The King of Kings, by Nicola Addison

Coming from New Zealand, my experience of snakes is pretty limited as we have no snakes back home. So, when we got the call to say that someone had found the carcass of a 20 foot long King Cobra (or Hamadryad, Ophiophagus hannah), I jumped at the chance to go and witness this phenomenon.  A snake that has earned a reputation for its aggressiveness and courage, and is the largest venomous snake in the world, is definitely worth a look!  

Myself, Sumantha Ghosh, and Frederique Lacraz all piled into the jeep early on the morning of the 1st May 2010 to head towards Kaladhungi, Nainital District, Uttarakhand, where we met a group of forest guards, local snake experts, interested locals, and media.  A trek into the forest brought us out at the picturesque Ladhuagar Water Falls, in Dechauri range of Ramnagar Forest Division, which fall roughly 20 metres over the cliff edge into the pool below.  A scramble over the tumble of fossil rocks at the base of the waterfall brought us to an awesome sight of the twisted, decomposing body of a large animal. 

PICT0050Further inspection showed that this is what we’d come for – the King of all King Cobras.  It was obvious from first glance that this was a big specimen, but just how big needed to be confirmed.  This was left to Sumantha and Rajesh Panwar, who braved the smell, flies and maggots to get a measurement of the animal using rope and a measuring tape. 

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The outcome: 23 feet and 9 inches!

It goes without saying that this makes for a big snake!  Prior to this, the largest known specimen was a King Cobra held at the London Zoo, measuring 18 feet 4 inches.  The average length for a King Cobra is 12 – 14 feet, 10 feet less than the length of the Kaladhungi King Cobra. 

Although the carcass was in an advanced stage of decomposition, the blackish brown diamond shaped scales on the snake’s back, and the creamy white banded belly scales were still apparent.  The belly scales measured as wide as 1 inch!  The head of the snake measured 4 inches, and we measured the diameter at 11 inches, although this can only be taken as a rough estimate given how decomposed the snake was. 

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The cause of death was a topic of much conversation.  Given that the carcass was largely decomposed, it was difficult to pin point what killed the snake, but the theories thrown about were that it died of old age, or fell from the surrounding cliffs, or, and hopefully this is not the reason, poisoned.  Whatever the cause of death, this is a loss that is to be mourned. The discovery of such a large King Cobra is not something that happens regularly, and the fact that this is potentially the largest known King Cobra makes it extra special. 

The sheer size of the animal could be an indication of the state of the surrounding forest.  The eastern side of the Kosi River is known for having larger animals than normal – Jim Corbett shot the Bachelor of Powalgarh near here in the 1920′s.  This tiger measured 3.23 metres in length – larger than any other tiger found in the area at that time.  A large animal, like a large tree, is likely to have lived for a long time, and for something to live a long time in the wild means that it has been largely unaffected by humans.  Alternatively, habitat conditions are such that growth of the animals is increased.

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King Cobra generally live in dense jungles, where they feed mainly on snakes (all species, including poisonous ones), and occasionally monitor lizards.  It could be said that prey in the area must be numerous and diverse for the snake to have grown to such a size, and, presumably, age.  Likewise, the must be good breeding habitat for the animal.  We could see, in the cliffs surrounding the waterfall, several small caves or overhanging rock, any of which could have provided cover for the King Cobra.

The unfortunate side of this story is that we were not allowed to preserve the body of the snake.  The forest department required that the carcass was cremated in the way that tiger or leopard carcasses are required to be burnt.  This leaves us with no evidence to prove the exact length of the snake, no samples to be used to study this huge beast.  We will now never know the sex of the snake, the girth, the age, the exact length, cause of death, because no evidence, apart from photos, exists.

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Despite this, those of us that were there will be forever privileged to have seen this King Cobra. I, for one, am in awe of its size, and even its beauty.  I am now looking forward to seeing more King Cobra during my stay in India – this time preferably alive!

 

 



3 Responses to “The King of Kings, by Nicola Addison”

  1. Thanks for those details Rajesh, changes are made. Cheers

  2. Deepak says:

    “wooow” such a long cobra,i never never seen in my life.

  3. Fantastic post.Thanks Again. Really Cool.

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