The King cobra, scientifically known as Ophiophagus Hannah, is the largest venomous snake in the world. The species is found predominantly in the plains and rainforests of India, Southeast Asia, and Southern China. The species occurs in countries and regions such as Bangladesh, Bali, Bhutan, Cambodia, Borneo, Hong Kong, China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Macao, Nepal, Myanmar, Singapore, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. The King cobra preys on other snakes, both venomous and non-venomous. Its generic name Ophiophagus, which means “snake eater” is indicative of its feeding habits, which includes the cannibalism of fellow king cobras. They are also known to eat eggs, lizards, and small mammals. The snake prefers streams in open and dense forest areas, bamboo thickets, dense mangrove swamps, and areas bordering agricultural land. These snakes spend about a fourth of their time in trees and bushes. In recent years, monitoring of wild populations has revealed a steep decline in numbers of King cobras in many areas. King cobras are currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.
Understanding King Cobras
King cobras possess some of the most potent venoms in the world. A single bite from the snake is enough to kill 20 people or an elephant. While king cobras are undoubtedly dangerous when provoked, they are undeserving of their fearsome reputation. Research has revealed that the reptiles are extremely shy and elusive and avoid humans whenever possible. King cobras also exhibit fascinating behavioral traits, some of which are unique to the species. King cobras are a favorite species among snake charmers who use them to entertain eager audiences. It is noteworthy that although cobras can hear, they are deaf to ambient sounds. King cobras are usually enticed by the shape and movement of the charmer’s flute as opposed to the music it emits. King cobras also can sense ground vibrations. Female cobras have an intriguing maternal instinct. They are known to build nests and lie coiled over a heap of eggs for the entire hatching period, which can take between 60 and 90 days.
Importance Of The King Cobra
Snake venom is an interesting substance that is likely to revolutionize the world of medicine as we know it today. King cobra’s venom is intriguing as it is among the fastest-acting venoms in the world. King cobra venom acts by crippling the nervous system through toxins that bind to the muscular receptors of the victim. The toxins then block chemical neurotransmitters that communicate with muscle tissue and control contractions. The effect leaves the victim paralyzed and induces respiratory failure, which could result in death within a short time. Chemical analysis of the king cobra’s venom reveals a novel protein known as ohanin, which is unique to the King cobra. Due to its distinct structure, the protein does not fit into existing venom families and is therefore classified under a new family of snake venoms. The protein is non-toxic when used in low quantities. Exposure of small quantities of this toxin to mice led to neurological effects that include hyperalgesia and hyperlocomotion. Hyperalgesia refers to a heightening in the sensitivity to pain, while hyperlocomotion refers to the inhibition of behavioral and physical activity, an important trait found in sedatives. The effects demonstrate the direct and aggressive impact of ohanin on the nervous system. Although the effects of ohanin might seem undesirable, scientists can manipulate the protein to enhance the desired properties. Currently, scientists have managed to develop painkillers that are 20 times more powerful than morphine. The revolutionary medication also has zero side effects even when used in high dosages. Scientists believe that they are just scratching the tip of the iceberg. By some estimates, King cobra venom could hold thousands of potential remedies to diseases currently ailing people around the world. Who knows, the cure for cancer or the treatment for diabetes could potentially come from snake venom.
Threats To The King Cobra
King cobras have experienced an approximately 30% decline in its population over the last 75 years in India. Some of the threats blamed for the decline include habitat destruction and harvesting from the wild. A study published by the Reptilian Research Group of the University of Kerala revealed that the King cobra inhabiting the Western Ghats faced some of the most significant threats on the Indian subcontinent. The study also revealed that King cobras were continuously migrating to nearby villages due to large scale deforestation and ecological disturbance by poachers. Other threats that have been identified include unpredicted forest fires and habitat fragmentation. A significant number of snakes are also killed on the roads and intentional human attacks.
Human Hostility Towards King Cobras
Human hostility towards King cobras has been blamed for a significant experience of King cobra deaths throughout its range. The aversion is evidenced by intentional attacks by humans on King cobras. A study on factors influencing human hostility to King cobras in the Western Ghats of India revealed that 80% of the time, people believed that King cobras should be killed as opposed to being left alone. The study employed a logical regression model relating situational factors with people’s opinions. Research also revealed that defensive snakes would attract more hostile reactions and were far more likely to be killed than relatively docile ones. Smaller snakes were also far more likely to be killed compared to larger ones. The odds of hostility towards smaller snakes were related to the higher likelihood of success in subduing “aggressive” smaller-sized snakes. It is likely that the traditional knowledge about the venomous nature of young King cobras also contributed to the impulse that leads to the killing of young snakes. King cobras living around forest edges and close to villages were found to have elevated mortality risk. The study also revealed that the possibility of “ease of subduing” is the leading factor influencing people’s perception of King cobra encounters. According to another study published on Sage journals on repeated persecution of King cobras in Thailand, 84% of villagers practicing agriculture fear the King cobra because it is considered more dangerous than other snake species. The perception, however, contradicts hospital records, which show that King cobra bites are highly uncommon. The variance between perceived danger and reality is likely due to their size and defensive displays. The bias could also be because the species is the most identifiable. People could be driven to kill snakes to avoid future attacks. While the motive is understandable, the action is arguably counterproductive as King cobras eat other snakes, an essential ecological role that helps to keep other snake populations under control. Killing King cobras could lead to significant increases in other snake populations.
Habitat degradation is considered by most as one of the leading causes of the King cobra population declines. Over the years, a significant part of King cobra’s natural habitat has been lost as a result of deforestation, which is fuelled by a growing human population due to the high demand for farmland and timber. Intact habitats that were previously unscathed by humans have changed drastically in recent decades and have become virtually uninhabitable by native species. The remaining rainforests in regions such as the Western Ghats are heavily fragmented, which is negatively affecting the population of King cobras. Habitat destruction through pollution is also a growing concern in delicate ecosystems such as those inhabited by the King cobra.
Poachers are a growing menace that threatens numerous species considered vulnerable or endangered. Although snakes are protected under Indian law, illegal King cobra harvesting continues. King cobras are . Snakeskin is also in high demand, which further fuels poaching of the snakes.
Conserving King cobras In The Face Of Human Hostility
Attacks and killing of smaller and therefore younger snakes present a conservation bottleneck, especially if habitat fragmentation and degradation continue to drive more snakes to areas close to human settlements. Given the complex nature of human – King cobra encounters, conservation of the species cannot be appropriately met by focusing on protected areas, a more holistic approach that addresses the presence of King cobras close to human habitation is needed. Some of the alternative conservation measures currently being employed include outreach programs that educate communities on the ecological importance of King cobras. Experts believe that building awareness on the need to conserve the King cobra and education on the behavioral and dietary requirements of the species is likely to reduce human hostility towards the snakes significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society, in collaboration with the state forest department, is establishing a snake rescue center that is not only aimed to rescue and conserve snakes but also works to educate and safeguard the public against snake bites. The project provides a comprehensive approach for the preservation of King Cobras while also addressing local concerns. The project offers on-the-ground solutions to mitigate the increasing human-snake conflict. Once complete the center will house snake rescue equipment and infographic material to enhance public awareness. Trained personnel will also be available when contacted by villagers. Local tribes will also be trained in basic snake rescue methods and survey techniques.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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