There are few images as famous and familiar as that of a king cobra swaying menacingly in front of a snake charmer. To many, it represents the archetypal snake, with its raised hood, forked tongue and mesmerising movements. In fact, the king cobra is unique in many ways…
A king Among Snakes
The King Cobra is well-named. Not only is it the longest venomous snake in the world – reaching lengths of 5.5m and weighing up to 9kg – it is also probably the most venomous in terms of what it can kill with a single bite. Ironically, this is not because it possesses the most toxic venom – in fact, its venom is less toxic than many other venomous snakes, such as the Indian Cobra – but because it can inject more venom in a single bite than most other snakes, mainly due to its large size. Thus, a bite from a King Cobra can deliver up to 7ml of venom, which is enough to kill 20 people or even a full-grown Asian elephant within 3 hours.
In the wild, King Cobras can live for 20 years on average and they are found primarily in the rainforests and plains of Southeast Asia, India and Southern China. They like living near lakes and streams and are extremely versatile, being equally comfortable on land, in trees or in water. They are generally very shy and reclusive, hiding away from humans and avoiding confrontation whenever possible. Despite its notorious reputation, it is not responsible for as many fatal snake bites as the other venomous snakes livings in its range, such as Russell’s Viper, the Banded Krait and the Monocled Cobra.
Food Fit for a King
The King Cobra actually hunts other snakes, both the venomous and non-venomous variety, although they will also eat eggs, lizards, birds and small mammals such as rodents if food is scarce. Like many snakes, it has very slow metabolism and therefore may not need to eat again for many months following a large meal.
The famous forked tongue is the main hunting tool, as the King Cobra uses it to pick up the scent of its prey and then to guage the prey’s direction. Its sharp eyesight also plays an important role, with King Cobras even able to detect prey nearly 300 feet away, as well as its sensitivity to vibrations. Once it has bitten its prey, it begins to swallow it whole, even while it is still alive and struggling. Snakes cannot chew their food and therefore, King Cobras rely on the digestive enzymes within its venom to break down its prey, once it is safely stored in the stomach. For prey larger than its head, King Cobras, like all other snakes, can “unhinge” their lower jaw so that they are able to open their mouths wider.
Although they are shy and avoid confrontation whenever possible, King Cobras will fight if backed into a corner – for example, by their natural predator, the mongoose – and they can be very aggressive. It will raise one-third of its body off the ground and face its attacker, while flattening its upper ribs in order to flare its famous cobra hood. It will also emit a menacing high-pitched hiss and even sometimes feign attack strikes. Usually, this ritual is very effective and the King Cobra wins the confrontation.
The King Cobra’s venom, which is injected from salivary glands behind the eyes, is a neurotoxin, affecting the central nervous system. The victim experiences severe pain, blurred vision, drowsiness, vertigo and paralysis followed by cardiovascular collapse and respiratory failure. Death soon follows. While there are two types of anti-venom available, they are only made in very limited quantities and not easily available. Interestingly, synthetic cobra venom has been used in pain relief and arthritis medication.
The Snake Charmer’s Favourite
King Cobras are a favourite of the snake charmers of South Asia, in particular the female snake charmers of Burma. There are many superstitions governing the special protection a snake charmer has from the snake, including a tattoo by an ink containing snake venom. Despite appearances, the cobra does not actually respond to the music being played but to the shape and movement of the flute. In fact, although king cobras are actually deaf to ambient noises and rely instead on sending ground vibrations.