Tuesday, 22 February 2011

King Cobras of Agumbe - One Million Snake Bites

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WATCH: Natural World: One Million Snakebites, BBC2 9pm, Tues 22nd February 2011

A Spot of Snake Tracking

In 2008 I visited herpetologist Gowri Shankir at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in South West India. Several months earlier he had inserted radio-chips inside two adult King Cobras before returning them back to the forest. Now we were heading into the forest as part of a unique telemetry study to map the movement and range of these adults. It's hoped that the findings will shed new light onto their behaviour, which will help protect them in the future. 

Nervously I followed, as Gowri tracked the regal pair through the thick, wet forest, until eventually we stumbled across... a large pile of leaves! To the uninitiated it might look like a scrappy compost heap - but this was a royal residence. The nest of the worlds deadliest and most feared snake, and it could contain up to 40 eggs. The King Cobra is the only snake in the world that builds a nest - but sadly this is also one of the reasons why are threatened in the wild. These piles of leaves act like warning beacons, and once local people have found them it usually results in the eggs being destroyed. Numerous regional and local authorities claim that this is a legitimate precaution, and some even encourage bounties to be paid for cobra heads.  

It's easy to understand why such actions are taken - not only do King Cobras have a reputation for being aggressive, but one dose of their venom is enough to kill an elephant. Imagine if this nest was in your backyard, where your children played. 

The reality of course is that unless they feel threatened King Cobras are more likely to slither into the undergrowth than attack.  So what can be done to protect them?

Tracking King Cobras with Gowri Shankir at Agumbe

A King Cobra nest protected by a fence to prevent unassuming local people from stumbling across it

 Sign indicating that this is a King Cobra nest being studied by Agumbe Rainforest Research Station

From Monster to Marvel

The Agumbe research station was founded by world famous snake expert Romulus Whittaker. You may remember him from an episode of the Natural World 'The King and I' broadcast in 2005. He had just created the research station and this film followed him as he turned the surrounding forest into the worlds first King Cobra sanctuary. Though allergic to antivenom, he calmly rescued a large female from a home in an Indian village before introducing her to a male called Elvis. Eventually, these snakes bred and Romulus released their offspring into the jungle around Agumbe - the first of a new generation of Kings.

'One of the most decisive moments in my life was finding my first king cobra at Agumbe. I’ll never forget the feeling of facing that magnificent 12-foot-long snake all by my lonesome and the somewhat crazy maneuvers that it took to get it into a bag.'
- Romulus Whittaker (Photo: PBS)

Through their work educating local people Romulus and Gowri are now helping this new generation. They believe that a greater understanding of the Kings behavior will help to dispel fear amongst people who share this part of India with them, allowing both human and snake to live and let live.

Gowri told me that '30 years ago, if a King Cobra was sighted anywhere near a village it would have been hunted and killed, now its more likely to be given space to make its own way back to the forest.' 

'It's all about space and understanding, a Cobra has no intention of attacking a human - we're too big for it consider us as prey, but if we threaten it or invade its space it might strike in self defence.' 

If a cobra does decide to hang around a bit too long, Romulus and Gowri will likely be called in to encourage it to move... or more precisely to bag it and release it somewhere safe.

As for the nest that we had found, I helped Gowri put up a protective 'fence'. This was to keep the snakes inside rather than to keep people out. He's confident that it will remain untouched 'People know about the project and support us' he said 'and once the eggs have hatched, I'll be able to weigh the young and safely release them into the forest.'

One Million Snakebites

Now, Rom and Gowri's work is more important than ever. A new report has revealed that India is in the middle of a snakebite epidemic, with a loss of human life far in excess of any official figures. 'One Million Snakebites' follows Romulus and his team as they travel around India to investigate the natural history behind these chilling new statistics, and to see what can be done to help India's people, and ultimately, its snakes.

Watch this episode of the Natural World, Tuesday 22nd February 2011, 9pm BBC2

Romulus Whitaker gets up close to a King Cobra in India

Viper Strike in Slow Motion


  1. Brilliant post as usual. Looking forward to watching this one SueX

  2. Cool. I loved the last film

  3. I loved the video...Agumbe is King Cobra's Capital...