Tracking the king

Tracking the king


Tracking the king

A study initiated to track king cobras at Agumbe’s rainforest research station (ARRS) in Karnataka has provided many insights into the behaviour of the species. Also, the research has strong evidence to substantiate the negative effects of translocation. Snake rescues and extractions from urban areas are carried out without any knowledge of their conservation implications. Also, there is no attempt to check whether the snakes survive in an entirely new space, writes Madhumitha B

Not for nothing are they called king cobras. The reasons are many, and then there is the size of the snake. Intelligence, resilience, power and charisma — the cobra has them all. Years of research have brought to light the fact that these reptiles have several behaviour patterns that are unique to them, underlining the reason for such high veneration accorded to them.

The sheer size of this snake can be intimidating; coupled with that is the powerful neurotoxin it could deliver through its venom. This is a species of snake that will amaze and astonish you at every level. It has the same effect on wildlife biologists who have been studying the species for decades and still seem to find the need to satiate their thirst for knowledge and inquisitiveness.

When a long-term study was initiated, over five years ago, at the Agumbe rainforest research station (ARRS) in Tirthahalli taluk of Shimoga district in Karnataka, researchers were hoping it would answer some of the questions that would give them a closer insight into the life of the king cobra and the challenges the species face. It was not something that was done before with such perseverance. What they got after the many years of collecting and analysing data not only enabled this but also provided vital information that could prove useful while addressing the factors related to conservation of the species.

Radio-tracking five king cobras proved to be a fruitful exercise for the team which now has a plethora of information supporting their efforts to conserve the species while also emphasising on the need to protect its habitat. According to herpetologist and winner of the Whitley award Romulus Whitaker, the most crucial question to which that they felt answers were needed was on the subject of translocation and its effects on the species.

Translocation: How scientific?

Snakes are often translocated to distant locations in an effort to protect the interests of both the reptiles as well as human beings. This is a practice that has become a growing quandary, to say the least, across India. Snake rescues and extractions from urban areas are translocations carried out without any knowledge of their conservation implications. Also, there is no attempt to check whether the snakes survive in an entirely new space.

“We wanted to not just understand but record information on whether such an action could have consequences on the survival of every individual snake that is being translocated. There was no actual data on whether these snakes were being given a hard time or even getting killed after translocation, in a bid to find their way back. The translocated king cobras were definitely trying to find their way back home, just as any species that has lost the usual security of food and water in a familiar territory. The opinion on this subject is unanimous among wildlife biologists who all agree that translocation is not beneficial to any species of wildlife just as it isn’t for king cobras,” said Whitaker who has been studying the behaviour of king cobras for over 30 years, apart from leading the ARRS team with the radio telemetry project on the species for over five years.

The research has strong evidence to substantiate the negative effects of translocation and the report states, “translocated king cobras maybe severely affected as non-translocated snakes have been found to have detailed knowledge of their home range, including secure resting, water sources and burrows that they continue revisiting for resting and shedding.”

The study also turned up interesting behaviour that is unique to this species. Not only have they been observed climbing and foraging on trees, the king cobra has been seen foraging under water as well along with drowning its prey for several minutes. The species has also been recorded to travel long distances in search of mates, covering as much as seven kilometres and above in one direction and in less than a week. This, according to the research, is unique as the species is not known to move in this manner otherwise.

It is also the only snake that builds a nest and remains there till the eggs hatch, guarding them fiercely. This has been observed over the years at Agumbe where the female builds a nest by gathering leaves and does this to protect the eggs from the heavy rainfall of the region while also maintaining an ambient temperature suitable for the eggs to hatch in due course. During this period, she will hardly leave the nest to feed except after the eggs hatch. This is a little known insight into this species of snake that is a symbol of reverence across cultures in the country.

Even today, the cobra is an icon in the religious context and the king cobra is at the top of this chain. And with good reason. Such biology and behaviour that sets it apart is what makes the king cobra an extraordinary species.

Habitat loss — worrisome

On the subject of its conservation status, as such, the king cobra is not categorised as an endangered species, according to Whitaker, but habitat loss is a fairly large threat to the survival of the species and that maybe the single largest cause for concern anywhere, especially with the Western Ghats being under severe pressure. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorised the king cobra as vulnerable. Protecting the rainforests is key for this species.

Even after decades of following king cobras, the longest venomous snake in the world (growing to a length of anywhere between 9 ft and 15 ft), and having immense sensibility into their behaviour, Whitaker continues to be amazed by the species and his respect for this snake has grown. This sentiment is shared by anyone who has ever tracked the king cobra in an attempt to understand them. They seem to have considerable intelligence, looking at the world in an entirely different way. They show incredible restraint when they encounter people and simply want to stay away, never giving a hint that they are aggressive. That can only instill a sense of respect for the species, he feels.

There are hardly any deaths caused by this species of snakes now known to be almost always non aggressive even during encounters with people. Observing the king cobra in the wild is an experience of a lifetime. If one is not already intrigued or fascinated by the world of snakes, a glimpse into the life of the king cobra will change that forever.