INDIA
2001


"The Cobra's Revenge"

SERIES 3
Film 1
(one hour special)

October 1st-October 22nd 2001


Location of OBA film3:1
Southwest & Northeast India

(mouse-over for view of India)

 

THE QUEST SPECIES
KING COBRA
Ophiophagus hannah

The king cobras is the longest venomous snake in the world, males reaching around 6.0m, a good 2.5m longer than any other venomous species, although females attain only about 3.0m maximum. The king is also one of the most widely distributed of Asian venomous snakes, being found from Nepal, Pakistanand southwest India, to southern China and the Philippines, throughout mainland Southeast Asia, then south through the Indo-Australian Archipelago as far as Sulawesi, and including other other major islands of Borneo, Sumatra and Java. It demonstrates considerably diversity across its entire range and it is extremely likely that the single known species (Ophiophagus hannah) is probably a species-complex, containing up to seven species (Indraneil Das pers. comm.).

The generic name of the king cobra, Ophiophagus, comes from its well-documented dietary preference for other snakes, with Dharman ratsnakes (Ptyas mucosa), Reticulated python (Python reticulatus), and even venomous species on the menu. King cobra venom is not especially toxic, when compared to that of the more frequently encounter, but much smaller (c.1.5 m) common cobras (Naja spp.) within its range, but a large king cobra can inject a very large quantity and death can occur extremely rapidly, even in adult humans. Evenso, deaths from king cobras constitute a minority of Asia's many thousands of annual snakebite fatalities, the main culprits being common cobras, the kraits (Bungarus spp.) and Russell's vipers (Daboia russelii and D.siamensis - see "Venom"). Most king cobra bites seem to occur to those people who actively engage with them, such as snake-handlers ie. snake charmers and the small Burmese women who wrangle kings for the tourists, and also zoo and private keepers in the West. There is no doubt a king cobra is a very dangerous snake with a rapid and far-reaching strike.

One of the reasons for the relatively low number of king cobra bites relates to the habits of this large but secretive snake. Being primarily a predator of snakes, including pythons, it is far more likely to be found in pristine habitats like rainforest than around human dwellings or padde-fields, it is not so attracted to the large rodent population in those localities are are the cobras and vipers. The king cobra also dislikes disturbance and will move away from areas with high levels of human interaction.

That said encounters can and do occur. Female king cobras are the only snakes that will draw together vegetation to create a nest in which to incubate their eggs. They will then guard the nest against all comers, including logging elephants and humans. The sight of a maternally protective female king cobra is a sight not easily forgotten, even if she only achieves a height equal to half that of the male. In these encounters both humans and elephants (and presumably cobra) have lost their lives.

King cobras are without doubt the most impressive venomous snake in the world.

 

King cobra, Ophiophagus hannah

 

Identifying a King cobra

Head scalation of a King cobra, Ophiophagus hannah
the all important Occipitals scutes (O)
arrow indicates position of Loreal scale in a colubrid, absent in elapid
click to enlarge these diagrams

How to recognise a king cobra.
Cobras exhibit the same "Colubrid-Elapid 9-Scute Arrangement" of their head scutes as many other snakes [2x Internasals (IN), 2x Prefrontals (PF), 1x Frontal (F), 2x Supraoculars (SO), and 2x Parietals (P)]. Elapids (the cobra family) lack a Loreal scale whereas most colubrid snakes (nonvenomous and rear-fanged snakes) possess a loreal. King cobras also possess an extra pair of enlarged scutes, known as the Occipitals (O), positioned posterior to the Parietals.
Click on the diagrams above for enlarged views of the head scalation of a king cobra.

Distribution of the King cobra, Ophiophagus hannah, in South and Southeast Asia

 

Map of Orissa State, Northeast India showing primary and secondary locations
(click on map for enlarged view)
Map of Karnataka State, Southwest India showing primary and secondary locations
(click on map for enlarged view)

Facts about the Western Ghats
(sources Wikipedia and others)

The Western Ghats are a mountain range (1,500-2,000 m altitude) in southwest India, extending north from the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to Goa and southern Maharashtra, separating the dry Deccan Plateau from the Indian Ocean along most of the length of the peninsula. They were either formed during the break-up of Gondwanaland 150 million years ago or the separation of India from Madagascar 100-80 million years ago.

These mountains act as a barrier to rain clouds coming in off the Indian Ocean, forcing the clouds to loose their rain in great monsoons in order to rise to clear of the mountains and pass over to the northeast. Annual rainfall averages 300-400cm and may reach 90cm in some locations on the western slopes, with the rain-shadow effect reducing rainfall on the eastern slopes to 10-25cm and much less on the arid interior of the Deccan.

The Western Ghats are ancient, and they are clothed in ancient rainforests containing an incredible diversity of animal and plant life, including 325 globally threatened species. Many of the species found in the Western Ghats are either shared or more closely related to species in Sri Lanka, than in the rest of India. Classic herpetological examples include the snake family Uropeltidae, the shieldtails and earthsnakes, with 53 species confined to southeastern India (Western Ghats) and India, and the pitviper genus Hypnale.

The Western Ghats are considered one of the ten top Biodiversity Hotspots in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The king cobra occurs in two main areas in India, up in the northeast (see below) where its range is virtually contiguous with populations extending from the southern Himalaya of Nepal and India, to south China and mainland Southeast Asia. The heavily populated and arid central Deccan of India is uninhabitable for the king cobra but another patch of suitable, desirable even, habitat exists in the largely pristine Western Ghats and here a large population of king cobras does occur (see map below).

Facts about Bhitarkanika
(sources Wikipedia and others)

The Bhitarkanika National Park is a 145 sq.km area within a much larger (672 sq.km) area of coastal and estuarine mangrove swamp, formed by the deltas of the Brahmini, Baitarani and Dhamara Rivers, in the Bay of Bengal, in Orissa state, northeastern India. Established as a protected area in 1975 and elevated to national park status in 1998, the former Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sancturay is the second largest mangrove ecosystem in India, after the famous Sundarbans of West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh. It is a noted bird-watching destination while Olive Ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) nest on the beaches.

Unlike the Sundarbans, Bhitarkanika does not have any tiger, but there are plenty of Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) up to and even exceeding 6.0m in length, and King cobras are also present here, although here, due to the continual saltwater inundation of the forest floor, the females are said to 'nest in trees', something we were extremely keen to observe.

 

The Film Crew and Expedition Participants

From the UK:
Julian Dismore (Director)
Matthew Catling (Associate Producer)
Mark O'Shea (Presenter)
Richard Edwards (Camera)
Terry Meadowcroft (Sound recordist)

In India:
Dr Asif Ali "Smokey" (expedition doctor)
Sundeep Bhatt (fixer in Orissa)

Contributors:
Mohammad Anees (Bangalore herpetologist)
Dr Bruce Young (Lafeyette College, USA)
Dumal (Bhitarkanika guide)

 

Mark O'Shea and king cobra,
with Mohammad Anees (centre) and Bruce Young (left)
click to enlarge


The Expedition

Numerous stories and myths surround the enigmatic King cobra. It is said that two cobras will pair up, mate and then guard their nest together, but there is no evidence that the male remains with the female while she is gravid. It is equally suggested that if you kill a king cobra its mate will follow you until it get's its revenge, the origin of the title of this film "The Cobra's Revenge" which in part examined some of the king cobra myths. The dying cobra is supposed to retain a 'photographic image' of its assailant and this image is reportedly stored in its dark and lidless eyes. When its mate returns and finds it dead it learns the identify of the killer from the image in the dead eyes.

Other myths surround king cobras include: If 100 people see a king cobra, it dies, and King cobras come to villages to die. Both are stories that have a place in this film.

The other aspect of king cobras which we wanted to examine was a more scientific question. King cobras will bare a fang and growl when they feel threatened. This growl is fairly deep and guttural, and unlike any sound emitted by any other snake species. Is the sound simply a threat to the perceived enemy or can the king cobra hear it itself? Snakes are deaf to airbourne sounds but they can perceive low-frquency vibrations through the lower jaw and these are transmitted to the brain by the similar nerves to those that transmit sound from our ears. So the question was, can the king hear its own growl, and if so is the growl intended as a warning / to attact other king cobras. We determined to test this in the field.

Regardless of any stories about king cobras, this has long been my favourite snake species so I was very keen to meet them in the wild.

The primary locations around India visited during filming in 2001/1 were:

1. Karnataka:
a) Bangalore
b) Seethanadi
c) Agumbe
d) Someshwara
e) Seethanadi

2. Orissa:
a) Bhitakarnika
b) Patia
c) Bhubaneswar

Filming schedule & itinerary:
Monday 1st October - Arrive Bangalore, Karnataka
Tuesday 2nd October - Bangalore, Karnataka
Wednesday 3rd October - Bangalore, Karnataka
Thursday 4th October - Bangalore, Karnataka
Friday 5th October- Bangalore, Karnataka
Saturday 6th October - Mangalore & Seethanadi, Karnataka
Sunday 7th October - Seethanadi , Karnataka
Monday 8th October - Seethanadi, Karnataka
Tuesday 9th October - Seethanadi, Karnataka
Wednesday 10th October - Seethanadi, Karnataka
Thursday 11th October - Seethanadi & Someshwar, Karnataka
Friday 12th October - Seethanadi, & Mangalore, Karnataka
Saturday 13th October - Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Sunday 14th October - Bhubaneswar & Bhitakarnika, Orissa
Monday 15th October - Bhitakarnika, Orissa
Tuesday 16th October - Bhitakarnika, Orissa
Wednesday 17th October - Bhitakarnika, Orissa
Thursday 18th October - Bhitakarnika, Orissa
Friday 19th October - Bhubaneswar, Orissa
Saturday 20th October - Patia, Orissa
Sunday 21st October - Patia, Orissa
Monday 22nd October - Bhubaneswar, Orissa

At the end of each expedition of Season Three the Directors were asked to write a short "director's take" on the project. They were called "Director's Notes". Read the contribution from "The Cobra's Revenge" Director Julian Dismore here.

Postscript

Expedition Results include a full life-list for 1st 2001 expedition to India.