Monday, December 12, 2005

A Journey to the Edge of the World

Published in Outlook Traveller Oct 2005 as "Andamans: Desert Island Days"

“Let’s go take a close look at that crocodile,” Neel suggested and Harry and I agreed gamely. We were at the Wandoor jetty, South Andaman watching a seven-foot salt-water crocodile swimming sedately in a narrow channel between Alexandra Island and us. Neel revved the zippy inflatable boat straight towards the croc. Harry and I thought he was giving us an adrenalin rush and we were determined not to react. When it seemed that we were imminently going to land on top of the crocodile I began squeaking incoherently. But it was too late. The astonished saltie (not a savory but the affectionate name by which croc specialists call the salt-water crocodile) dived underwater as we zoomed up to where his head had been. “What are you doing?” I spluttered. “What if the croc had bitten through the boat?” He couldn’t believe a croc would do that. He had obviously not read those infamous tales of salties biting propellers and outboard motors in Australia. The Andaman saltie hadn’t either, so why was I getting worked up about it, Neel asked. I made a mental note to lend him my book of croc attacks for bedtime reading when we got back home. That should enlighten him, I decided, but it would have to wait. We were preparing for an expedition to South Sentinel Island, a tiny uninhabited island near Little Andaman Island and this near-disaster was the first field test of the rubber boat before we packed it.

The daylight trip would take us to the island at low tide when it would be too shallow to pull up the long massive dugout canoes, Rom had declared after peering for a long time at the Bay of Bengal pilot book. So the plan was to anchor offshore and use the rubber boat to ferry the gear and people to land. Harry, Neel and I had spent the day stocking rations, organizing barrels to carry fresh water (there was no fresh water on the island), diesel for the two motors and petrol for the generator to charge batteries. Harry had just single-handedly managed to obtain permits after two months of running around and there was no time to lose.

South Sentinel is one of the two outlying islands west of the Andaman chain. If you are looking at a map, the little dot way off the west coast of Little Andaman is the island we were headed for.

That night while we sat on the wooden deck of the kitchen, swatting mosquitoes and sipping whisky, I overhead Neel deep in conversation with Saw Pawng (whom everyone called Uncle), our 80 year old chief of the boat crew. Uncle was appalled to hear that the world was round and not flat. Splendid! Here was our boat captain who thinks he might fall off the face of the world if he kept going straight on. I hurriedly bid everyone goodnight before Neel began bringing Uncle up to speed on the scientific developments of the last two centuries. What Uncle didn’t know hadn’t hurt him and what I didn’t know that Uncle didn’t know, couldn’t hurt me.

Rom arrived the next day. After reviewing the food, water, fuel, gear and people, Rom had to ask Neel to stay. “You drink too much water, man,” he tried to explain to his dejected brother. Through the day Neel guzzled as much water as his high metabolism sweated out. But having swung into the spirit of adventure, to be grounded must have been disappointing.

While packing the two canoes with everyone’s bags, rations, and equipment, Uncle was muttering something about the world being flat. Oh, how I wish Neel had not gotten this bee into Uncle’s bonnet! Once everything was strapped in place Uncle shouted “Chaabo!” (Let’s go!), the Karen call to adventure. “Remember the world is round, Uncle!” shouted Neel with a wink and a wave. I glared darkly at Neel while Uncle hesitantly brought his hand up to wave and I swore I was going to give him the goriest croc attack book on earth. With pictures of body parts.

Along with us five mainlanders were six Karen. The Karen were brought over from Burma by the British in the 1920s to work in the islands. Two of them were in charge of each canoe – one operated the motor and the other bailed out water that seeped in. Traditionally the Karen rowed and poled their way around the islands until one day an enterprising Karen did something ingenious – by patching together a regular 8 hp Kirloskar water pump motor, a length of pipe and a propeller, he had a motor boat. Overnight the motorized dugout canoe became the most efficient vehicle on the waters of the Andaman Sea. Before we teamed up with the Karen, we used fiberglass and trawler boats but if something went wrong (and it always does) in the high seas, there was no one to call. Even on dry land, it was pretty hard to find a resourceful mechanic to fix the problem. But with the dugout canoes, the Karen could pretty much strip the pump down and put it back together with the efficiency of a drill sergeant.

The thoughtful Karen had built a tarpaulin shade for us wimpy mainlanders. If it were not for this shade, we would have all begun shedding our skins in a couple of days from sunburn. As we sat cooped up inside hiding from the blistering sun, the Karen were having the time of their lives. These normally taciturn guys became lively and agile when their canoes skimmed the waters, the sun beat down on their bronze weather-beaten skins and the wind whipped their straight hair away from their faces. Schwete, the most reserved of the Karen, transformed into an exuberant whooping cowboy. With the two canoes racing at full speed nose to nose, Schwete nimbly jumped from one boat to the other to pass the thermos of tea. Just when I thought, “Phew! Did you see that?” he stood straddling the two boats, a foot on each canoe, as they knifed side by side through the azure blue waters. If you thought Kevin Costner was cool in ‘Water World’ you should have seen this kid!

Five hours later, with the sun directly overhead we lost sight of land; we were out in the high seas with no landmark, no stars, nothing to indicate which was north or south. Neither Uncle nor Saw Pamwe (the other boat captain) had a watch, compass or any technological gizmo to consult. Had somebody brought a compass? The thought hadn’t occurred to anyone. I knew we were heading southwest, but the crux of the issue was what degree southwest were we? If we went too south-westerly we would zip between North Sentinel and South Sentinel islands without catching sight of either and make landfall in Sri Lanka or worse, Madagascar. Uncle just bit into his beedi and puffed, his eyes fixed on some imaginary spot on the horizon. Was he going to take us to South Sentinel or to confirm that the earth was flat? There, out in the middle of nowhere, without the familiar profile of land anywhere, I began to question the sanity of this enterprise. The heat and humidity clogged my brain and soon I was asleep.

I woke up gasping for fresh air; the foul fumes of exhaust filled my lungs. We were chugging slowly and I looked around for an explanation. We had arrived. South Sentinel looked like an island should – waves beating on the sand with the calm rhythm of the world’s heartbeat, the white coral sand, the cool green of the forest beyond. The only thing that spoilt the picture was a lighthouse that stuck out like a middle finger above the forest. The engine finally went dead and we anchored. It was about 3 pm. The inflatable boat was pressed into service and the long process of unloading began. It was well past dusk when we finished. The once pristine beach was pulped and churned by human footprints. There had been a water monitor track on the beach when we had first arrived but it was quickly obliterated.

In the meantime camp was being made. While dinner of rice and dal was cooking, we bathed in the sea and used one mug of fresh water to rinse off before toweling dry. Sitting around the campfire, eating the most delicious dinner, watching the phosphorescent waves gleaming in the dark and smelling of insect repellent in the air was enough to make anyone sigh contentedly.

We woke up early the next morning to see enormous tractor tracks up and down the beach – nesting green sea turtle tracks. High above us a pair of white-bellied sea eagles wheeled over the island, like guardian angels. After a quick breakfast, everyone kitted up and set off for a walk into the island. It’s a tiny island, only 161 ha. Along the forest edge the sand moved with millions of hermit crabs of varying shapes and sizes and the much larger land crabs of different colours from brown, orange to yellow. Tall pandanus trees shielded the forest from the strong winds blowing off the ocean. The further inland we went, the taller the trees rose. The soil was sandy and several trees had keeled over. We found pieces of broken coral, seashells and other relics of a time long ago when this island was merely a patch of ocean bed.

Smack in the middle of the island was a large circular clearing with an island of beautiful palms and tiger ferns. It looked as if someone had manicured it to make it look just right. We soon found out why the area was clear – it was a tidal swamp. When the tide came in, seawater seeped up from underground and filled the clearing. When the tide went out, the pond drained to become a clearing once again. We found several enormous coconut crabs, the largest land crab in the world, milling about in the clearing. While we stood there silently taking in the vision, I felt something tickle my ankle. It was a coconut crab checking me out, its antennae quivered with unfamiliarity. Schwete tactfully grabbed the crab behind and held it up for me to take a good look. These purplish 10-legged creatures probably have seen so few humans that they were curious.

After dinner I read my notes on the coconut crab. It is eaten as a delicacy throughout its range – islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But no Indian has developed a taste for it yet and it seemed to be thriving here. It grows to a phenomenal two feet in length, and weighs as much as four kilograms. It is known to climb coconut trees, chop the fruits letting them fall down, walk head first to the ground and hack through the fruit with its pincers to get to the tender flesh inside; but not always in that order. The most far-out thing about these crabs is this - their breathing organ is a cross between gills and lungs and it can breathe only when the organ is wet with seawater. So a pair of legs is totally dedicated to keeping this organ clean and moist. The notes also said that if you wanted to see these crabs during daytime on Christmas Island or any of the other islands of the Pacific Ocean, you had to dig them out from burrows. Obviously whoever wrote the paper hadn’t been on South Sentinel. Here, they come over to nibble at you curiously in broad daylight!

In the morning Harry hauled out a massive wooden chest. Were we going to play ‘treasure island’? Harry replied it was for keeping coconut crabs. The Port Blair zoo wanted us to bring them a pair of the crabs. Wasn’t it overkill? Harry replied, “The box has to be strong. Otherwise, the crabs will rip their way through.” I pursed my lips and considered the chest. It seemed unlikely any living creature could get out of there – it was solid. I mean, REALLY solid. It took four people to haul the chest and we headed off into the jungle.

Rom caught the first coconut crab and tried to put it into the wooden chest. By the time he got done, his hands was gouged and scratched by its sharp claw-like legs. We searched long and hard and could find no more signs of the water monitor lizards. This was a big disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing the lizards foraging in the coral reef at low tide as Harry had described it. Back at the camp we tried to feed the crab the contents of a chicken egg. It ate some but got distracted and tried to crawl into the camera lens instead. “It’s spooked,” said Rom. To me, it seemed hungry for media attention. While I was playing with the crab, a team headed off into the jungle to continue the hunt for monitor lizards. I went to get something more interesting for the crab and found some dried salted fish. I rinsed off the salt and returned to the crab only to see that it had completely mangled the steel tumbler I had been drinking tea from. I shuddered at the thought of what it could have done to my Achilles tendon on our first meeting. I promptly decided to return him to his box – a job easier said than done.

The team came back with the news that they had sighted about 14 lizards in a wet marshy area but they acted skittish, dashing off in a split instant. We began wondering what could have caused this nervousness – the lighthouse builders, poachers? We decided to visit this marsh again the next day.

We approached as silently as we could. No lizards. It was to be expected but still very disappointing. Rom had an idea that if we constructed a hide near the marsh and waited quietly, we might see some lizards. So the Karen set to work and I volunteered to stay in the hide. Coconut crabs and land crabs scurried busily all around me in the dry leaf litter. White-eyes flitted close by. Parakeets filled the air with their raucous cries. I waited and watched but nothing exciting happened - unless you count a coy pigeon making a sorry example of a nest exciting. Perhaps the lizards were still edgy from yesterday. It’s amazing how tired and hungry one gets sitting immobile in a hide.

Within a few days, we were low on water and Uncle had to go to Little Andaman’s Bumila Creek to get more water. The sea had been getting rougher everyday and he had a hard time getting into his canoe; two of the younger Karen boys had to hoist him up. Just then Harry discovered that the captive coconut crab had escaped. I thought he was kidding – that box was a little Fort Knox. But it was true, the crab had pried the edge of the chest apart fibre by fibre and had made a hole big enough to escape. That was the end of that idea.

One morning I climbed up the lighthouse to get an “aerial” view of the island. A series of metal ladders welded to the metal structure shook in the strong wind. Even as I was climbing to the treetop level, my knees were trembling and I forced myself not to look down. But once I surfaced onto the platform atop the structure the magnitude of the view took my breath away. Even as I was trying to figure out the various features of the island sprawled around below me, something white in the sea caught my attention. It was an albino green sea turtle. Knowing fully well that none would believe me, I managed to get a rather shaky video shot of it to be produced with flourish later. A few months later, we were to discover that white green sea turtles were not a rarity at all. They come up with fair regularity on the Sri Lankan coasts and a couple of sea turtle hatcheries there maintained a few in captivity. But nevertheless, it was exciting at that moment to witness a living specimen of aberrant nature. “What a fantastic place!” I wrote mundanely in my journal at a typical loss for words.

Towards evening we began to get worried. There was no sign of Uncle and the Karen who had gone to fetch water. They were supposed to have been back by afternoon and we were down to the last bucket of water. Although we weren’t extravagant with the water, we cut down our consumption further, drinking a sip only when we had to. But we decided to wait one more night before getting worked up about it.

We lazed in the shade of the camp, not wanting to work ourselves into a sweat when we were low on water. The sea eagles resumed their vigil over the island, their lonely calls piercing the air. It was mid-morning when the canoes came into view as they rounded the limestone cliffs on the eastern side of the island. A collective sigh of relief went up. The river mouth in Little Andaman had been pummeled by tall waves, Uncle said, and they had risked being drowned when they attempted to get out into the sea. The boys apparently hadn’t want to leave in such choppy waters but Uncle knew we would be really low on water and was determined to make it. As we sat on fallen logs hungrily eating fried fish, a school of dolphins came bounding like a lot of marine puppies. They had hemmed a school of fish against the shore. This was the life – good food, pristine beach (well, almost), good sleep under the purest skies and lots of fresh water. That’s when I heard Uncle talking to Uncle Pamwe in Karen. I couldn’t understand their language but I knew instantly what they were talking about. Uncle’s hands were saying something like “Did you know that the earth is round?” I smiled. Uncle may not know these larger facts of life but he sure as hell knew where every speck of island, inhabited or uninhabited, was around these parts and that is all that mattered.

At sunset one evening, Johnny went diving under the surf and came up to present me a big gorgeous live cowrie. I was touched but tried to tell him gently that I don’t like to take live animals. I felt bad rejecting his present – he was only trying to give me a gift in return for the cap I had given him earlier.

The next day we headed back to Wandoor. The sea was calm and the canoes could be brought ashore. This made loading so much easier and quicker. Within half an hour almost everything was on board. After ten days on the island, I looked forward to a clean bath but I was also sad that we were leaving. We skirted North Sentinel and the sharp eyes of Uncle spotted a couple of Sentinelese on the beach. Dolphins raced alongside us until they got bored – our boats were too slow for the speeds they were accustomed to. It was dark by the time we dropped anchor at Wandoor. We discovered Neel had in the meantime vacationed on Havelock Island so he couldn’t guilt-trip us. After all these days of washing in the sea, my hairbrush was thick with greasy dirt and my hair was limp and sticky. I got most of the gritty fine sand out of my hair that evening and cherished the privacy of a room for the first time in a long time.

After dinner when Neel got started off on how the earth revolves around the sun all of us burst out laughing. Uncle looked puzzled for a moment and he laughed too. He had been right all along – Neel had just been pulling his leg.

Epilogue: Schwete died tragically of cerebral malaria after a trip to the Nicobars at the age of 21. The tsunami pushed the island up about a metre out of the sea but the beach we camped on is underwater while the inter-tidal pools are now permanently exposed. No one knows yet if the coconut crab population was affected. If the accretion of beach on other islands is anything to go by, a beach may soon start forming on South Sentinel again. Someone should make the trip out there and check it out.

The King Cobra and I

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.

Royal romance

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.

Little wonders

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.

Deadly mystique

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.