Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XX No. 4, Aug 2000 and The Hemispheres Vol.1, No. 2
We were filming two male king cobras engaged in combat in the damp forests of Agumbe when one suddenly turned and headed straight for Rom. Caught on the wrong foot and unable to move, he chose to stand still. The king cobra shot past between his legs and just as everyone was beginning to draw a relieved breath, the snake turned around behind him and latched onto the seat of Rom’s jeans. In the absolute silence, everyone could hear the sound of its teeth ripping through the fabric, besides their own hearts thudding in their ears. And then the snake was off again, to continue with his battle without even grazing the skin of Rom’s posterior. Rom still maintains that it was his Levi’s that saved his ass!
When Romulus Whitaker and I decided to work together on a film, the subject was already chosen. Novices in the field, we had to get a toehold in the business. The only creature we could think of that nobody else had made a film on, and was so unique that only we would be in a position to pull it off, was the king cobra. It was also the only creature at that time on which Rom wanted to make a film. His relationship with the species stretching over a long period of time and he has had several encounters with them in the wild and in captivity. So 'King Cobra', the film, was woven around these episodes.
There were a few notes on its courtship behaviour written by colleagues in the Madras Snake Park and others in U.S. zoos. But aside from this, there was precious little we could find. So we had to start from scratch. We put the word out all along the Western Ghats from Goa to Kerala that any information on their nests. The two years that followed was a period of intense education for me. It was my first encounter with the wilds of India, let alone king cobras. We stayed with friends or at forest bungalows in various National Parks; where hospitality was unavailable, we camped in the forest. To me, the last option was very unnerving. Spooked by stories of other people's misadventures, my perception of the forest was of a frightful monster ready to grab me when I was the least aware. My uneasiness probably irritated Rom no end but he was accommodating. The worst time (yet the best in hindsight) was when we camped in the forests of Agumbe.
Agumbe, a haven for creepy crawlies
Agumbe is the wettest place in South India and Rom had caught king cobras there in the past. In his early days he would camp regularly in these damp forests looking for snakes. On one such trip, he saw a black snake tail disappear into a thick bush and instinctively dived for it. Even as he almost shattered his elbows with the fall, his mind was telling him that it was a rat snake until an apparition of a spreading hood growled over his sprawled body. There wasn't much he could really do considering the position he was in, so he let the king cobra's tail go. That was the beginning of Rom's life long fascination with the species.
Rom considers Agumbe the 'king cobra capital'. To me it just seemed like 'leech capital'! We were camped there for a couple of days living on instant noodles and smoke flavoured tea (which we strained through our butterfly net). We saw little of any of the larger animals, the largest we saw was a barking deer; but we saw lots of smaller things - frogs, slugs, scorpions, millipedes of all shapes and sizes, huge tadpoles that don't metamorphose into frogs, insects, birds like the Shama and Malabar trogon. It was great yet eerie to not see any humans about. The place was so damp that anything dry became wet in minutes. Coming from the city as I did, the dankness and the closed canopy of the forest made me intensely claustrophobic. I hankered to see dry open stretches of land, like tea estates, much to Rom’s disgust. But the many different and new things we were seeing kept me going in what seemed like miserable circumstances.
It was a voyage of discovery for me - watching Rom dig into an embankment to reveal the largest spider I've ever seen - a mygalomorph tarantula the size of his hand. From watching the flight of flying lizards to hearing the chirpy, quiet human-like calls of the lion-tailed macaques in the canopy, I had travelled miles from being a paranoid city animal to being an appreciative amateur naturalist. Now every turn in the path would raise my anticipations of seeing a king cobra. But we saw very little of king cobras in all this time but at least we were exploring their domain - that was our excuse for being in these forests for the length of time we did.
Meanwhile we were coaxing National Geographic Television to help us make the film. Understandably reticent at first about putting their money on such an elusive subject, they eventually were enterprising enough to support us fully. It took a few months to put a crew together and work out the logistics. We were finally at the brink of what we had so often dreamed of in the last two years. It was January when we began, at the start of the king cobra courtship and mating period.
During this season, the female king cobra lays a trail of scent as she crawls. This scent is potent enough to bring any passing male king cobra under its spell. With his tongue leading the way, he may spend days trying to find the female. The female, however, is wary of the larger male. He could easily eat her if he wanted to. But the scent of the female king cobra has put the male in a specific mode - that of mating. If he is rejected by a defensive female, he will try cajoling her. His style of persuasion might seem ridiculous to us - he butts the female with his head. If she does not relent, he may butt her so violently that she is lifted off the ground. Eventually, after all this attention, the female relents. Her hood spread, head raised slightly off the ground, she glides gracefully away with the eager male crawling over her, trying to get her tail up. This is important because without her co-operation a male cannot effectively mate. Once he has her tail up, he mates with her and they may remain in this embrace for an hour. After that the male goes his way - to meet other females or ...males.
The breeding season also makes male king cobras touchy towards each other. When two adult male king cobras meet, they may engage in a strange dance called 'male combat'. This is what is mistaken for a 'mating dance'. The combat is ritualised like in a judo match - no biting is allowed and the rivals are honest enough to follow the rules without an umpire! The snakes rise up as high as four feet off the ground, twine around each other and attempt to push the other down. The first to pin the opponent's body down to the ground is the winner and they will joust until one prevails. It's not clear why snakes perform this combat dance ritual. It may be over food, territory, females or just excessive hormones working overtime during the breeding period. The struggle can last for hours and the snakes become oblivious to anything else - come rain, shine or even man.
Injurious to health!
What do you do when a snake is really, really close and headed your way? Usually the best thing would be to stand as still as a tree and hope that the snake goes on its way. Most snakes do not have good eyesight. With king cobras, the rule is to retire gracefully and if you can't do that, RUN as fast as you can.
The king cobra comes with a warning - its bite is injurious to health. It has enormous venom glands in its "cheeks" but surprisingly, its venom is less toxic than a common cobra's. However, the sheer quantity of venom a king cobra can inject still makes it lethal. It can inject upto 6 ml. of venom at a time - that's a couple of thimbles full. There's an old anecdotal note from Burma that even talks of an elephant dying from a king cobra's bite. The last known instance of a human succumbing to a king cobra bite in India was 20 years ago when a woman stepped on a king cobra in a tea garden in the Annamalai Hills of Tamil Nadu. But the king cobra's instinctive response to humans is to flee. Even nesting king cobras who have a reputation for aggression are shy of facing humans.
A bird or a snake?
The female king cobra is different from any other snake in the world because she actually builds a nest for her eggs. Consider this, here is a creature with no limbs that painstakingly scrapes together a pile of leaves to lay her eggs in. This amazing event occurs at the threshold of the monsoon. When her time comes, the female king cobra gets very restless and climbs nervously over the surrounding vegetation probably to choose the right site for her nest. Once a place is selected, she loosens the leaf litter by shoving her head under the leaves and pushing them up, thoroughly raking the area. Then she coils around a bunch of leaves and literally carries it in a coil of her body to her nest site. She repeats this many times until she has the base of her nest piled up. She lays her 20-30 eggs on this and then piles more leaves on top of her eggs. The dimensions of the finished nest is about 40 cm high and about a metre in diameter. The whole operation can last twelve hours. Job done, you'd think the exhausted female king cobra would just leave - to rest and find food. But no, a more serious job is just ahead. She will stand guard without eating for the two months it takes for the eggs to hatch. The most she will get is a drink of water when it rains. Her mere presence is enough to dissuade any intruder. If that doesn't work, she will put on a formidable display - hood spread, mouth open and will growl like a dog. That is enough to send even the most persistent intruder off. This behaviour is what gives rise to stories of aggressive king cobras.
When the monsoon catches on seriously, the deluge can batter the nest down to almost nothing. But as long as the centre of the nest is dry with just the right amount of humidity, the eggs are fine. The babies arrive towards the end of the rains when there are plenty of other baby snakes around on which they can feed. They are born with perfect miniature fangs capable of injecting venom but they are so tiny that they can barely penetrate our skin. The thin hungry mother finally leaves them to find food. It is probably just as well because she's a snake eater herself. Left on their own now, most of the baby king cobras will be taken as prey by civets, birds, monitor lizards and other snakes. Only one or two will make it to adulthood.
Rising up over its victim, the king cobra strikes down on any part of the body and clamps its jaws in a suffocating grip. It chews on the snake, injecting more venom with every bite until the victim stops struggling. The venom attacks the nervous system so first the lungs collapse, the heart stops beating, the muscles go limp with paralysis and the victim suffocates. Then the king cobra slowly works its way toward the head of the snake, moving its fangs alternately without ever letting the snake go. Once it reaches the head, it begins swallowing. Rows of teeth and the fangs move alternately all the way down the snake's body very similar to the way a sewing machine moves cloth. With the prey fully settled in its stomach the king cobra retires to a convenient place - a tree hole, burrow or a tangle of branches many feet up - for a week if it's a large meal. Every part of the snake is digested - bones, scales and all.
Being the largest venomous snake in the world makes it a formidable creature, but the mystique of the king cobra has a lot to do with its intelligence. There's something uncanny about the way a king cobra looks you in the eye. It's an indescribable feeling, an encounter with a sentient being. It's about making contact with an entity so utterly different from anything one knows and normally relates to. Keepers say that when they open the door to the king cobra cage, the snake is so perceptive of what's going on; it knows whether the keeper is planning to feed it or whether he is just checking up on it. But it is its majestic restraint that reveals its personality. For the six months it took to shoot the film, we were all in such close proximity to king cobras I marvel that no accident took place. And this is more due to the tolerance of the snake than anything else. The more closely we work with an animal, the more we take it for granted. We flaunted our own security protocol several times; each time the king cobra just warned us, mock charging but never carrying it through. This made us respect the creature more than any other.
Looking back now, four films later, 'King Cobra' was probably the most ambitious one we ever made and the risks we took seem foolhardy. The medical protocol turned out to be almost completely worthless. The Thai Red Cross Society is the only place that produces king cobra antivenom serum and we bought a stock of 30 vials from them. Since Rom was already sensitive to the horse serum from which antivenom serum is made, elaborate plans had to be made with local hospitals. We had to make sure they had ventilators and all other facilities to deal with the allergic reaction that his body might go into in case he got bitten and needed the antivenom serum. This allergic reaction called anaphylaxis could be so severe that it could kill him even if the venom did not. We rehearsed what we had to do in case any of us got bitten during the course of the filming and the protocol was fixed on everyone's door for easy reference. A year after the film was made the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine ran tests to see whether the Thai antivenom serum was effective against Indian king cobra venom - the results turned out negative. It was thanks to the restraint and intelligence of this most majestic of snakes that we are alive today to tell the tale.
Epilogue: Most people who've seen 'King Cobra' have said they empathized with a snake like they never have before. This was probably the only film made on a single snake species at that time and we hope that it furthers the cause of rainforest and reptile conservation in India. A year later, 'King Cobra' unexpectedly won an Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement and is the most highly rated film on the National Geographic Channel in Asia.