Courting the king cobra & other fauna

Last Updated 18 June 2012, 20:48 IST

The Rainforest Research Station at Agumbe was set up to primarily focus on the king cobra, but it has also been studying the ecology of the Western Ghats, including rare species of reptiles and amphibians, writes Pavan Kumar H

“While you are in forest: Look, but don’t touch! Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but your footprints.Let not snakes waste venom on you…Whilst in forest, whistle like a loris,” is how a noticeboard at India’s only rainforest research centre welcomes you to its premises at Agumbe. Rules are not meant to be broken at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS).

The Rainforest Research Station was set up in 2005 by India’s well-known herpetologist Romulus Whitaker to study and conserve rainforests through applied ecological research. Agumbe, which receives approximately 10,000 millimetres of rain annually, is home to some unique amphibians and reptiles.

With more than 34 varieties of mammals, 51 species of reptiles, 34 kinds of amphibians, 114 types of butterflies and countless varieties of trees and plants, Agumbe is a natural laboratory for researchers and ecologists.

The primary focus of ARRS was to study the ecology and behavioural pattern of king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah), the world’s longest venomous snake.

The Western Ghats are believed to be the home of king cobras and the forests in and around Agumbe have the highest number of king cobras. In the last five years, researchers at ARRS have found some interesting behavioural patterns of this snake.

The telemetric study on king cobra (2008) where radio transmitters were fitted onto five king cobras, two of which were translocated from human habitat, revealed many truths.

“The telemetric study has given us the advantage of studying king cobra behaviour,” says Siddharth Rao, Field Director, ARRS. “We knew that the king cobra preys on other species of snakes, but during the five years of study, we found that they have cannibalistic and scavenging characteristics as well. They are good at hunting in deep waters and on high trees,” he added.

The major finding of the telemetric programme was about translocation. Moving these snakes to a new location was not a solution to end their conflict with humans. “We are creating more trouble by translocation,” says Ajay Giri, Research Associate at ARRS.

He has been handling the human-snake conflict for the last three years. “By translocation, we are creating more territorial fights. Not just at the translocated place, but also at the evacuated area.” There are chances of transmission of disease by translocated snakes, he adds. A final paper on the five-year telemetric study is being prepared by Romulus Whitaker and Gowri Shankar, former field Director of ARRS.

Studying the Western Ghats

Apart from king cobra, the ARRS has been researching the impact of humans on the Western Ghats. In its research programme on non timber products, Siddharth and his team are looking at the impact caused on ecology due to extraction of forest produce.

“At present we are taking everything from the forest without letting the forest revive them,” says Dheeraj Bhaisare, research associate. “Our endless desire for forest produce has been tampering with the balance of the forest ecology. Our research aims to assert the current impact on the forest and solutions for the same.”

The gliding lizard or draco dussumieri is another unique reptile of the Western Ghats that has caught the attention of researchers at the ARRS. These lizards have the capacity to glide from tree to tree using their skin flaps. “The communication system between male and female dracos is astounding,” says Prameek Kannan, a research intern.

By lifting their dewlap, a narrow flap of greenish-yellow skin under the chin, dracos communicate with each other. Extensive use of antiseptics and other chemicals in the fields are threatening its existence. “Through our studies we are trying to create a win-win situation for both farmers and dracos.

We will inform farmers about using certain methods that can save their produce without harming the dracos,” says Siddharth. Similar research is being carried out on the evolution of golden frogs, nesting behaviour of yellow wattled lapwings (these birds lay their eggs on grasslands), nocturnal behaviour of slender loris, brown palm civets and flying squirrels.

Educating the locals

Research alone cannot conserve the ecology and there is need for the local administration and public to support the cause. Understanding this, ARRS has been delivering lectures at schools and to the general public whenever they get an opportunity. “The thought process of people has changed drastically, after ARRS was set up here,” says a senior forest official posted at Agumbe.

“Earlier, people used to consider sighting of king cobras as a bad omen; they used to kill them, but now after understanding the importance of these snakes, they have stopped killing them.” Panchayat President Mamatha Rao agrees.

(Published 18 June 2012, 13:57 IST)

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