On the Scent of a King by Ajay Giri

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Since the establishment of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) we have been observing human-King Cobra conflicts with intent to mitigate them. An increase in such incidents occurs during March and throughout the breeding season that stretches until June. The male King Cobra begins his journey in pursuit of the female and establishes territories throughout the journey by male combat- a ritualistic dance that takes place to claim dominance. This pursuit is aided by the scent trail of pheromones left behind on the path by the female.

On the 27th of March, 2012 I got a call from Kammaradi, a small village about 25 km away from ARRS, where three King Cobras had been sighted. One had been spotted in a paddy field but had disappeared soon after; the other two were near a school surrounded by some houses and had been disturbed by a curious crowd that had gathered around the snakes. When I reached the location, I could see two King Cobras, a male and a female (they can be differentiated by their size, snout pattern and color), about 70 meters away from each other, hidden in different burrows.

I talked to the people who lived there and found out that they had occasionally spotted King cobras during the breeding season for the past couple of years. Usually, sightings had occurred when the snakes were crossing the road, going from one forest patch to another but on this occasion they had come into a village area. My first reaction   was to just talk to the people around and judge their reaction regarding the presence of the snakes. I wanted to shed light on the King Cobra ecology and also advise the villagers not to catch or disturb the snakes during their breeding season as this is a very vital period. Convincing them was a formidable task. It’s understandable that nobody can sleep when they know that a twelve foot snake is just outside their door!!

Fortunately, after an hour, the female found a window of opportunity to move out of the area.. The male king cobra was disturbed by dogs on all the three occasions when he tried to pursue the females scent trail.

King Cobra

I stationed myself there to monitor him as he remained in his burrow that night and the next 2 days as well. In the span of those three days, I showed the locals some presentations, photos and videos, to get them to understand the behavior of King Cobras, and their importance to the environment. Furthermore, I explained to them about why they shouldn’t disturb the snake, but rather keep an eye on it from a safe distance until it moves away from human settlement and only in the worst case scenario must the animal be handled and relocated by a professional with the consent of the forest department.

Unfortunately after three days  due to the growing concern from the Forest Department and locals,  I decided to catch the male and release him near the spot  where the female was last seen - about 300 meters from where he was resting. The spot was near a dry stream behind a school and some houses. When all the villagers agreed with this decision, I caught the male and just then we   heard loud voices alerting us that another male king cobra had been spotted just 300 meters away. It had also crossed the road and come into the village in pursuit of the scent trail left behind by the female.  This snake was also disturbed and chased into a cow shed by the dogs.

With everyone’s consent I caught the second male as well and both males were released into a burrow which had two small chambers but only one point exit which was close to the female’s scent trail. My intension was to try to carry out my plan without any disturbance to their life cycle. Whenever the males decided to come out of the burrow, they would get to smell each other and either engage in their combat ritual or go out of the area in search of the female.

After that I thanked all the locals and the Forest Department for understanding the importance of the wildlife in their environment and for being a part of mitigating the conflict situation. My work there was done and it was time for me to return to ARRS.

Almost eight days later, we got a call from the same village and the same house where I had caught the second male King Cobra. This time the snake wasn’t one of the three that we were observing, but yet another male King Cobra on the exact scent trail of the female. He was following the path that the other two males had taken, but had come a little late. The interesting thing was that the locals who called me were saying, “We are not afraid and are not disturbing the snake; we are just observing it from a safe distance, and there’s no need to rescue it.” Following that, I got many calls from other villagers who were also saying the same thing. They thanked me for sharing knowledge about the King and its behavioral patterns. It was quite heartening to see the people understand the importance of non-interference and let the snakes remain in the wild without disturbing them.

We are now involved in conducting more environmental education programs to spread awareness amongst people and are trying to increase   interest and passion in the common man towards saving the environment.

 

Author’s Profile:

Ajay Giri is an education officer at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS). From early childhood, Ajay has been keenly observing reptile behaviour in the field. His big break came with the King Cobra Telemetry Project (KCTP) as a research associate.  Graduating from that assignment, Ajay started working at the ARRS full time. Ajay conducts Environment Education Outreach Programmes (EEOP) for Schools/ College students, local people, Forest department, the Police force and the Anti-naxal squad. Ajay has also worked on Human-Snake Conflict Mitigation, King cobra breeding biology and biodiversity observation in Agumbe like (herbivore- carnivore monitoring through camera trapping) etc.

Ajay Giri