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The Kingdom of King Cobra

Rain forests are the Earth’s oldest living ecosystems. They are so amazing and beautiful and cover only 6 %of the Earth’s surface but yet they contain more than 1/2 of the world’s plant and animal species. Humans have long hunted wild game from forests, but over the past 50 years commercialization of killing has triggered a rapid increase in wildlife depletion. Hunting and poaching cause damage to the rain forest ecosystem by removing species key to the system’s functioning. The loss of a certain single species can mean extinction for many others. Hunting of seed dispersers and pollinators can influence the structure of a forest.

Rain forest and Bengal Tigers are ecologically quite correlated. Although, Tigers are found in amazingly diverse habitats: rain forests, grasslands, savannas and even mangrove swamps and Bengal tigers live in tropical rainforests in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal. However, most of the population is found in grassland or deciduous forests.

The relationship between Rain forest and Bengal Tigers has often made me curios. Bengal tigers like the constant shade that the rain forest floor guarantees with the under story’s leaves leaving the tigers cool. The tropical rain forest temperature never falls below 18 degrees Celsius and can reach up to 33 degrees Celsius and over. The tropical rain forests have no winter or summer seasons, with only 2 degrees separating them. Also with up to 10000 mm rain annually, with an average of 4000 mm, it ensures that the Bengal tiger (after the rains have dripped all the way down to the forest floor) is never thirsty. A typical tropical rain forest is green and lush, with some trees reaching over 45 metres. It contains an amazing array of insects, birds, mammals and plants. The Bengal tiger is certainly not alone in these ever green and ever rainy forest habitat.

This perspective of rain forest – Bengal tiger relationship, made me inquisitive about unique ecology of rain forest as well, and made me travel to Agumbe. Not alone or not with Exploring Nature team, but with few experts – with Photography mentor Sreeram, of Darter Photography, herpetologist Gowri Shankar and five other ace wildlife photographers of Bangalore. In fact herpetologist Gowri Shankar was our host, as we stayed in his camp at Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE) at Guddekere, located at Agumbe and surrounded by Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary.

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The idea was to refresh my knowledge of rain forest ecology and habitats and behaviour of King Cobra and also nevertheless to increase my intimacy with rain forest, which is also an important habitat of tiger in India and sub-continent.

Agumbe is a small village located in Shimoga district, Thirthahalli taluk in the Malnad region of Karnataka, India. It is sometimes called “The Cherrapunji of the South” after Cherrapunji, in Northeast India. Agumbe is associated with rainforest conservation efforts, documentation of medicinal plants, tourism (trekking and photography), and the promotion of cottage industry. 357 km north-west of Bangalore, as part of the Western Ghats mountain range, Agumbe lies in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Agumbe Reserved Forest located at Agumbe in the central Western Ghats of southern India. The Agumbe Reserved Forests receives an annual rainfall in excess of 7,000 mm (280 in) and is at an elevation of about 640 m (2,100 ft) above sea level. It forms a part of the Malnad-Kodagu corridor, which also includes the Someshwara, Mookambika, Bhadra, and Sharavati Wildlife Sanctuaries, Kudremukh National Park, and various other forest tracts and reserve forests around Kundapur, Shankaranarayana, Hosanagara, Sringeri, and Thirthahalli.

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My first meeting with Gowri Shankar was a coincidence. I boarded on my bus to Agumbe, on 4th April, 2019 at 10:50 PM from Majestic Ananda Rao Circle Bust Stand of Bangalore. Before that there was instruction from our photography mentor Sreeram, that we should not get down at Agumbe rather we need to get down at Guddekere, which is 8 km before Agumbe.

Before, getting into Bus, I was checking with fellow passengers about reaching time at Guddekere. But some of them told me that Bus would not stop at Guddekere. One of them, in a khaki t shirt, and long hairs tied up like bun on back of the head, with bright eyes, told me “It does stop at Guddekere, but if I want to go to Agumbe, its better I get down at Agumbe. Because Guddekere and Agumbe are 8 km apart.”

I, little perplexed, got into Bus and settled into my lower birth sleeper seat. After losing my photography gears, I didn’t have much to carry. One D3100 Nikon and a Sigma Macro lens, which I could easily packed in my back pack with clothes. So, I was not carrying any additional camera back pack.

The Khaki T shirt with bun hairstyle, sat next to me on a seater and after some time he asked me, why do I want to go to Agumbe? When I told him about Rainforest ecology and King Cobra, he further asked me whether I was going with Sreeram. After my affirmative answer, he disclosed his identity to me.

I was thrilled, that the King Cobra man and my would-be host, is my co passenger. I also felt bit relieved, that the confusion over arrival stop was clear. He assured me that Guddekere was the right stop to get down and he would get down there as well. So, the chances of missing the stop, was also didn’t exist anymore.

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Gowri Shankar is the founder of Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology, and dedicated his life to research and conservation of King Cobra. Currently he is doing PhD from IISC, Bangalore, and his thesis is on existence of different sub species of King Cobra. He is a scientist cum conservationist cum snake charmer. He started handling reptiles at the age of thirteen and has not looked back since. In the five years he’s been living in the rainforest environment of Agumbe, he has observed and documented the nesting, male combat, courtship, mating and cannibalistic behaviours of King Cobras in the wild. Apart from rescuing over a hundred King Cobras from distress situations, he has collected vital scientific data which has led to new insights into the life of a King Cobra.

Gowri Shankar has worked for several wildlife documentaries behind the camera and has been featured alongside Romulus Whitaker, known as the snake man of India, in two wildlife documentaries, The King and I on the BBC and Secrets of the King Cobra on the National Geographic Channel. He has also appeared in the following documentaries: Asia’s Deadliest Snake, One Million Snake Bites, and Wildest India, by Nat Geo Wild, BBC and Discovery Channel, respectively.

Being hosted by such a celebrity and knowledgeable herpetologist, was indeed an honour and I was quite excited about my next three days exploration adventure in the rainforest of Agumbe.

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We reached Guddekere at 6:45 AM on 5th April. Sreeram and other fellow explorers reached 10-15 minutes before us, by another bus and waiting for us at bus stand. All eight of us and Gowri’s man Friday and fellow snake rescuer Prashanth, got into two different cars and started our journey towards the camp. It was a 20 minutes ride through narrow and raw forest path of Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary and the five acre field site (camp) is nestled in the heart of the rainforests of Agumbe.

Sreeram didn’t want to waste much time, and immediately got us into work. Therefore, after breakfast and briefing about camp rules and ground rules, we started our exploration in the nearby area of camp, towards south west direction. There was a pond, where we observed few species of frogs – golden frogs, cricket frogs and skittering frogs; different types of drum shells and dragon flies. We slowly advanced through dense forest, with multiple halts to take photographs, and to understand the biodiversity of rain forest. Sreeram was continuously giving us instruction, asking as to trying different angles and composition, making us lying down on muds and bushes and also intermittently checking our shots. In the very first interaction with him, during exploration, I realized, he was a passionate teacher and ardent wildlife enthusiast. He was literally hand holding each one of us and teaching photography and rainforest ecology together. For me it was, my very first experience in some serious macro photography.

Sreeram was helping us in spotting species, he has an amazing pairs of sharp eyes to spot amphibians and insects in dense rainforest of Agumbe, as days progressed, we got several stunning examples of that. Once he instructed us about the species he spotted and how to shot that, he would advance further to check what else were there, while we would be busy in applying his lessons.

In one such occasion, when we were busy with a golden frog, we heard a faraway shout from Sreeram – “Pit Viper!”

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We rushed towards the source of shout; and found a malabar pit viper, on the huge trunk of a Punnaga tree (Calophyllum elatum), under the shades of broad and lined leaves of the tree, completely immobile and resting and probably getting prepared for its nocturnal activity. Trimeresurus malabaricus, commonly known as Malabar pit viper, Malabar rock pit viper, or rock viper, is a venomous pit viper species endemic to the Western Ghats of south-western India. No subspecies are currently recognized. Adults may attain a snout-vent length (SVL) of 105 cm (41 in), therefore the snake we saw was undoubtedly an adult species. The unique feature of Malabar pit viper is prehensile tail. Prehensility is the quality of an appendage or organ that has adapted for grasping or holding.

We spent almost 30-45 minutes there to observe and photograph the species, light was not sufficient, so taking clear photo was a bit challenging. Anyway it was 12:45 PM, and we all were feeling hungry and bit tired as well after overnight bus journey, so decided to come back later and may be in night with torch and tripod, when chances of seeing it active would also be higher.

We had our lunch with local Malnad and South-Indian Vegetarian food. Then around 2:30 PM, we all six photographers-explorers, Sreeram and one intern of KCRE, drove towards a place, 10 km away from the camp site. Gowri and his research team was tracking one female King Cobra, who at some point of time took shelter in a house, within forest. Reportedly, the snake was harassed severely by the residents of the house and chased her away, till she found a safe shelter, in a burrow in a termite tower deep inside the forest. Few residents of the house even didn’t spare the snake after that, they threw water into the burrow and made it shrink. Probably the abuse would have continued and ended up with killing of the snake, unless Gowri and his team had intervened.

Our exploration area in the afternoon was that burrow in termite tower, inside the forest.

It was breeding season of King Kobra, it starts from early February when males seek females who leave their scent (pheromones) behind. Shedding skin at the beginning of the breeding season causes the female to release pheromones, which helps the male track her down in the thick underbrush. Most often more than one male vies for a female resulting in male combat and the triumphant male gets to mate. There was similar story developed around the burrow and the female King Kobra we intended to observe. Gowri’s team spotted one strong male King Kobra, who followed the scent of the female and reached at the burrow. There were three other male King Kobras in that region, who also reached for the female and apparently one of them challenged the strongest male and was defeated. Therefore, currently the triumphant male was there – guarding the burrow and the female. But that never negates the possibility of fresh attacks from the other three males, who were presumably roaming around in the forest.

We reached there around, 3:30 PM. It took a bit time, as one of our fellow explorers’ Car had a flat tyre and we wasted some time en route, to repair that. Sreeram briefed us about ground rule. The most important thing was minimizing our movement, however talking or making noise would not be serious problems. They can’t hear but have keen eye sight, King Cobras are able to detect moving prey almost 100 m (330 ft) away. Its intelligence and sensitivity to earth-borne vibration are also used to track its prey. As the female was already harassed and scared, a slightest doubt on surrounding condition, might made her sceptical about coming out of her burrow. Therefore the onlookers’ movement must be minimized as much as possible.

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When we reached there, the male was found protruding his head out of the burrow. But no sight of the female. We were there for couple of hours, and situation didn’t change. It was becoming dusk in the forest, and sounds of thunder was heard from distance. Sreeram showed us one old nest of King Cobra. For building nests, females typically select a slope close to a tree with adequate shade. Considering Agumbe receives more than 8000mm of rainfall annually, this selection makes sense, as a slope guarantees the flow down of rain water preventing any stagnation, the buttress ensures a strong base and the shade ensures regulation of sunlight and decelerates rain drops before falling on the nest. It is not until one appreciates how a limbless creature can build a well-engineered nest that one realizes how our hands destroy natures wonders so unmindfully. The female gathers leaf litter (from a radius of 3-5m) in tight coils and slowly but steadily deposits them together. She repeatedly moves into it to tighten and pack the leaves firmly. Once the nest is around 30cm tall and 3feet wide she moves in to lay her eggs. As per Gowri, in nests observed around Agumbe, the clutch size varies from 23 to 43 eggs. The female continues to build till the nest is about 4 feet tall. She generally stays on the nest and guards it for 12- 15 days. During this entire nesting period the females rarely feed. Incubation period varies between 90 to 113 days; incubation temperature varies between 24-28 C and humidity between 55-90%.

After a while, we left that place for our campsite, with a plan to come back next day, but not in full contingent. Rather in small group of three people, in two different shifts – one group after breakfast and come back before lunch and the other group after lunch till dusk. Idea was to minimize peoples’ movement near the burrow.

Next day morning of 6th April, at 7:15 we again trekked up to the water stream towards south west direction, we went little further and reached up to a bigger pond. Spent more than an hour with skittering frogs, water striders and a large giant wood spider.

Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis is a common dicroglossid frog found in South Asia. It is known under numerous common names, including Indian skipper frog or skittering frog. They are often seen at the edge of bodies of water with their eyes above the water. They noisily move away from the shore when disturbed, giving them their common name. They are rarely seen outside water.

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The golden silk orb-weavers (Nephila) are a genus of araneomorph spiders noted for the impressive webs they weave. Nephila consists of numerous species found in warmer regions around the world. They are also commonly called golden orb-weavers, giant wood spiders, or banana spiders.

Some of the bird species we spotted near water body were open billed stork, common king fisher, grey hornbills and pond heron.

During breakfast, Sreeram announced the first batch which would go to King Kobra burrow, during morning session and would stay there till lunch break. Fortunately I was part of that batch.

When we reached there at around 11:00 AM, the male was already out and found coiling around a bug hump of the termite tower. Three of us took different position and sat like statue on ground. At around 12:00 noon, the female came out, she slowly came down through the edge of the termite tower. Very cautious about surrounding, raised her hood to gauge the situation around and gradually headed towards the male. They started head butting. The male rubs his head on the female’s body to announce his intentions. If she doesn’t seem interested, the Casanova will butt and push her until she agrees to mate. If another male is on the scene, the cobras will wrestle, attempting to push their opponent’s head to the ground. When the female is agreeable, the male will wrap his body around her, and the two will remain in this position for several hours. It is thought that male king cobras mate with the same female in successive seasons. The female can store the male’s sperm for several years until she’s ready to have offspring.

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Our male King Cobra, of course, didn’t get any challenge from other males. Therefore, after a while mating started and lasted for more than an hour. As per Gowri, the courtship may last anywhere between 5 minutes to 2 hours and continues for days during which they mate multiple times.

After the mating was over, the female gradually went back to her burrow again at around 1:30 PM. The male was still lying there till we left the place at around 2:45 PM. The male was really huge and around 11 feet long. During mating the female was looking tiny in comparison to the male. In case of other species of snake, females are generally larger than males. But in case of King Cobra it’s the other way round.

I considered myself extremely lucky, for the second time in my life, as a biodiversity explorer and natural history commentator. First time I was lucky, when I witnessed courtship of Leopard, in the forest of Bandipur, in the winter of 2015. This time another rare natural phenomena of another elusive animal, within 10-12 feet distance in the rain forest of Agumbe.

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We reached campsite at around 3:15 PM, Sreeram parked the pick-up truck of KCRE, on the uphill and we started walking down. Sreeram was little ahead of us, and then we heard his shout, the way we heard yesterday when he spotted pit viper. This time it was a brown vine snake. Sreeram was super excited, as after ten years the species was spotted in Agumbe, it was quite a rare sight in wild. We observed movement of the snake for a while, as it was moving from one branch to another and finally got disappeared in one of the upper branches of a tree.

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Ahaetulla pulverulenta, commonly known as brown vine snake, is a species of colubrid snake, found in moderate and high elevations of peninsular Indian hills. Lives in mixed and dry deciduous forests. A mildly venomous rear-fanged snake, is extremely slender that reaches up to 1.9 metres (6.2 ft) in total length (including a long tail). Brown Vine Snake is a diurnal and arboreal species which shows activity throughout the day at low to moderate heights. Its color may vary from grey to brown with a yellow underside. Spotting a brown vine snake in tree branches, which was quite well camouflaged, was not an easy task. Hats off to Sreeram again!

After lunch break, we did a short walk around campsite, towards north east side. Found few forest calottes, grass hoppers and saw a huge malabar giant squirrel jumping from one branches to another at tree top. However, the biggest moment of the day was yet to come. After taking a nice shower, when I was taking rest in my tent and thinking about opening J. C. Daniel’s The Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians (published by Bombay Natural History Society), to read more about vine snakes, fellow explorer Kaustubh, called me from outside of my tent. He told me that a snake rescue call was received from a house from the local village of Sringeri, which was 30 km away from the campsite. We had to get ready to accompany Gowri and Prashanth in that rescue mission. Around 7:30 PM we started, and after 45 minutes of driving through State Highway, we reached at that house. Few local people and one forest department representative were already gathered around.

Gowri cleared the site and asked people to stand away from the window and door. As a first respond to the situation, before reaching at rescue site, generally he asked people to close the door and window of the house, where the snake was hidden. So, when we reached we found all windows and doors of the house were closed. Reportedly, the snake entered the house at around 4:30 PM, and since then sleeping quitely under the bed. Gower entered into that bedroom with two snake catching hooks and dragged the snake out through door on the open ground in front of the house. It was around 8 feet long young King Cobra, raised its hood and making spine chilling hissing sound in his defence. Gowri tried to put it inside the catching bag, fitted with pieces of PVC pipes. The bag was kept ready to get the snake in, before he started his rescue operation. In first attempt, the snake refused to go inside and attacked back to Gowri. However, as an expert snake rescuer, Gowri managed to put it inside. He finished the whole rescue operation in less than 2 minutes time like an artist. Next task was releasing the snake, and as per protocol, it had to be released, away from the village, but within 5 sq km area from where it was rescued. So, that it could remain in its natural area of movement. We came back to campsite at around 9:30 PM. I was very pleasantly exhausted after all these activities throughout the day. The rainforest of Agumbe had enriched my knowledge and experience by manifold already.

After dinner, we did a short 30 minutes night walk towards south east side of the campsite and found common tree frogs, bicolour bush frogs, wolf spider, and orbi spider. We saw the orbi spider catching small insects trapped in its web. Another amazing observation of glowing eggs of mayfly on leaf. After mating, the female lays up to 8000 eggs in the water, which then sink to the bottom and soon hatch into a nymph. After mating and laying eggs, mayfly adults die and fall back into the water, becoming food for fish, frogs, and other aquatic life. Mayflies are aquatic insects belonging to the order Ephemeroptera. Female mayflies may be dispersed by wind, and eggs may be transferred by adhesion to the legs of waterbirds.

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Common tree frogs can be found throughout peninsular India except Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. A typical tree frog of moist deciduous forest. The species has the peculiar habit of absorbing water under the skin. When the animal first emerges from its retreat it appears thin, but, after a time at the water supply it has increased in bulk. The water accumulation partly under the abdomen, and partly under the skin between the hind legs.

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7th April, morning started with the surprise visit of another reptile – a kukri snake. The common kukri snake or banded kukri, Oligodon arnensis, is a species of nonvenomous colubrid found in Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal. An active little snake, mainly diurnal and seen most often during the rainy season. When alarmed, inflates its body to a remarkable degree and some specimens also flatten the posterior part of the head, making head more apparent than when normal.

After spending some time with this little reptile, we went to the same spot where we saw brown vine snake yesterday afternoon. Most interesting observation there was green vine snake, besides few tree hoppers and forest calottes. Oxybelis fulgidus, commonly known as the green vine snake or the flatbread snake is a species of long, slender, arboreal colubrid snake. The head is aerodynamically shaped and very pointy, the mouth is very large and extends almost the whole length of the head.

Our green vine was nicely camouflaged in green tree twigs and leaves. As usual, Sreeram spotted it and asked us to do the same, in order to earn our breakfast. Surprisingly, I was the first in the group who did that.

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After coming back to campsite, another fellow explorer Suchishmita, told us that she saw a very unique, colourful spider in the adjacent tree to the balcony of her cottage. She was only one in our group, who was not staying in tent. When she described the spider, Sreeram seemed very excited, as he was looking for that species for a long time. We all went to her balcony and spotted a tiny, colourful, Tribanded Spiky Orb (Gasteracantha Geminate) and hundreds of her offspring on the web.

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After breakfast, we did our last trek of the trip, towards south east direction, where we saw the pit viper. But when we reached there it was gone. Anyway, we found few dragon flies, day flying moth, robber moth and plenty of birds – again the open billed stork, few racket tailed drongo, grey headed babbler and oriental honey buzzard.

We came back to campsite and post lunch Sreeram conducted a very informative session on rain forest ecology, which was one my key interests to join this exploration.

I am little better prepared now before my next attempt to venture in the shadows of tiger, in Indian highlands – with better perspective on rain forest, its biodiversity and photography in rain forest.

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