Disturbed by heat, cobras move to cool zones

K.P.M. Basheer
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The rising temperature following the failure of the monsoons is making wild animals, including king cobras, stray into human settlements.
The rising temperature following the failure of the monsoons is making wild animals, including king cobras, stray into human settlements.

Unable to stand the rising temperature and falling moisture in forests, the snake-eating, shy, and highly venomous king cobras are sneaking out of the forests to find comfort in human settlements lying on the edges of the Western Ghats.

In just a month, about a dozen sightings of king cobras have been reported from the villages lying close to the forests, particularly in the Malayattoor forest division. In the Kuttampuzha panchayat area, the last post of Ernakulam district, local people say they have encountered close to ten king cobras. Mr. Berkumenze, who works for the Forest Department and traps snakes that stray into human habitats, told The Hindu that he had caught three huge king cobras in the past few days and sent them back into the forest.

“When the forests become too warm for them, they sneak out looking for cooler places,” Mr. Berkumenze said.

“They are poor things and, as far as possible, they keep away from humans.” He notes that this is the breeding season for king cobras (they lay eggs in nests built on ground; the female guards the eggs for two to three months before they are hatched.)

Failure of monsoons

The failure of two consecutive monsoons has led to water shortage in the forests, loss of moisture in the ground, and rise in the outside temperatures, forcing wild animals, including the king cobras, to seek cooler locales. Forest fires also send them scrambling for escape routes.

King cobras, the world’s longest venomous snakes which can grow up to 18 feet, are found in the forests of South Asia, especially in India. The rainforests of the Western Ghats are home to a substantial population. The Thattekkad, Pooyamkutty, and Malakkappara areas are their favourite habitats. Local people say they have seen king cobras swimming across Thattekkad Lake.

The fast-moving, agile snake hates confrontations, but when unable to flee, it defends itself ferociously. A king cobra can raise one-third of its body vertically with its massive hood flared, thus scaring off its opponent. “It can ‘stand up’ to an average man’s chest level,” says Mr. Berkumenze. Its growl-like hiss can unnerve most beasts.

Interestingly, this powerful animal whose venom can kill humans and most beasts in a few minutes with just one bite is mortally afraid of the mongoose. The mongoose, which is resistant to the neurotoxins in the king cobra’s venom, preys on the king. King cobras mainly feed on other snakes (hence its generic name ophiophagus, which means snake-eater), mostly rat snakes, cobras, and even pythons. Sometimes they hunt birds. But, once it is able to secure a full meal, the king cobra can go without eating for up to two months.

Herpetologist Nazeer Ommer says the loss of tree cover in the forests is making life miserable for the king cobras as they cannot stand temperatures beyond 25-27 degrees Celsius. If the king gets into a house, it usually looks out for the cool comforts of the bathroom, he said.

B.N. Nagarajan, Divisional Forest Officer of Malayattoor, says that king cobras travel only during the daytime. Their coming out of forests during summer is not an uncommon thing. “Only, they get a lot of publicity these days.”



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