I sincerely apologize to all who follow this blog for a late update. I hope the excitement will come alive as you read about the king cobra hatchings of this year.
A King cobra nest is nothing short of a wonder. King cobras build their nests using dead leaves which they pack so tight to stand tough against the heavy downpours that lash for months. Our studies in the Western Ghats reveal that hatching happens between July end and mid-august. The average incubation period varies between 100 to 113 days and once the hatchings emerge they remain close to the nest surviving on the remnants of the yolk. There is no parental care and after 3-4 days they shed (molt) and disperse to fend for themselves. Hence these baby king cobras possess enough venom to start hunting from day one. Though they can hood up and deliver fatal bites many fall prey to a variety of predators and it is said that only one or two reach adult hood.
In 2011 we received reports of six king cobra nests in Agumbe and four nests in Mizoram. In Agumbe, the inherent reverence among people and our efforts in the past to build trust and confidence has made people more receptive, accommodative and tolerant towards king cobra nests. And now that there is a team at ARRS trained to monitor nests and collect data, this year I decided to concentrate on nests at Mizoram.
As soon as we heard about nests in Mizoram I was off to check them out and gather data. I have always admired Rom's style of 'throwing the hat of the fence' and then decide how to collect it.
Irrespective of lack of funds, resources, resource people, logistics, we started off with nest monitoring at Mizoram. And yes things slowly fell in place! Big thanks to funds donated by Late. Luke Yeomans of the King Cobra Sanctuary, Nottingham and ARRS. I reached Mizoram in the first week of July and with help from HT, Hrima, and Siama (folks at Mizoram involved and interested in herps especially king cobras) we set forth on the first leg of this project. Siama, an MSc graduate from Mizoram University joined us as a research associate to help in data collection.
We first visited Sailum. These hilly regions with steep terrains are quite a challenge. We had to trek on slippery slopes cutting through thorny bamboo under continuous drizzle for over two hours to reach the nest that was hardly 1/2km from the village.
However the arduous climb was worth it as we saw the female king cobra on the nest. We noted down the temperature, humidity, nest height and width, took down GPS readings and left immediately.
The following day we visited Phunchawng, a village 15km from Aizawl. We then visited Saitual another village and with David’s help located the third nest. However, we could not visit the fourth nest as it was not accessible due to heavy rains.
These nests were spotted by people who ventured deep in the forest to collect Bamboo shoots, a staple diet. All these nests were built on slopes (~45 degrees), within bamboo thickets and using Bamboo leaves (Dendrocalamus longispathus). Apparently during the nesting season HT and Hrima receive at least 10 rescue calls to remove females on nests in and around Aizawl.
It was very disturbing to learn that some people use this as an opportunity to hunt these snakes (more like an organized sport) too!
Female king cobras in Mizoram are known to guard their nests for longer periods almost till the hatchings emerge and even after interference/disturbance by humans they return and continue guarding them. But! in Agumbe of the 16 nests that we have monitored, females usually leave the nest after 2-3 weeks (of laying eggs) and never return ; esp. if there has been any human disturbance. The maximum number of days that I have seen the female on the nest in Agumbe is 32 days.
At Mizoram the females on these nests were present till the 26th of July, 30th of July, and the 24th of august respectively. The hatching took place 2-4 days after females left. Out of 60 eggs a total of 57 hatchings were recorded from these three nests.
Back at Agumbe, Prashant, Base Supervisor who has assisted me for years in monitoring king cobra nests helped our new research associate, Ajay Giri in monitoring six nests this year. Out of 144 eggs a total of 97 hatched.
It is indeed a long tough road for these young kings. How many make it to adult hood, what are their food preferences, what strategies they adopt to survive, how often they shed (molt), what resting places they prefer etc., still remains to be answered. Another avenue yet to be explored and studied!
Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar
Edited by: Shweta Harish