Climate change smokes out this king

Under siege:The king cobra  

K.P.M. Basheer

KOCHI: Is climate change driving the mighty king cobra - that elusive, ‘brainy,' highly poisonous snake that can grow up to 18 ft - out of the forests and into human habitats?

The recent sightings of the snake at several places in the State could be an indication that global warming has made forests hotter for the cobra, who finds temperatures above 27 degrees Celsius hard to stand, and is hence forced to stray into villages on the edges of forests.

According to Naseer Ommer, herpetologist, king cobras (O phiophagus hannah) are very shy of humans and hardly ever snake out of the cool confines of forests.

“Though the king cobra is highly poisonous, it is not considered a threat to humans because it rarely comes into contact with humans,” Dr. Ommer, whose doctoral thesis was on the ‘breeding habits of king cobras', pointed out.

“That is why it is not considered among the big four snakes (the cobra, krait, Russel's viper and saw-scaled viper) which kill thousands of people in the country every year.” Dr. Ommer had worked on the National Geographic's king cobra project. Bites from king cobras are very rarely reported and, hence, India does not make anti-venom for its bite. “The rise in the temperature in the forests is the only reason I can think of for the sudden appearance of the snake in the villages close to the forests,” he said.

King cobras usually prefer a temperature of 25 to 27 degrees Celsius. Beyond this, they tend to move on to cooler places.

Rat snakes are its favourite dish (the scientific name ophiophagus, meaning snake-eater, comes from this eating habit). But, Dr. Ommer discounts the view that king cobras strayed into the countryside because of the ample availability of rat snakes. “On the contrary, the population of rat snakes has dwindled in Kerala because of the shortage of frogs on which they feed.”

The rain forests of Western Ghats are home to a large number of king cobras (which are found in southern China and some southeast Asian countries like Thailand as well.)

The Thattekkad forest and the Periyar Tiger Reserve are believed to hold a substantial population. The king cobra has an average length of 12 ft, but a snake in the Thrissur zoo had grown to 5.5 metres. It can keep one-third of its body length vertical while attacking an opponent. Its hiss can scare away humans and wild animals.

“When confronted, it flares out its beautiful longitudinal hoods and emits a bone-chilling hiss that sounds almost like a growling dog's,” Dr. Ommer said.

King cobra is the only known snake that builds nests to lay eggs. When biting, it spews a large quantity of neuro-toxic venom - about 7 ml - which can kill 20 humans or an adult elephant.

Since its brain development is better than other species of snakes, king cobra is considered ‘brainy' - while kept in captivity it is said to ‘recognise' people who feed it regularly.

Dr. Ommer says that if the global warming continues and the temperature in the forests rises further, more king cobras might stray into human habitats, particularly those located on the edge of forests.