This article is written by Nazzareno Miele a facebook friend and joined King Cobra fan, its about his adventure at Agumbe Rainforest in the Western Gaths in India were he met Romules Whitaker and Gowri Shankar to have a life time expierience in seeing King Cobras in their natural envoirment.
SEARCHING FOR THE KING
Some define my passion “disgusting”, some “dangerous”, diplomatics “interesting”, my unusual passion is about reptiles, particuarly snakes. This reportage is written by an herper, the focus are snakes, herping and the obsession for the king cobra: the Holy Grail of herp hobbyst and herpetologist. In february I receive the call for army for the Crusade in the Holy Land (the search for the king in Karnataka): my friend Ruggero (Roger) call me to invite for a travel in India. We will be guests in the research centre that the Indian herpetologist Rom Whitaker is building in Agumbe. The king cobra is THE dream of every herper; only a few can look at it in the wild, but with the “king cobra man” there are chances that the dream comes true: it is absolutely impossible for me to miss this opportunity! I accept the invitation and fly to India. When I land, I wait for a breath of exotic smells : I had so read in guides and reportages, but only warm and high dampness were waiting for me. The first thing I think is that if I had scales, I would like to live in Bombay.
The following day we fly again and we arrive at Mangalore, where a driver is waiting for us to take us towards our destination: Agumbe.
After two hours we reach Agumbe, a small village with 400 people at about 800 metres above sea-level on the Western Ghats (Ghats means “steps”), mountains about 915 metres highs, a line parallel to the cost that creates steep slopes on the Arabic sea and degrades in the fertile cost of Malabar; These mountains are rich in evergreen tropical forests and woods with deciduous plants. They are very rich in fauna and flora, almost 27% of the flower-plants in India, most of them are endemic.
We arrive to the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) where P. Gowri Shankar, researcher and educator, is waiting for us. He is kind and nice towards us, all our stay long. The place is wonderful, in the heart of the forest, near a little plantation of palms and I can not wait to go and search for snakes.
In the centre the preparations are well under way: when we arrive, the workers are repairing the roof. We go herping for a while and, as we come back, the workers show us a worm-snake, Ramphotyphlops braminus. These little snakes are as a maximum 16 cm long, have vestigial eyes and eat exclusively ant larvae and termites. Their scientific name comes from “Brahmin”, a Hindu caste. This Indian snake has colonized a lot of tropical and subtropical regions because it goes as a clandestine in the potting compost of the exported plants: from here the common name “flowerpot snake”. This is the single species known as partogenetic : they are all female specimen that reproduce asexually. After dinner we go herping in the dark on the edge of the wood: we walk about three hours but we do not find anything slithering.
Gowri looks at a lori , talks about animals that it is possible to see in the night and explains that exactly there he met twice a leopard: we do not have to worry about it, because it is not fortunately a ”man eating leopard”. I prefer not to learn in depth the food habits of this elegant feline, however the single signs of its presence here are excrements and claws on a tree.
When we just want to throw up the sponge, I spot my first Indian snake: a young Boiga ceylonensis, a beautiful endemic coluber of Sri lanka, Western Ghats and of the Maharashtra.
The following day, very early, we start our second day of herping. Along the torrent Roger sees a very little Amphiesma beddomei, a Natricinae endemic of the Western Ghats: will be the only snake of the day.
The following day Rom Whitaker comes to control the works in the centre. Whitaker is “the snake man of India”, a worldwide famous herpetologist and the most important expert of kings in the world. Has published several works and has filmed a lot of documentaries, two of them are about the king cobra.
Rom is a friendly and funny person and in listening to his adventure stories is an unforgettable experience. The period of time Rom is together with us, talks about India and Indians, animals, his journeys and his documentaries and he also tells us about the importance of the research centre in order to study the king cobra. I am enchanted of his dream of this research station in the centre of the forest, self-sufficient because of the solar panels in summer and of a hydroelectric station to produce energy in the season of the monsoons. Rom has got a lot of ideas to search for funds and to help people in the village of Agumbe, to let people of the tribes work as guides ( no one knows better forests and animals) ; in this way they do not have to exploit the natural resources of their country to live. He is sure that it is the unique possibility to save the forest, the animals and his great love: the king cobra.
Rom tells us that he choose Agumbe as base station because it is the ideal habitat of the king cobra and also because in 1971 he met there his first king: while he was camping in the forest, he could just see a very fast snake hiding in a bush; he thought it was a ratsnake and after capturing it by the tail, he heard a strange growl ….. he raised his eyes and sighted a king that was looking at him up and down : I would not have been in the same situation!
Explains that the ground where the centre is situated belonged to a Brahman : the presence of little temples in the area is an evident sign. Rom collected the necessary money to build the centre thanks a prize offered by the “Whitley Fund For Nature” because of his engagement in the protection of the rainforest. In the afternoon we decide to go herping near the centre. Rom advices to go round the pond, where we could find something interesting. Though the little pond was my favourite place, I did not have explored carefully its perimeter, because I was afraid of spattering with mud my bright sandals. This time I decide to face frogs and tadpoles and I happily sink in the mud following the advise of the “India snake man”… my second sighting! It is a beautiful male specimen of Trimeresurus malabaricus.
We receive later the first warning for a king cobra: a specimen had been seen in the village. We arrive there in few minutes, between the houses and the wood, but unfortunately the cobra is not waiting for us. We mount a search, but we can not find it. Thanks to this warning, we have an idea of the habitat where it is easier to find a king: near the houses and in half built up areas. That is why in these areas they find their favourite preys (ratsnakes)
Gowri tells us that in the last two years, in Agumbe, he had met Ophiophagus hannah only four times in the forest, but he had frequently found the animals in these half built up areas, mostly thanks to signals of the natives.
After a rescue in a school, when we come back to Agumbe, some guys take us to a garden where a cobra had been seen. We look around for a while and we see a big head of Naja naja from a hole at the base of a tree. We can not take it out: the owners of the ground are very religious and are afraid we could hurt the snake. After a few hours, they tell us that the snake went out of the hiding-place; we run in order to look for it.
Gowri finds it in a warm place, in a hen-house under a hen. He grabs the snake by the tail and explains that the Naja naja are not difficult to handle: grab the snake by the tail and let it swing, when it makes an attempt to get on hand, put it on the ground, but raise it on high again, when it comes near feet.
We would like to leave the cobra far from the houses, but we are not allowed because the owners want the cobra to stay in their garden. Rom tells us that the owners know that the animal is deadly, but they believe it will not bite them. The cobra has a particular meaning in the Hindu symbolism and they believe that worshippers of this animal will never be bitten.
The following days we go out for walks in the rice-fields, in the forest and along the rivers; we find only some snake shedding. We know well that it is not easy to find snakes in nature, but we are in any case happy because we met a boiga, a cobra, a viper and some other little snakes. If we could see an Ophiophagus Hannah, India would give us a wonderful present.
In the meantime we have another signalling for a king, just in the suburbs of Agumbe : we reach the place as soon as possible, but we only take a lot of ticks.
Gowri decides to let us visit the places he had found nests of king the previous years.
We first stop in a village where we meet an old snake- hunter: this strange man, who had only a few teeth in his mouth, had captured a lot of king in his life. The last one just the day before, just our luck!
Then we visit a wonderful forest and Gowri shows us the place where in 2004 a female king cobra had been seen while it was building a nest. Only the king (and Pituophis) build their nests. Someone thinks that a female goes away a few days before the birth because it does not want to eat the young snakes; on the contrary, our guide believes that babies are too small to whet mother’s appetite.
Gowri tells us that he had built a hiding-place just in front of the nest. For almost two months he had observed the behaviour of the female from the building of the nest to the birth of hatchlings. When I read Gowri’s annotations, I was surprised in learning that the average incubation temperature is only 24°C. Breeders often make the mistake to incubate the eggs at very high temperatures . This causes backbone’s and head’s deformations.
Gowri likes the ophidians a lot: one day he told us: “I dream of snakes, live of snakes, breathe snakes”.He dedicated his life to the study of the king : not many people would spent two months to observe the behaviour of a snake in a poor hiding-place in the forest, in the period of the monsoons, when the humidity in the air is 100%.
While we are coming back, we visit a farmer, Gowri’s friend , who loves snakes. A week before our arrival he had captured a king; in his life he had captured more than 30.
We feel that cobra are always surrounding us, but we can find none!
In the evening, a telephone call informs us that a king had been seen. Maybe we will be lucky.
We go by car and we hope that we can find something. A lot of people are waiting for us: it is a good omen! They tell us that a big cobra was on the edge of the road. It was afraid of people, that is why it had taken shelter on a tree. Other people had come and see the show, but this time, the frightened snake had taken shelter into a plastic pipe.
First Gowri and then Roger bent down and turned the ray of the torch towards a hole of the pipe …IT IS A KING! From the bottom of the pipe we can see an enormous, unmistakable beautiful BIG head of a king cobra! At last we meet a king ! Gowri ties a sack at the end of a pipe, so that he can kindly let the snake slide inside after having teased it with a long bamboo cane.
We live in a state of great tension ….. but the night has come and only the following day, with the help of the rangers, we will free the king. In the morning, we wake up early: we are anxious to see the animal at the sunlight. To look at it, we run so many kilometres. We arrive at the research centre, but in few minutes we receive another call : a big cobra has come into an house. We hoped it was another king, but it is impossible to find two kings within a few hours!
In half an hour we reach the destination, a beautiful villa at the edge of a plantation. The proprietors receive us kindly; we come in and just at the entrance, under the shoe cabinet, between slippers and shoes, we find a cobra, a big cobra: IT IS ANOTHER KING!
After ten days of unsuccessful researches, we find now, in less than 12 hours, 2 kings: perhaps the drizzling rain of the previous day had let the snakes come out and our dreams come true! Adult kings are too big to put them into the bag by bagging. Gowri tries to pull the snake into the bag by tubing: a technique that Gowri and Rom improved by experience; it consists in introducing a part of a plastic pipe into a bag and putting everything on the ground, possibly along the edge of a wall, or simulating an entrance of a “ hiding place “ with some stones, trunks, or other materials that fasten the tube. In this case the king cobra will mistake the tube for a den and it will come into the bag of its own free-will; the previous night had happened the same, without human help.
But this cobra is more cunning than we expected because it does not want to enter into the bag. The king got annoyed and jumped suddenly; it went out of the shoe cabinet and it rose for almost a metre from the ground : it wanted us to remember it was the king. Our first face to face with a hood of Ophiophagus hannah is not too bad : I will remember that storm of adrenalin for ever. Gowri understands that is more careful to let the cobra come out from the house, so he grab its tail and carries the kalinga outside, where he is able to let the snake enter into the bag at last,thanks to the well-known technique of the tubing.
Gowri is the ideal man for this job, not only because he is an expert of king, an able handler of venomous snakes and he is willing to accept any condition to work together with these animals, but also because he is a good talker , in fact he can properly talk to the natives: explains, laughs and jokes with them. He is very nice and turns out likeable to all and the natives know him. He is aware that only in such a way he can be sure to be contacted in case of new encounters with snakes on the side of the population! Every time he captures and subsequently sets a king free, he records the locality of release with a device gps, weights the animal and notes down every sensitive data and this time does not represent sure the exception.
We go into the rangers’office with the inhabitants of the house. All the animals are protected in India since 1972 from the Indian Wildlife Act, and also the king cobras cannot be captured and set free without the supervision of the ranger. The ranger is happy to show the foreigners the way of working in India and, after a cup of tea, we go and set the king free far away from the inhabited centre, in the middle of a forest. After making a note of the collected data, Gowri sets the snake free; the speed is indeed amazing : this majestic animal of beyond three meters disappears among the leaves in a fraction of a second.
In the afternoon, before setting the other king free, we carry the cobra in an open space for a photographic service. I have only a small 50mm lens that takes me close to the snake, but I do not have anything to be afraid of : the two greatest kings’ experts in the world, Rom and Gowri, attend to my safety.
Gowri and Rom tell us that the specimens we found are two males: they understand it from the fair colour and from the shape of the head: it is enormous. Gowri shows us some photos of very beautiful black females with yellow bands, and he explains that, probably, the darkest colour is useful for the female to take more heat for the incubation of the eggs; the males, evidently, do not have the same need.
The kings have also another peculiarity: unlike other snakes that emit a hissing sound, if they are annoyed emit a deep murmuring like a dog growl. This murmuring is produced by the tracheal diverticulum that works like a low frequency resounding chamber.
The king can raise from the ground until to a third party of their length and, . unlike other cobras, when they are straight can also crawl forward and attack: we noticed that during the photographic session.
Our hosts explain that the kings, when bite, chew a lot and the more they chew the most is the poison they are able to inject. For this reason, in bite case, it is necessary to try to open the mouth without pulling the animal because it could chew with more violence.
When we feel satisfied with the photos, we set the king free. This specimen disappears quickly in the forest, too. The shy character of this animal, that would rather escape when it is possible, bites nearly exclusively if grabbed.
In the evening we meet another slithering little animal: the people who are working on the restructure of the centre call us because they have sighted a snake. We follow them and Gowri seizes in a bush a specimen of Xenocrophis piscator. a very common Natricinae, famous for its “ferocity”.
In the evening we talk with Rom about the king. He tells us that the classification of this species will change. In fact the specimens are very different and new studies and researches will let us know much more about the behaviour of this wonderful animal. The research centre in Agumbe will play a very important role with Romulus Whitaker and Gowri’s guidance
In the morning we get up early in order to find as soon as possible our third king cobra, when we receive another call, more urgent than the previous one: a king had fallen in a well not far from there. We catch up the sink, but unfortunately it does not deal with an Ophiophagus hannah: it is a big specimen of Naja naja. The elapid keeps still and lies on its back. I think it is dead, but Gowri quickly understands that it is alive: it has the head supported on the belly and it is immovable because it is very tired.
After several efforts with rope and hook, Gowri can pull it up: the specimen is really big, male, and weights 2 kg at least.
During the last two days in Agumbe we receive other calls for kings but we do not see other snakes. On 26.th March, we are satisfied for the incredible experience, but also sad because we have to greet the kindest Gowri, the quiet Agumbe, its charming forest and all the king cobras that live there. After a day in Mangalore and a night in Bombay we catch a plane for Milan, where the usual March climate is waiting for me.
After months, I often come back with my fantasy on the Western Ghats. I think of my long walks in the rice-fields or in the edge of the forest or around the small pond behind the research centre; it will remain for ever in my mind the sight of the majestic king cobra, and I still ear its deep growl. This experience with Roger, Gowri and Rom has been the most amazing one of my life. I hope that mine has not been a farewell, but only a good bye to the ARRS and my Indian friends, the Ophiophagus hannah, and all the amazing herpetofauna of that charming country that is India.