It was 8 pm on September 16 when snake catcher Vava Suresh received a call from the Kulathupuzha Forest Range Officer, seeking assistance to capture a King Cobra seen by residents of a tribal settlement.
Overjoyed by the prospect of setting hands on a `King’, Mr.Suresh lost no time in setting out on a five- hour journey to the colony bordering the forest where the snake was perched among the foliage of a tall tree.
Reaching the site at 1.15 am, Mr.Suresh used a ladder to climb up, only to see the King Cobra jump to a neighbouring rubber tree. It took him over three hours to bring down the 15- foot snake using a rope noose.
Watched by an expectant crowd, the handler deftly subdued the big snake which was later released into the forest. A week back, Mr.Suresh had captured another King Cobra from Madathara near Konni.
Over the last 10 years, the King Cobra has been sighted 55 times at various locations across Kerala, pointing to the possible threat faced by the snake from deforestation and habitat loss. It also exposes the threat faced by humans coming into contact with the snake.
The world's longest venomous snake growing upto a length of 5.6 m (18.5 ft), the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is widespread throughout Southeast Asia and parts of India, and is found mostly in forested areas and tea estates. Fierce, agile and highly aggressive, it is capable of delivering upto 600 mg of venom in a single bite, enough to kill 20 to 40 grown men or even an adult elephant.
The venom of the King Cobra is primarily neurotoxic, but also contains cardiotoxic compounds. The venom quickly attacks the victim's central nervous system, and induces severe pain, blurred vision, vertigo, drowsiness, and paralysis, leading to cardiovascular collapse and coma. Death follows due to respiratory failure.
There are two types of antivenom made specifically to treat a King Cobra bite. The Red Cross in Thailand manufactures one (Specific), and the Central Research Institute in India, Kasauli, H.P, manufactures the other (non-specific); however, both are made in small quantities and are not widely available.
King Cobra bites are rare since the snake generally avoids contact with humans. Only four deaths have been reported in South India over the past 20 years.
Scientists point out that the polyvalent method of anti venom treatment in India is primitive and makes it difficult to treat snake bite victims. It also accounts for the high incidence of snake bite deaths in India.
In the polyvalent method, the victim is administered the antibodies of four different species, namely the Spectacled Cobra, the common krait, saw scaled viper and Russell’s viper, that account for most of the bite cases.
Though Australia has the highest number of venomous snakes, the number of death cases is less because the country follows the targeted monovalent technique based on identification of species using a snake venom detection kit.
“It requires a detailed study to come up with a modern treatment method that will bring down the mortality rate in snake bite victims”, says R.Dileepkumar, research scholar, Department of Zoology, University of Kerala and member of a team working on the development of a detector kit for identification of the bite of nine different venomous species.
The research team, led by Dr.Oommen V.Oommen, CSIR Emeritus Scientist, Zoology Department and Centre for Bioinformatics, also involves the Little Flower Hospital, Angamaly and the Panchakarma Institute under Govt. Ayurveda College, Thiruvananthapuram.
“The polyvalent anti venom treatment method followed in India results in collateral damage, affecting internal organs. To confirm a snake bite, doctors often wait for symptoms like dizziness, nausea or imbalance, typical of neurotoxins, or anti coagulation of blood that is characteristic of haemotoxins. The delay can lead to complications or even death”, says Mr.Dileepkumar.
A detector kit will obviate the need to wait for symptoms and avoid the complications inherent in administering polyvalent anti venom. “Developing a monovalent anti venom specific to the King Cobra has become necessary in the light of the increasing number of sightings of the snake”, he adds.