Rom was walking along a forest path in Agumbe, Karnataka, in May 1972, when he saw a black tail disappear into some bushes. His brain screamed, ‘Rat snake!’ Without a moment’s hesitation, he dove, bruising elbows and knees, but he had the tail. An instant later, he heard a deep growl. Rom looked up only to see a king cobra, with an expanded hood, towering over him.
The snake’s golden hood was iridescent in the evening light and its eyes were pinned on Rom. Lying flat on his belly, Rom was incapable of defending himself. The king cobra’s glossy tail fell from his fingers, and the snake slid away like mercury through the undergrowth.
Coming to his senses and feet, Rom raced after it. He seized a stick and halted the snake in its track. When he grabbed it by the tail a second time, the king cobra swung around and charged open-mouthed. Somehow, holding the snake at a safe distance with the stick, Rom managed, one-handed, to pull a sleeping bag out of his rucksack, and prop it open with sticks. The frightened snake saw the dark opening of the bag as an escape and slid inside. That first knee-quaking encounter with a wild king cobra was not only a career milestone for Rom, but he felt he came of age then.
As a school boy in Kodaikanal, Rom devoured Snakes of the World by Raymond Ditmars, a herpetologist at Bronx Zoo, New York. He read king cobras were the longest venomous snakes in the world, growing up to 18 feet in length, and he was smitten. At age 13, size mattered as well as the danger.
While hiking below Kodaikanal, Rom visited the natural history museum in Sacred Heart College, Shenbaganur. Amongst bottles of preserved animals, he was excited to see the preserved head of a king cobra. He hadn’t known he was in king cobra land. He spent his free time during his remaining school years trekking through the forests of the Palni Hills, but didn’t find the snake of his dreams.
The first live king cobra Rom ever saw wasn’t in India but in Florida. In 1963, Rom went to work at Bill Haast’s Miami Serpentarium.
Rom watched in awe when Bill took one of the 16-footers out, and the snake stood up high enough to stare him in the eyes. Bill distracted the king cobra with one hand while grabbing it swiftly behind the head with the other. The crowd of tourists never failed to gasp at the swift manoeuvre, and Rom never tired of watching the snakes. While their size was impressive, Rom was intrigued that these snakes seemed more aware of their surroundings. Unlike other snakes, king cobras appeared to be intelligent.
When Rom returned to India in 1967, he was determined to see a wild king cobra. Writer Kenneth Anderson suggested he hunt around Agumbe. On the first day of Rom’s first visit to Agumbe in 1972, he leapt on a wild king cobra.
A couple of days later, he caught a female, and brought both snakes to Madras where they made many babies.
While Rom knew a lot about rearing king cobras in captivity, their lives in the wild remained a mystery. For many years, he couldn’t entice academic herpetologists to collaborate. They feared there were too few king cobras for a study.
Finally, Rom convinced Matt Goode of the University of Arizona that numbers were not a concern. They tagged five king cobras with radios to study their lives in the wild in Agumbe. It was path-breaking work – the first such study of the species in the world and of any snake in India. After just four years, the research project wound up, not from lack of king cobras, but lack of state-issued research permits.
While Rom got a glimpse into the lives of wild king cobras, I still don’t understand one thing. Even allowing for hormone-charged, super-human capabilities, how did Rom bag that snake with one hand without getting bitten?