes

 It is quite ironic that many rescuers still have fancy explanations when asked about the sex of the snake. I was once asked by the director of a zoo, ‘Why are these snakes not breeding even after keeping them together for two years?’, and when I sexed them I found both to be males! He got his answer. Though there is sexual dimorphism in few snakes it requires one to be trained to identify. Hence sexing the snake is very important but at the same time should be done very carefully.

Soon after the rescue many rescuers bring rescued snakes home and keep them for reasons which are more absurd than reasonable; like, calling friends and relatives to take a look, pose for pictures and some really weird excuses stating the snake’s (a common cobra’s or a rat snake’s)tail is too thin …so may be a new species! All snakes are protected under the Wildlife Act, two pythons and egg-eating snake are listed under Schedule I; the king cobra, common cobra, Russell’s viper, rat snake, dog-faced water snake, checkered keelback, and olive keelback under Schedule II and the rest fall under Schedule IV. In other words no snake can be caught, kept or translocated without the permission from the Forest Department.

Session on captive management

If a snake rescuer has been identified and granted permission to rescue and keep snakes, he should be trained in captive management of snakes. This demands good understanding of the species and an uncompromising attitude towards proper care.

Participants cleaning up terrariums

One needs to keep in mind that rescued snakes should be brought to captivity only if its condition is serious enough to warrant medical intervention and if the condition is too serious then it is best left to the veterinarian to attend to the snake. Participants were shown how to shift snakes, feeding protocols to follow, cleaning and maintaining terrariums.

This workshop has been a breakthrough and people across the country have come forward to collaborate to conduct such camps in their respective states. Gerry Martin http://www.gerrymartin.in/workshops.html) from Bangalore and Nirmal Kulkarni (http://goawildwatch.blogspot.com) from Goa already conduct herpetology camps and workshops which are good avenues for interested individuals. More such professional workshops will prove as a boon for rescuers and snakes.

Sitting: Snake Shyam; Standing: Shankar, Laurel ,Chaitanya,Gowri Shankar, Madhusudhan Shukla, Shivu,Arun Singh, Prashanth,Vinay, Omar,Anwar ; On the jeep: Mahesh, Snake Shyam's son, Jagadeesh, Ashwini, Pooja,Suhas, Vijay; Not in picture: Barkha, Suresh DN, Shashank, Nagendra, Anand, Sonu,Yagnesh

I believe, promoting right knowledge to right people at the right time will foster right attitudes towards snake rescue and relocation!

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Shivu and Prashanth for their support during the workshop.

Next workshop:

@ Mysore  on the   31st  March & 1st April 2012

If you are interested please write to me at :

gowrishankar.pogiri@gmail.com

References:

  • Das, A., Nair, M.V., Gosh, S. and Mahanta, N. 2005. Protocol followed for rehabilitation of Burmese rock pythons (Python murlurus bivitatus) in Assam state zoo. In: Back to the Wild: Studies in wildlife rehabilitation. Ed: Vivek, M., Ashraf, NVK, Panda, PP. and Mainkar, K. Wildlife Trust of India, New Delhi.
  • IUCN, 2002. IUCN Guidelines for the Placement of Confiscated Animals. Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge,
  • Miller, E.A. (Ed.), 2000. Minimum standards for wildlife rehabilitation. International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council and National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, St. Cloud, MN. 77 pages.
  • Shine, R. and Koenig, J. 2001. Snakes in the garden: An analysis of ‘reptiles’ rescued by community-based wildlife carers. Biological Conservation. 102: 271-283
  • White, J. 1993. Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation (Editor: Louse Shimmel). International Wildlife Rehabilitation. C.A. pp 1-10.
  • http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2002-004.pdf
  • Warrel, David A. Guidelines for the management of snake-bites
  • Notes on rescue capture and translocation of snakes for WTI workshop Kaziranga, Assam, February, 2008, Rom Whitaker.
  • Follow the IUCN protocol on the placement of confiscated animals for an appropriate decision on the resolution of snakes confiscated from charmers and traders (IUCN, 2002).

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

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Way back in 2002, it was my good friend (Late.)Raju who sparked my interest to explore the Eastern Ghats for King Cobras. But this idea lay dormant till I met a few volunteers from KANS (Kenneth Anderson Nature Society: http://www.kans.org.in) who introduced me to Mr.Ramanamurthy, Director, Green Mercy. Green Mercy is an NGO at Srikakulum District that has been rescuing and rehabilitating domestic and wild animals for over 15 years now. That is how my trail led me to Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh this time.

The Eastern Ghats beckons

King cobras hold a special charm and have lured me as far as I can remember but to say Andhra Pradesh has probably charmed me much before is not an exaggeration. As a child I spent my summer holidays here and hold many pleasurable memories that I cherish.  One such memory is of my uncles narrating descriptive stories of how tribals secretly lived in the mountains and descended once in a while to shop. This created a sense of mystery which I was so eager to solve. I was finally here with the same mystical and adventuristic feeling to exclusively look for king cobras and maybe encounter the tribes too.

Between 2009 and 2011 three king cobras were reportedly killed in Srikakulam District. My plan was to visit these places to check the habitat, meet witnesses, understand people’s perception and fathom the gravity of the situation.

Interacting with a local along with Mr.Ramanamurthy(sporting a cap) and KLN Murthy(holding a bag)

We zeroed in on Seethampeta and Gangammapeta, where the kings were killed earlier. These villages are part of the Eastern Ghats that stretch up to Orissa. The terrain is a mixture of mountains and plains.

A news clipping of the king cobra killed in April 2011

First, we visited Gangammapeta where a king was killed just months ago in April 2011. Another king cobra was reportedly killed in 2009 at the same place.

I was eager to get first hand information and waited to speak to people who were involved in the act. This meant I needed to win their confidence. My knowledge of the local language and mentioning about my family’s association (My mom’s village is just 8km from here) with the place did the trick.

People readily opened up and narrated the story quite enthusiastically. I was told that the snake was spotted moving along a fence and then moved into a building used to store firewood and had coiled up.

The dilapidated building where the king had sought refuge

A huge snake such as this certainly attracts attention and within minutes the whole village had gathered to watch it. The king cobra obviously panicked and moved out of the building and that was when this 12 footer was killed with a stick and later burnt.

A sad story for me but a heroic one for many there! However I was happy that they agreed not to kill the next time they see one and instead call for rescue.

Our next stop was at Seethampeta where a king was killed in 2009. I did not get a chance to meet the people here but visited the Government Science College in Srikakulam where the Green Mercy team had preserved the specimen in formalin. I had hoped to collect a sample from this for DNA analysis. And this meant I needed some formalin. Our look out for this chemical turned out to be one hilarious and memorable event that day.

We had already checked more than eight pharmaceuticals in town and were turned down saying they did not have any such ‘ointment’ or ‘tonic’! We finally came to ‘Venu’s Surgical’ a well stocked pharmaceutical in town. I waited in the car while KLN Murthy (a MSc graduate with good knowledge about the natural history of the place who joined me on this trip along with Mr.Ramanamurthy) approached them. We were lucky that they stocked it but being a restricted drug they refused to sell it over the counter. They brushed Murthy off and remained glued to the TV watching ‘Secrets of the King Cobra’ translated in Telugu! Our man, Murthy immediately asked if they would sell him the chemical if he introduced the person in that documentary (‘Me’) to them. They obviously thought this guy was crazy and agreed. He then asked me to come over. Totally unaware I went ahead and then saw what the term ‘jaw drop’ meant! Not only were they shocked, thrilled and excited to talk to me they happily sold us the formalin that night. A memorable incident which will stay with us all our lives. The king at the college looked quite big and I felt his head was much bigger than that of an average sized king found in Agumbe.

King cobra killed at Seethampeta in 2009

I was not lucky enough to see a live one during this visit. Until now we believed that king cobras preferred areas with heavy rainfall and high humidity but this visit changed this perception altogether. It would be very interesting to study how kings survive under these dry climatic conditions and in shrub forests.

Areas where king cobras have been sighted

Before leaving, I met Mr. Thayoub, Deputy Conservator Forests, a very courteous and enthusiastic gentleman. Looking at the enthusiasm of the forest department, people and with support from NGOs like Green Mercy, we are very keen to initiate projects in the coming year.

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

Edited by: Shweta Harish

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It is that time of the year again, when one of the most interesting events in nature unfurls in the Western Ghats. I am talking about female king cobras building their nests. As I write this, these snakes have either zeroed in on the location or are eagerly looking out for one right now!

King cobra breeding season starts from early February when males seek females who leave their scent (pheromones) behind. Most often more than one male vies for a female resulting in male combat and the triumphant male gets to mate.

Male combat-a sort of wrestling match where each one tries to subdue the other by pushing the head to the ground

Courtship lasts anywhere between 5 minutes to 2 hours and continues for days during which they mate multiple times. In 2007 I observed pairing for up to 30 days.

Courtship followed by mating:The male nudges the female by gently moving over her and the female displays submissive behavior by spreading her hood after which they mate

 After this the male leaves and the gravid female moves in search for a place to build her nest. Males do not play any role in building or guarding the nest. Typically females are ready to lay eggs by the last week of April. For the five years that I have been studying king cobras at Agumbe I have seen sixteen nests and most of them were found between 22nd and 26th of April (which means this week!). I was lucky enough to observe four females in action.

Females typically select a slope close to a tree with adequate shade. Considering Agumbe receives more than 8000mm of rainfall annually, this selection makes sense as, a slope guarantees the flow down of rain water preventing any stagnation, the buttress ensures a strong base and the shade ensures regulation of sunlight and decelerates rain drops before falling on the nest.

Nest under dappled sunlight

It is not until one appreciates how a limbless creature can build a well engineered nest that one realizes how our hands destroy natures wonders so unmindfully. The female gathers leaf litter (from a radius of 3-5m) in tight coils and slowly but steadily deposits them together. She repeatedly moves into it to tighten and pack the leaves firmly. Once the nest is around 30cm tall and 3feet wide she moves in to lay her eggs.

Female carrying leaf litter after looping them within with her coils

In nests observed around Agumbe, the clutch size varies from 23 to 43 eggs. The female then comes out and continues to build till the nest is about 4 feet tall. She generally stays on the nest and guards it for 12- 15 days. In one case in 2008 the female was present on the nest till the 27th of May, which is the longest record we have observed around Agumbe. During this entire nesting period the females rarely feed. Incubation period varies between 90 to 113 days; incubation temperature varies between 24-28 C and humidity between 55-90%.

The first time I witnessed a king cobra on a nest was at Coorg (informed by Snake Shyam from Mysore). As always the inherent curiosity of humans had gotten the better of them and the nest lay disturbed. It was heart wrenching to see the female painstakingly working to cover the nest with the scattered leaf litter to protect the eggs from the downpour.

Eggs lay exposed after the nest was disturbed by locals

Installing a board at a nest site requesting people not to disturb

Though people revere king cobras in the Malnad region of the Western Ghats they certainly do not favor a king cobra nest with 40 eggs anywhere close to their homes. Hence they prefer shooing the female away, or disturb the nests and some go to the extremes of burning the nests down.

Unprecedented developmental activities leading to dwindling habitats is already impacting the survival of this species and if entire nests are burned down it is hard to imagine what we stand to lose. At the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station we embarked on the study of wild king cobras and their habitats. Over these years we have monitored several nests and involved local students who are the custodians of these forests.

Local student monitoring a king cobra nest

 This community based research approach has been a success and we have released over 400 hatchlings back to wild, with a success rate of 98%. Now one needs to keep in mind that typically in reptiles out of every clutch only one or two reach adult hood.

Apart from Agumbe we are now networking with other states where king cobras are found to study and conserve them. In 2009 I visited Uttarakhand and monitored a nest along with Manish Rai who is doing remarkable work with king cobras there.

Female king cobra guarding her nest at Uttarakhand

These king cobras build their nests in June and females stay on the nest for longer periods as compared to their counterparts in the Western Ghats.

This year I visited Thrissur, Kerala and met Dr.Nameer, Professor at the College of Forestry with whom we hope to tie up to monitor nests this year. In the coming months I will be visiting Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram and a few North Eastern states to unravel the secrets hidden in their folds.

True to Benjamin Franklin’s words I believe “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

PS: Watch out for the post on hatching …..When it is time!

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

Edited by: Shweta Harish & Manoj

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A trip to the Sundarbans was on my ‘to visit’ list for a long time. Its snaky appearance on map and presence of king cobras and tigers had always evoked a mysterious fervor.

Sundarbans calling....

A wedding invite from my friend Nandita Mondal at Calcutta pressed that trigger and ceased the inertia.  I was already booking tickets along with my childhood friend Jagadeesh who usually accompanies me on such wild explorations.  Another friend Bikramaditya Guha Roy, an avid wild-lifer from ‘Nature Mates’, (http://www.naturemates.org/home.html) an NGO doing impressive work in Calcutta immediately stepped in to help out and set the ball rolling for an adventure that got me counting days.  Sharmila, my wife having just entered her ninth month of pregnancy I wanted to be back much ahead of her due date.

On the 16th of November bags packed, last minute shopping done, we were excited to board our train at 8pm. The last task for the day was a visit to the gynecologist (Dr.Swetha, also Sharmila’s cousin) for a routine checkup. With just an hour left to board the train, the routine checkup turned into a little tsunami of events, where Sharmila started showing signs of going into labor; totally unprepared we were left in a whirl of emotions and confusions. The trip was canceled…….and excitement turned its course!

On the 17th at 11:57 am our baby boy kicked his way into our world. As I held his fragile body and stared into his beady eyes, I realized that there could be nothing in this world that could surpass the joy of holding one’s new born. I was now a father and was on top of the world!

Tattwavit, our baby boy

The next day as our excitement started to mellow down with practicalities of caring for a new born, I was in for another surprise—-again from Sharmila. Knowing well about my excitement for the Sundarbans trip and efforts taken by our friend Guha in organizing my visit she made an unexpected un-lady like suggestion. She asked me to go ahead with the trip and said she could manage things; my love and respect grew bounds and I realized there was indeed a woman behind every man’s success!

With the mystery land beckoning and luring us all over again our trip was back on.  We received a warm ‘Calcutta Welcome’ and as it is said that people make its country, the hospitality extended was truly appreciable. The city had an old world charm, reminded especially by trams that ran crisscross on main roads amidst chaotic traffic and we almost got killed twice. It was interesting to find ponds in the backyard of almost every home and I was told this was to rear fish which was part of their staple diet. That evening I addressed a group of enthusiastic students and amateur wild lifers about king cobras.

All ears and eyes during the talk

The potpourri of questions that followed gave a glimpse into the potential that remains untapped in these youngsters.

Having lived in the seclusion of jungles for years, cities are always a put off and I instinctively strive to either avoid or getaway soon. The next morning we were finally off to the Sundarbans. This world’s largest delta earns its name from the Sundari trees that are found in abundance here.  Formed by the confluence of the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghana rivers, these mangrove forests are listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

 

A boat stranded, awaiting high tides to resume sailing

Life here is governed by the rise and fall in tides and it is host to maximum number of tigers (as per an unofficial record, 270 were counted in 2004; however scientists working here claim only 100-120 tigers. Serious efforts are needed to get exact numbers.)

These forests are home to a variety of wildlife including king cobras and salt water crocodiles. My main interest was however in king cobras and having heard that estuarine king cobras found here were smaller in size, agile and more aggressive compared to their likes in the Western Ghats, my quest was to learn about their habitat, prey base, and adaptations for survival in these mangrove forests.

Fifty two islands form the archipelago in the delta. Our plan was to cover Kalash Island and the Lothian Island, both considered reptile havens. Twelve of us boarded the Lakshmikanthapur local from Sealdah station to reach Joynagar. We sat atop a jeep with groceries and chicken needed for the next three days and finally reached Kaikhali where our boat and our guide Mr.Mrinal were waiting.

 

On our way to Kaikhali

The boat reminded me of the good old Ambassador car. There were two levels; the lower level with cots and a kitchen and the upper level had a roofed sitting area. It was admirable to see a western and an Indian toilet in the boat, but to know that it opens out into the water below us was a little discomforting. Solar lights were used for lighting.

Our Abode...our boat!

The boat men were to prepare our lunches and dinners and though my Hindi could make any Hindi speaking person laugh these guys did not care a smile!

The Suite!

The weather was pleasant, air crisp and our hopes high! The next ten hours went in discussions with students, interacting with fishermen, buying fish off passing boats and preparing delicious fish fry (which was the only snack), and of course enjoying the view.

Enjoying the view and hashing out at the sitting area.

Several birds like Common sand piper(Actitis hypoleucos), Lesser adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus), Greater thick knee(Esacus recurvirostris), Brown-winged kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera), Black-capped kingfisher (Halcyon pileata), Collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybridus), Brown-headed gull(Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) dotted the shores, wild boars (Sus scrofa) rummaged under cover, and though a good place for sighting salt water crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus: known to grow up to 23 ft and weigh close to a ton, it is the largest reptile alive on earth) we did not spot any.

Fishermen often spot tigers swimming across these waters but we were not lucky enough that day. Twenty-five species of snakes including, Common cobra (Naja naja), Monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia), Banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus), Common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Wall’s Sind krait (Bungarus sindanus walli) Hook nosed sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa), Annulated sea snake (Hydrophis cyanocinctus) and four more species of sea snakes are found in these waters. En route we visited a crocodile breeding center on Bhagbhatpur Islands. Every year the forest department here breeds hundreds of salt water crocodiles and releases them in wild. Crocodiles varying in size from yearlings/hatchlings to 13 ft adults were present at the center.

We finally reached Kalash Island at 6pm in the evening. A nine feet gate stood tall and as soon as the boat was anchored we were asked to move fast into the gated forest guest house.  Tigers here have a reputation of being very aggressive. Just days ago a tiger attempted to attack a boat man at this very gate; luckily for the boat man the tiger  unmindful of the fence in between smashed into it and moved away to the forest. With us caged in, while beasts roamed free, roles here seemed to be reversed.

Decent accommodation with three tents, two cottages, and clean toilets amidst a man made park is open to visitors. I wondered how challenging it would have been to carry materials on small boats to build these structures at such a place. After a sumptuous dinner of rice, fish curry and fish fry few of us went for a night walk. We spotted few skitter frogs and a dog faced water snake foraging in burrows looking for crabs.

 

Frog

Interesting crab

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night all hit the bed in the lap of tiger country.

We set sail very early the next morning and after nine hours reached Lothian Islands. The boat was anchored, we stepped on an embankment and walked past the slushy bank with mud-skippers skirting around. Out of the ‘Big Four’ venomous snakes of India, the Common Cobra(Naja naja), Russell’s viper(Daboia russelii) and Common krait(Bungarus caeruleus) are known to occur here and on our arrival a freshly shed skin of a Common cobra(Naja naja) was found in the toilet at the guest house.

Since walking in these forests was allowed, the group spread out with their heads peering into crevices and holes looking for snakes. Though several shed skins of snakes were retrieved, we were not lucky enough to spot any live animal.  Time running against us we started back to Kalash Island in the afternoon and on the way back visited Bali.

 

A typical house in Bali

Houses here had a pond in front of their homes  and it was really interesting to see adult goats just two feet tall.

 

Believe it or not...thats an adult goat in Bali

Stunningly beautiful snake with clear checkered marks

At the same place we visited a resort, where we spotted a Checkered Keelback snake. We also visited the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) field station and learned about their commendable work with people and tigers. People here had spotted a tiger swimming in the morning and we missed it by a good 3 hrs.

During our journey back there were more than two instances where we had to stall due to low tides and wait for high tides to get us moving.  With no GPS and no land marks I wondered how these boat men were able to navigate around. We were brought back to the safety of the forest department tents at Kalash Islands even on the darkest of nights.

 

The gung ho gang!

On this quest to learn about king cobras I never missed any opportunity to find signs, interact with forest guards and people to gather more information. King cobras found here were supposedly very aggressive and not easy to spot. People fear these snakes and recently a king was killed by forest officials at the forest guest house.  Insights into this unique habitat and their sundry prey base were fascinating. In line with my study on breeding biology of king cobras in the Western Ghats I am now very curious to know about their nesting behavior in these mangrove forests. With practically no studies on these reptiles here, it will be a while before we start getting answers.

 

Homeward bound

My trip to the Sundarbans though shortened by time, was I would say a good one. Though we did not get to spot many animals, a peek into other aspects of life in this part of the country was a revelation. Being a unique habitat for king cobras I am sure I will be back soon to unravel their secretive lives here. All set to go back to my family, it is a promise to come back with them on my next trip.

 

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

 

 

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