King Cobras, the largest venomous snakes

A king cobra at Bangkok's Snake FarmIn a popular TV series on Animal Planet, a Machoman with a moustache rides his big motorbike to the remotest corners of Australia. The purpose of these trips is to confront dangerous, local animals — in particular snakes — in order to catch or subdue them. Recently, he was bound for a duel with the Taipan, ‘the world’s most dangerous snake’, as he repeatedly informed us in his broad Aussie accent. His opponent was confined in a cage and released for the occasion. During the performance, our hero tried to get control over the deadly serpent by using a hooked iron spike. Taipans are known to have nervous dispositions, and this one became so agitated that its owner thought it wise to come to Machoman’s help. While doing so, he was, unfortunately, bitten by the snake. After applying pressure bandages to his leg, assistants rushed the victim to hospital. There, signs of serious envenomation having already manifested themselves, he received a life-saving dose of anti-venom. A day or so later, he had recovered enough to leave the hospital.

This story might not have had such a happy ending if the snake had been a King Cobra. The Taipan’s venom may be more toxic, but the former can inject such large amounts in one bite that the neurotoxic effects become almost instantly life-threatening; the victim may succumb within minutes — long before the antidote is at hand.

King cobra preserved in liquor

A King Cobra preserved in a local liquor for sale on the Laotian bank of the Mekong near the Golden Triangle.

Growing to a respectable length of over five metres — the longest recorded specimen was 5.70 metres — King Cobras, also called Hamadryads, are easily the largest poisonous snakes in the world. A fully-grown one’s girth is that of a man’s forearm, and its head the size of a computer mouse. Its venom glands extend from behind the eye above the upper jaw until far into the neck and contain enough venom to kill a hundred people. When agitated, it lifts its head a metre and a half from the ground, and is ready to attack.

Although it occurs throughout much of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast-Asia — the regions of the world with by far the largest number of snake-bite fatalities — the King Kobra kills relatively few victims. It is true that the female may attack without provocation when, early in the rainy season, it is guarding a couple of dozen eggs in its mounded nest of fallen leaves. However, it is a myth that it is ‘as fast as a galloping horse’, as was believed by the foresters working in Northern Thailand’s teak forests in the early decades of the twentieth century — no recorded speed of any snake has ever exceeded fifteen kilometres per hour. Like most other snakes, the king cobra will usually glide away when encountering a human being and only attack when cornered. But if you’re pursued by a King Cobra, the advice of Achan Uttama, a much respected monk from Kanchanaburi, should be kept in mind: ‘Immediately take off your shirt or hat and throw it on the ground. The snake will go after the cloth and that will leave you just enough time to get away.’

Drinking king cobra liquor

A tourist is drinking King Cobra liquor in Laos to improve his performance.

The King Cobra is active both by day and at night, although, as it prefers to live in the forests, encounters with it are uncommon. On the other hand, Stanley Aiklone Kham Mwe, one of Thailand’s most seasoned guides, used to spot them almost every month while trekking in the jungles of Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son along the Burmese border. He fears them a lot, as one may only become aware of them at the last moment. They also hide in caves and may let themselves drop down from rock ridges. A British surveyor early in the twentieth century agreed with him. ‘They are so like the colour of dried grass, that sometimes we approach without perceiving him, but when he raises his head and inflates his hood in lusty rage, he is a bold man who would dispute the path with him.’

In the 1950s, when much of the North was still covered with dense forest, Gordon Young, an ardent hunter who probably spent more time in the jungle that any other foreigner, came across relatively few King Cobras, but one such encounter was a hair-raising experience. This was on the southern slope of Doi Langkha, a 2000-metre high mountain, some sixty kilometres northeast of Chiang Mai. He spotted a pile of dark coils lying on a flat rock. ‘The king cobra raised its head about two feet, hood spread, and watched us steadily from about ten yards.’ As its head rose even higher, the serpent produced a human-like hissing, but thereafter remained motionless. Young began fishing in his kit for his camera. ‘Suddenly the cobra jerked, raising his head another foot, and without further warning slithered off the rock and came towards us. It came to within some ten feet of us and raised up again, all in one smooth, incredibly fast motion.’ One of Young’s companions’ shotgun went off but missed the raised head. Three men with guns and a long knife were ready to attack the monster. Then, in a blink of the eye, it disappeared into the grass, only to re-emerge behind them, raising its head and emitting loud hisses. Fortunately, Young did not miss the hood when he fired. The animal, a black specimen, was eighteen feet long. Unlike other king cobras Young had come across, this giant melanistic form did not move away hastily, but showed real interest in attacking. Given their unpredictable nature, Young thought them to be the most fearsome creatures in the jungle.

Interestingly, during the same excursion on Doi Langkha, Young had another encounter with a huge King Cobra, probably a male that was eagerly awaiting the hatchlings to appear from a female’s nest, to devour them in a cannibalistic orgy.

Such snakes almost exclusively feed on other snakes. This fact is expressed in their scientific name Ophiophagus hannah, ‘ophiophagus’ meaning ‘snake-eater’.  They hunt virtually all medium-sized and large snakes in their surroundings, such as ‘common’ cobras, rat snakes, Copperhead Racers, and pythons — including specimens of the latter as long as two metres. They also occasionally devour lizards. Juvenile king cobras feed on smaller snakes. In Loei province, I once came across a young specimen, a fresh road-kill, the contents of its bowels, pressed out of the body, consisting of two small White-spotted Slug Snakes. A slightly older specimen run over on the road to the summit of Doi Inthanon had just fed on a Banded Malayan Wolf Snake.

Snake charmer with king cobra

Burma’s famous snake charmer Saya Hnin-Mahla kissed her King Cobra on the head as the highlight of her show.

Since all snakes are carnivorous, a large ophiovorous animal such as the King Cobra is at the top of the food pyramid. Understandably, then, it is not very numerous in the forest. The Dutchmen running a snake farm on Java in the early twentieth century were not aware of the strict ophiovorous character of the king cobras. As a result, the animals they kept for the extraction of venom starved to death one after another. In the same period, however, Burma’s famous snake charmer Saya Hnin-Mahla kept her king cobras healthy by force-feeding them chicken meat. Nowadays, King Cobras at Bangkok’s Snake Farm (Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute) are fed by forcing them to swallow skinned snakes.

Actually, a King Cobra bite is mostly a risk to professional handlers in zoos and snake farms, and to snake charmers. In Burma, many snake charmers have been bitten by a King Cobra during their show, and some of them died almost instantly. However, I do not know the fate of Saya, who kissed her king cobra on the head as the highlight of her show. In Ban Khok Sa-nga in Thailand’s Khon Kaen province, many villagers raise king cobras in wooden cages under their houses. Occasionally, they participate in shows, including hair-raising boxing shows with a King Cobra. When I visited the village, a snake charmer showed me a big scar on his wrist, which, he told me, had resulted from a King Cobra bite. He believed herbal therapy had saved his life.

Khon Kaen is also the place where a well-documented attack by a King Cobra in highly unusual circumstances was the talk of town for many days. In the mid-1980s, a student couple were making love in the bushes of the university campus, just a few kilometres outside the town centre, when a furious King Cobra emerged. Naked, and in frenzied panic, the girl succeeded in escaping, but her boyfriend was bitten in his buttock and was dying when help arrived at the spot.

Many sensational stories about encounters with king cobras, or attacks by the serpents, are told in Thailand, most of them more likely fiction than truth. Only a few years ago the Bangkok Post published a weekly series of five long extracts from Saneh Sangsuk’s tale Asorraphit (‘Venom’) about a crippled village boy who was attacked by a four-metre long King Cobra. King cobras also feature prominently in the many stories about the life of Thailand’s thudong monks.

These monks consider wandering and meditation in nature as essential for their development towards enlightenment, and consequently spend many months alone in caves or deep in the forest. Because of their radiating loving kindness or the reciting of special mantras by these monks, the king cobras generally abstain from doing them any harm. Achan Phu (1829-1933), the abbot of Bangkok’s Wat In, was attacked one night under the full moon. The large snake coiled around his ankles and within seconds made its way to his waist and his chest. ‘When the snake waved its head in the air and inflated its hood at Phu’s eye level, the monk remained calm and still. In this critical moment Achan Phu kept (mentally) reciting the mantra araham, araham, araham. Gradually, the snake uncoiled itself from the monk’s body, slipped to the ground, and disappeared into the darkness of the forest.’

Nagas, giant mythological serpents, are said to frequently visit the thudong monks in the forest, to show them their strong devotion to the teachings of the Buddha. Interestingly, the nagas share many characteristics with cobras, and because of their giant size, the King Cobra may have been its natural model. In ancient India, naga-worship probably developed from the cults that venerated cobras and King Cobras. The naga later became integrated in Hinduism and Buddhism, where it is strongly associated with secret water sources, rain, and fertility. In popular tales and lore, often no clear distinction is made between true cobras and King Cobras, nagas and phayanak (‘naga kings’).

But then again, neither is the modern taxonomy of cobras and King Cobras very clear. Many experts believe that three species of cobras occur in Thailand, each with much intraspecific variation. For example, the Indo-Chinese Spitting Cobra (Naja siamensis), which is the common cobra here in the North and in the Northeast, can be uniformly black, olive-green, or irregularly mottled black and white, whereas the hood mark may be U-, V-, spectacle- or even monocle-shaped. The larger Monocellate Cobra (Naja kaouthia), which can grow to two metres, shows as much variation. This is, however, not a spitting cobra, and it is the common type in Central-Thailand, but it does not occur in the North. ‘Cobras’ longer than two metres are, consequently, all King Cobras (Ophiophagus hannah). Their hood is narrower than the smaller cobras’, but extends further down the neck. No hood marks have ever been observed. As King Cobras also show much variation in colouration, some experts believe several species may be hidden in the complex of ‘King Cobra’. However, all hatchlings and juveniles I have come across were black with some forty narrow pale orange bands and head mask of the same colour. These characteristics gradually disappear when they grow older.

© SJON HAUSER: TEXT & IMAGES

In Mae Sa valley, about 20 kms northwest of Chiang Mai, both Mae Sa Snake Farm and Mae Rim Snake Farm raise at least one King Cobra, but the animals are not part of the shows. At Bangkok’s Snake Farm (Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute) the artificial feeding of a King Cobra is demonstrated daily. Many King Cobras are raised in the village of Ban Khok Sa-nga in Khon Kaen province, where visitors are welcome to see shows and demonstrations.