Lord of the Jungle, the king cobra, is under existential threat in the Eastern Ghats of India!
Currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, the king cobra occurs widely across India. It is an apex predator that mainly preys on other snakes and their presence in an ecosystem indicates a healthy biodiversity.
Reptile conservationists in the Eastern Ghats have recently been working to save snakes and map the ‘problematic sites’ for king cobras. They have identified at least 15 sites in the district of north Andhra-Vizag, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam where there have been negative interactions between the king cobras and humans. In the last five years there have been 32 known killings of these snakes in this region, with many more unrecorded numbers. Co-founder of the Save The Snakes, Murthy Kantimahanti recently spoke to Deccan Chronicle about this problem.
“The public, especially those in the villages, don’t know how to deal with a situation when they encounter a king cobra. Out of fear, they will immediately kill it, not knowing that a king cobra bites only in self-defence when under attack. If they are left unattended these snakes will not harm at all and there is a need to save these reptiles! Most of these killings are accidental in nature, often due to fear, because the king cobras have a religious significance” -Murthy Kantimahanti
When confronted, this species quickly attempts to escape and avoid confrontation. However, if continuously provoked, the king cobra can be highly aggressive! Murthi and his colleagues have been mapping the ‘problematic sites’ for the king cobras in the Eastern Ghats and found that in one village close to Chodavaram in the Vizag district, eight king cobras were killed by the villagers in the last year alone.
The Western Ghats model needs to be replicated in the Eastern Ghats
In contrast to the Eastern Ghats, there has been extensive work going on in the Western Ghats on king cobras especially by Agumbe Rainforest Research Station’s (ARRS) King Cobra Conservancy (KCC) project. Reptile conservationists believe there is a need to replicate the Western Ghats model to save and study king cobras in the Eastern Ghats too.
“In the Western Ghats, especially in Karnataka, when a villager sees a king cobra, he or she will not kill the snake. Instead, they call a local field station- one of the many that have been set up to save these reptiles. Representatives from the field station will rush to the spot, rescue the snake and release it in the wild. This is how it happens in the Western Ghats and we need to do something similar to save king cobra in the Eastern Ghats. Otherwise their numbers will come down further” -Murthy Kantimahanti
The KCC project in Agumbe, Karnataka, regularly rescue king cobras from people’s homes and villages surrounding the rainforest. Awareness is created on a regular basis through workshops with schools, villages and community civic groups. 108 king cobras were rescued in 2016 alone.
The KCC team have also embarked upon a satellite telemetry study of the king cobras in the Western Ghats. The telemetry study will be managed by four teams, one well trained intern and a local field assistant. They will track the four radio-tagged snakes everyday throughout the activity period of the king cobra, to observe their daily activity, movement and interactions. While the study will help to gain considerable knowledge on the ecology and behaviour of the species, it will also provide the opportunity to continue community engagement in the region and conduct awareness programmes on a regular basis while following the king cobras through this largely human dominated landscape.
A periodic report will be submitted to the Karnataka state forest department, which will help in implementing actions towards conservation at the ground level. Over 800 students from across India will be trained and taught about snake behavioural ecology and the use of radio telemetry through the volunteer program.
Social Survey to know people’s attitude to snakes
Save The Snakes, have launched the project ‘Providing Solutions for Human-Snake Conflicts and protecting threatened king cobra populations in the Eastern Ghats of India’ and embarked upon a first ever social survey in the Eastern Ghats to understand people’s attitudes towards snakes and identify crucial areas for their conservation.
As part of the survey, reptile conservationists will conduct atleast 2000 interviews with locals by means of a detailed questionnaire. So far, around 800 interviews have been completed. The data collected will be analysed to better understand the people’s awareness and interactions with snakes.
“Rural communities in the Eastern Ghats of India are primarily poor and lack access to appropriate medical care when a snakebite occurs. The current solution for mitigating this crisis is indiscriminately kill snakes, including king cobras, which has largely contributed to the decline in the species”
Murthy adds that such fear and persecution of snakes across the Eastern Ghats indicates a deep intolerance towards snakes amongst local people.
“Increased habitat destruction from mining and unsustainable agricultural practices further threaten snake populations and there is a lack of appropriate conservation measures to protect the biodiversity of the Eastern Ghats. The baseline data of king cobras in the Eastern Ghats is rudimentary, requiring further studies to address this snake’s conservation needs before the current threats extirpate the iconic species from the region”
There is an urgent need to work with communities to reduce conflict between humans and snakes to protect the king cobra and aid in conserving the biodiversity of the Eastern Ghats.