The majestic king cobra;

separating fact from fiction

by Everett Madsen
Worshipped by some, feared by many, few animals inspire such a multitude of reactions as the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah). Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, the king cobra is the largest venomous snake on the planet, capable of attaining lengths of up to 5.5 meters (18 feet). Reactions to seeing one will range from awe and admiration, to fear and contempt. On first glance it might appear reasonable for one to be intimidated by this striking animal. Its great length and size can be imposing. Its ability to rear up a few feet off the ground in its trademark defensive posture with its long narrow hood expanded is enough to ward off most predators and intruders. And of course, its ability to deliver large quantities of potent neurotoxic venom, enough to drop an elephant, is difficult to overstate. 
However upon deeper inspection, one would see that bites on humans by king cobras are quite rare, and virtually unheard of among individuals not trying to kill or handle one in some manner. They would see that this is an animal that would attempt to flee and avoid confrontation with humans at every opportunity. They would see that this is a crucial apex predator that keeps populations of other snake species in check, including venomous species responsible for greater numbers of snakebites on humans (Its monotypic genus Ophiophagus is Greek for “snake eater”, in reference to its feeding ecology). And finally, they would see that this magnificent predator that plays such a vital role is on the decline as more of the habitat for this wide ranging active forager is destroyed and developed for human use, and individuals caught in it are killed for merely existing in their annexed homes. 
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 A large king cobra calculates the situation and awaits the perfect opportunity to flee to safety away from the perceived danger of the researchers nearby. Photo: Everett Madsen

In the summer of 2018, I traveled to Thailand to work as a field technician on a project studying the spatial ecology of the king cobra. I tracked the movements of multiple individuals daily via radio telemetry. One of our tracking protocols was to not approach the animal within 10 meters to avoid spooking it, however sometimes difficult circumstances (terrain, waterbody, etc.) can force researchers to get a little closer than preferable. I made the error of spooking my king cobra under these circumstances on a couple occasions, and many others over the years of the long term project have as well, and every time the animal’s instinct is not to come out of shelter and hood, strike, etc., but rather discreetly move off in another direction away from the observer.
 
While on the king cobra team, I also handled via snake hook quite a few individuals brought in for data collection. During these hands on interactions, the king cobra would understandably be very defensive with its regal hooding display (for all it knows, I am a giant predator trying to kill it). However the moment you take a step back and just observe, they almost always begin to retreat to the nearest escape route while keeping their head angled in a position to keep an eye on you ensuring you do not follow them. These first hand experiences made it very clear, the formidable and greatly feared king cobra will take every opportunity to get away from a human rather than confront one. 
The king cobra is not the monster of myth and legend, but rather a majestic animal that plays a critical role in its ecosystem and deserves our attention. With education replacing myth with fact, fear can be molded into healthy respect, and together we can coexist with incredible animals like the king cobra.

References

 

Alirol, E., Sharma, S. K., Bawaskar, H. S., Kuch, U., & Chappuis, F. (2010). Snake Bite in South Asia: A Review. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 4(1), e603. 

 

Chanhome, L.; Cox, M. J.; Vasaruchapong, T.; Chaiyabutr, N.; Sitprija, V. (2011). "Characterization of venomous snakes of Thailand". Asian Biomedicine 5 (3): 311–328.

 

Inger R.F., Stuart, B.L., Auliya, M., Shankar, G. & Mohapatra, P. 2010. Ophiophagus hannah. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010

 

Kularatne, S. A. M., Budagoda, B. D. S. S., Gawarammana, I. B., & Kularatne, W. K. S. (2009). Epidemiology, clinical profile and management issues of cobra (Naja naja) bites in Sri Lanka: first authenticated case series. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 103(9), 924–930.

 

O'Shea, M. (2008). Venomous snakes of the world. London, Cape Town, Sydney, Auckland: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. ISBN 9781847730862.

 

Tin-Myint, Rai-Mra, Maung-Chit, Tun-Pe and Warrell, D. A. (1991) Bites by the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) in Myanmar: successful treatment of severe neurotoxic envenoming. Q. J. Med. New Series 80, 751-762.