Way back in 2002, it was my good friend (Late.)Raju who sparked my interest to explore the Eastern Ghats for King Cobras. But this idea lay dormant till I met a few volunteers from KANS (Kenneth Anderson Nature Society) who introduced me to Mr. Ramanamurthy, Director, Green Mercy. Green Mercy is an NGO at Srikakulum District that has been rescuing and rehabilitating domestic and wild animals for over 15 years now. That is how my trail led me to Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh this time.
King cobras hold a special charm and have lured me as far as I can remember but to say Andhra Pradesh has probably charmed me much before is not an exaggeration. As a child I spent my summer holidays here and hold many pleasurable memories that I cherish. One such memory is of my uncles narrating descriptive stories of how tribals secretly lived in the mountains and descended once in a while to shop. This created a sense of mystery which I was so eager to solve. I was finally here with the same mystical and adventuristic feeling to exclusively look for king cobras and maybe encounter the tribes too.
Between 2009 and 2011 three king cobras were reportedly killed in Srikakulam District. My plan was to visit these places to check the habitat, meet witnesses, understand people's perception and fathom the gravity of the situation.
We zeroed in on Seethampeta and Gangammapeta, where the kings were killed earlier. These villages form part of the Eastern Ghats that stretch up to Orissa. The terrain is a mixture of mountains and plains.
First, we visited Gangammapeta where a king was killed just months ago in April 2011. Another king cobra was reportedly killed in 2009 at the same place.
I was eager to get first hand information and waited to speak to people who were involved in the act. This meant I needed to win their confidence. My knowledge of the local language and mentioning about my family's association (My mom's village is just 8km from here) with the place did the trick.
People readily opened up and narrated the story quite enthusiastically. I was told that the snake was spotted moving along a fence and then moved into a building used to store firewood and had coiled up.
A huge snake such as this certainly attracts attention and within minutes the whole village had gathered to watch it. The king cobra obviously panicked and moved out of the building and that was when this 12 footer was killed with a stick and later burnt.
A sad story for me but a heroic one for many there! However I was happy that they agreed not to kill the next time they see one and instead call for rescue.
Our next stop was at Seethampeta where a king was killed in 2009. I did not get a chance to meet the people here but visited the Government Science College in Srikakulam where the Green Mercy team had preserved the specimen in formalin. I had hoped to collect a sample from this for DNA analysis. And this meant I needed some formalin. Our look out for this chemical turned out to be one hilarious and memorable event that day.
We had already checked more than eight pharmaceuticals in town and were turned down saying they did not have any such 'ointment' or 'tonic'! We finally came to ‘Venu’s Surgical’ a well stocked pharmaceutical in town. I waited in the car while KLN Murthy (a MSc graduate with good knowledge about the natural history who joined me on this trip along with Mr.Ramanamurthy) approached them. We were lucky that they stocked it but being a restricted drug they refused to sell it over the counter. They brushed Murthy off and remained glued to the TV watching 'Secrets of the King Cobra' translated in Telugu! Our man, Murthy immediately asked if they would sell him the chemical if he introduced the person in that documentary ('Me') to them. They obviously thought this guy was crazy and agreed. He then asked me to come over. Totally unaware I went ahead and then saw what the term 'jaw drop' meant! Not only were they shocked, thrilled and excited to talk to me they happily sold us the formalin that night. A memorable incident which will stay with us all our lives. The king at the college looked quite big and I felt his head was much bigger than that of an average sized king found in Agumbe.
I was not lucky enough to see a live one during this visit. Until now we believed that king cobras preferred areas with heavy rainfall and high humidity but this visit changed this perception altogether. It would be very interesting to study how kings live under the dry climate and in shrub forests.
Before leaving, I met Mr. Thayoub, Deputy Conservator Forests, a very courteous and enthusiastic gentleman. Looking at the enthusiasm of the forest department, people and with support from NGOs like Green Mercy, we are very keen to initiate projects in the coming year.
Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar
Edited by: Shweta Harish