‘The King and I’

P . Gowri Shankar was 18 when he first came up close with a King Cobra. He spent most of his days outside its enclosure at the Bannerghatta Zoo, and one day, the caretaker invited him inside. It was a meeting Shankar would never forget, one that further cemented his attraction towards the King. “He knew there was a new person in his presence,” he recalls. “He lifted his hood and turned towards me, looking me straight in the eye.” Shankar realised that this was no ordinary snake, one that scuttles away at the mere sign of a human being. Here was a creature that saw; that made calculated moves.

The 40-year-old herpetologist, who has dedicated his life to studying King Cobras, given their highly venomous nature (“A bite can kill you in 20 minutes,” he says), is among the very few in the country to pursue the subject. Shankar was in the city to hold workshops on snakes for children and adults over the weekend. It was organised by Bay of Life Surf School and Kālinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE), in association with Chennai Snake Park.

Called ‘STORM’ (Scientific Training on Reptile Management), the workshops, that consist of presentations and discussions, are Shankar’s brainchild. “They come in various levels,” he explains. There are a range of workshops — from those for people curious about snakes, to those targeted at people who want to be trained to handle and rescue them. Shankar holds three workshops a year in Chennai and Mysore. They are his way of educating people to coexist with snakes.

The first thing that most city folks do when they spot a snake in say, their garage or storeroom, is kill it. But what if it was a non-venomous variety that was simply minding its own business? Shankar suggests that we call the Forest Department or trained snake rescuers who will only be too happy to relocate the reptile. Long before his King Cobra days, Shankar was himself a snake rescuer in Bengaluru.

“I was in Class IX when I caught my first snake,” recalls Shankar. It was a keelback, a non-venomous species that slithered into the front porch of his Bengaluru home. Shankar’s immediate response was to move it out of danger — he pinned it down with his bare hands, and relocated it to the surrounding paddy fields. From then on, Shankar grew up to be the go-to guy for snake rescues. Of course, his parents were not happy with their son getting close to the creatures that send even the mightiest of men and women fleeing. “If I caught a snake, someone or the other would fill in my dad on it as soon as he got off the bus from work,” recalls Shankar.

But that didn’t stop him. Shankar would spend hours at Bannerghatta, lost in the twists and turns of the King Cobra in its enclosure. His big break came in 2000, when he got an opportunity to work with herpetologist and wildlife conservationist Romulus Whitaker. “He was God to me,” says Shankar. “I worked at the Madras Crocodile Bank till 2003, in education and captive management.”

For 18 years since, Shankar has been researching the King Cobra. He helped Whitaker set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in Karnataka. “I’m involved in the radio telemetry project,” explains Shankar. He has worked on several wildlife documentaries alongside Whitaker. These include The King Cobra and I (BBC), Secrets of the King Cobra (National Geographic Channel), and Asia’s Deadliest Snakes (Nat Geo Wild).

After all these years of studying the King Cobra, Shankar continues to have several unanswered questions. Why do they pick leaves to build their nest? How long do they survive? What is their home range? He hopes to find the answers over the course of his research. He’s a Ph.D. student at Uppsala University, Sweden, and North Orissa University, Baripada. The King fascinates Shankar in ways that confound him — he says that those in Northeastern India tend to flee at the sight of people while those in the Western Ghats don’t do so. “Perhaps people are more tolerant here,” he says. Shankar is now living his dream — following the King in its natural habitat and observing and studying their every move. But he is aware that his job is among the most dangerous on the planet — one wrong move could cost him his life. For, he says, there’s no anti-venom for the King Cobra.

“I have been bitten,” he says. “But I was quick to move my hand away, reducing the impact.” A close acquaintance got killed by a King Cobra, and despite this, Shankar is on the snake’s side. “If we tend to get bitten while handling them, the fault is always on us.”

* When you spot a snake in your neighbourhood, don’t panic or try to get rid of it yourself. Call an expert — the Forest Department or a trained snake rescuer.

* Shankar’s next workshop in the city is scheduled to take place in May this year.

* He is the co-founder of Kalinga Foundation, an NGO for wildlife conservation.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 4:31:01 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/%E2%80%98The-King-and-I%E2%80%99/article17116703.ece