Would You Like to Meet a Cobra?
By Awake! correspondent in India
WELL, would you? Most adults may answer no. But not a child. Fear of snakes, including the cobra, is not an instinctive trait in young children or even in animals. Aversion to snakes can be caused by information that is not reliable, exaggerated stories, myths, and misconceptions.
Of course, when we invite you to meet a cobra, we mean at a safe distance! Cobras are highly venomous, and we would not want to go up to one and hold out our hand to stroke it. Nor would the cobra be likely to wait around to greet us; on hearing our approach, it would beat a hasty retreat to a safe hiding place. So let us be satisfied to meet the cobra just by learning some fascinating facts about this interesting creature.
Cobras are reptiles of the suborder Serpentes and the family Elapidae, a name given to venomous snakes with grooved fangs. There are about 12 species of cobras scattered from Australia through the tropics of Asia and Africa to Arabia and the Temperate Zones. By far the most fearsome of the cobras is the king cobra, or hamadryad. With a length of 9 to 18 feet [3 to 5 m], this is the largest poisonous snake in the world. Preferring the dense undergrowth of jungle or swamp, where rainfall is copious, it can be found in southern China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and parts of India. A jet-black tail, bands of color on a greenish-yellow body, which turns to dark olive with age, and groups of small spots on its hood make it look quite beautiful.
Other species of cobra average from three to six feet [1 to 2 m] in length. Indigenous to India and widely distributed there, is the spectacled cobra with unique markings on its hood, which resemble a pair of spectacles. It can be black, dark brown, or yellowish-white with a wide, dark neckband and speckled white and yellow bands on the length of its body. The monocled cobra, found in Sri Lanka as well as in eastern and northeastern India, is lighter with a smaller, more round hood having a single white circle, which gives it its name. In northwest India and in Pakistan, we find a jet-black cobra. Africa has, among others, the ringhals, or the spitting cobra, and the Egyptian cobra. The latter, a dark and narrow-hooded snake, is possibly the asp to which the death of Queen Cleopatra is attributed.
Snakes mate only with their own species, being attracted by a unique musk odor. The cobra shows more family interest than other snakes, male and female often remaining together. The female king cobra is one of the few snakes known to make a nest. She scrapes leaves into a mound about one foot [30 cm] high and deposits 20 to 50 eggs in it. She then coils her body around the mound and remains there, without food, for the almost two months of incubation, the male often staying close too. Other cobras, without preparing a nest, remain near their eggs to protect them.
The baby snakes use an egg tooth, which later falls off, to slit the shell and release themselves. On emerging they are totally independent with fully-formed venom glands and fangs. They flick out their tongues frequently, taste the surroundings, and transfer chemical information to what is called the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of the mouth. This is linked to the sense of smell; the combination of taste and smell helps the snake to track its prey, find a mate, or escape predators.
The young snake grows rapidly and within a short time sheds its outer skin, which has become too tight. This unusual phenomenon is repeated regularly, since the cobra keeps growing throughout its life, which can be over 20 years. For one or two weeks before the molt, the snake becomes lethargic, its skin becomes dull, and its eyes turn milky-blue. Then, suddenly, the eyes clear, and by rubbing its head on stones, the snake splits the old skin at its mouth. Now it literally crawls out of its skin as this peels off inside out, from the transparent cap over the eyes right down to the tail. Now a lively, shiny, new-looking snake is ready to go about its normal activity.
Air temperature greatly affects cobras. As the weather cools, they slow down and even become dormant, only stirring when the temperature rises. Too much heat can kill them. Except for the king cobra, which feeds on snakes, their diet is rats, mice, frogs, lizards, birds, and other small animals. After the prey is caught, an injection of venom immobilizes it. It is ingested whole, as the cobra is not equipped to chew food. The elasticity of the skin and the flexibility of the jaw allow the cobra to swallow an animal that is two or three times larger than its own head. While the mouth is totally blocked by the victim, the snake breathes by drawing the entrance to the windpipe forward beyond the obstruction, just as a swimmer uses a snorkel. Now rows of backward-curving teeth move the prey along into the snake’s body. It retires to a quiet place to digest the food slowly, perhaps not eating again for several days. The cobra can live for months without eating, drawing on stored fat in its body.
Snakes are cautious. (See Matthew 10:16.) The cobra’s defense lies either in escape, perhaps crawling under a rock or into its rat-hole home, or in stillness, thereby avoiding detection. Confronted, it will rear up and spread its hood, hissing to frighten the enemy. Biting is a last resort.
Snakebite in rural Africa and Asia often goes unreported, but worldwide it appears that about one million people are bitten each year by venomous snakes. India holds the record for fatalities—around 10,000 a year—perhaps the majority being from the spectacled cobra. About 10 percent of cobra bites prove fatal.
The cobra is slower than many snakes; the agile mongoose, one of its main enemies, can outmaneuver it. Leaping at the snake, then dodging the attacking strike repeatedly, the mongoose leaves the cobra unnerved and hesitant. Attacking behind the hood, he breaks its neck. Many snakes strike from a coiled position, making it hard to know their reach, but the cobra raises its body and strikes straight down. The distance can be judged, and a person can get out of range of the relatively slow movement.
Some cobras, like the ringhals, the black-necked cobra of South Africa, and cobras in northeastern India, defend themselves by spitting. Rearing up and pointing its fangs at the victim, the snake, with expelled air, can shoot out two fine sprays of venom more than six feet [2 m]. On the skin this does no damage, but if it enters the eyes, it can cause temporary blindness and, if not washed out quickly, permanent blindness. Strangely, the snake seems to be able to aim at the eyes.
Suppose a cobra does bite you, what should you do? Venom is pressed out of the poison sacs in the snake’s cheeks through two short, hollow, fixed fangs in the front of the snake’s jaws. These fangs puncture the skin and inject the venom the way a hypodermic syringe would. The only sure remedy for snakebite is antivenin prepared from the venom of four poisonous snakes. In the early 20th century, India was the first country to use antivenin extensively. Antivenin powder is effective for five years without refrigeration; reconstituted it is injected.
Symptoms of cobra bite are pain and swelling at the site, blurred vision, unsteadiness, paralysis of the larynx, and slowing respiration. Death ensues in about two hours if a large dose of venom has been injected and no treatment is given.
The Snake Charmer
Snake charming is a very old form of entertainment. Practiced mostly in the East, some Western circuses have incorporated this into their repertoire. Because of its unusual hood and nervous disposition, the spectacled cobra is the most popular snake used, but other impressive-looking snakes, like the royal snake and the red sand boa, are also used. As the charmer, a skilled showman, plays his pipes, the cobra rises from its basket and spreads its hood into its normal defensive position. Movements by the snake charmer cause a reaction in the snake as it keeps an eye on him, always being ready to attack. Most cobras used by snake charmers have their fangs removed, but some men risk working with venomous snakes.
In ancient India the itinerant snake charmer was also a relater of religious ideas and myths, which gave him popular appeal. Today it is more lucrative to have a performance outside hotels frequented by camera-happy tourists. Some snake charmers visit homes and inform the householder that his large garden is a likely spot for snakes. For an agreed sum, he offers to catch them. He disappears into the bushes, and after some time, during which the sound of his pipes can be heard, he returns with a bagful of snakes. Of course, the householder would have been wise to supervise him or at least to check whether he brought a bag of snakes with him!
Snake Parks Educate
Snake parks encourage interest in reptiles. They sponsor research, educate on snakebite prevention and cure, and work for the protection of snakes from man’s greed and ignorance. Cobras have been killed for their beautiful skins, which are made into belts, purses, shoes, and other luxury items. In one year more than ten million snakes were killed in India for the skin industry. Snakes are killed and then skinned immediately. Vegetable dyes are used in India to give the skin color, and it is glass-polished and sometimes sprayed with lacquer to make it shiny and water-repellent.
The value of the cobra cannot be overestimated. It saves tons of grain by killing rats and other vermin. Its venom provides antivenins, painkillers, and other medicines. The Tata Memorial Cancer Institute in Bombay is studying the effect of cobra venom on cancer cells.
Have you enjoyed meeting the cobra? Beautiful, useful, cautious, well-equipped to defend itself. Getting to know it better can help us to appreciate a much-maligned member of the animal kingdom.
[Box on page 19]
Cobra Worship and Superstition
COBRA worship has existed from ancient times. The cobra motif has been found on seals at Mohenjo-Daro, one of the oldest civilizations to be unearthed by archaeologists. From the third millennium B.C.E. down to today, millions in India have viewed cobras with superstitious reverence. Interestingly, many of the cobra stories can be recognized as distorted myths built around actual historical happenings.
A creation “story” tells of a time when there was no light in the universe. From dark cosmic waters the brilliant god Vishnu was created first, then heaven, earth, and the underworld. From the leftover material, a gigantic cobra called Shesha (meaning remaining part) was created. Myth credits Shesha with from 5 to 1,000 heads, and images depict Vishnu reclining on the coiled Shesha, sheltered by the open hoods of Shesha’s many heads. Earthquakes are attributed to Shesha’s yawn, and fire from his mouth or his venom destroys the world at the end of an age.
Hindu mythology depicts a cobra-race called Nagas, who inhabit the underworld, Nagalok or Patala. The ape-god Hanuman claims that in the “Perfect Age,” all men were saintly, there was only one religion, and there were no demons or Nagas. The serpents became the guardians of the earth’s wealth and possessed great knowledge and magical powers. Shesha, sometimes also called Vasuki, was used by the gods to churn a sea of milk to produce amrit, a nectar that would give immortality. The underworld, ruled by the Nagas, is portrayed as a most desirable place; warriors who die in battle are promised unimaginable pleasures there.
However, not all mythical cobras are considered benign. One “story” relates an encounter between Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and Kaliya, a great, malignant demon-cobra. Images show the victorious Krishna with his foot on the head of the great serpent.
Manasa, or Durgamma, queen of the Nagas, is worshiped by women to protect their children from snakebite. On the festival of Nagapanchami, snake devotees pour milk and even blood on images of cobras and down snake holes. Stone or silver images of cobras are worshiped and offered at temples by women hoping to conceive a male child.
The Cobra in Films
The cobra of mythology is a very popular theme in films made in India—more than 40 having been produced since 1928. Usually the cobra is depicted as a guardian of goodness, a helper of its devotees, and a destroyer of the wicked. Popular is the myth of the Icchadari cobras, which are said to have the power to take human form. They are said to have one devoted mate. If the mate is killed, the cobra is able to see the image of the killer in the dead snake’s eyes, and it sets off on a trail of revenge. This becomes a lively base for many films. Dominating the story are the snake dances; with music like that of the snake charmer, the dancers imitate the movement of the snake, even slithering on the ground.
A documentary movie, Shakti, was filmed at a festival in Rajasthan, India, where every August hundreds of thousands of snake worshipers meet in the desert. Under a burning sun and in temperatures reaching over 122 degrees Fahrenheit [50°C.], they flagellate themselves with iron rods and crawl on their stomachs more than a mile [2 km] on the scorching sand to the temple of a snake-god, Gogha. A historical king in the tenth century C.E., Gogha is said to have saved his people from Muslim invaders by leading the enemy into a snake-infested area, where the army was decimated by snakebites.
[Box on page 20]
Saved by the Cobra
Two families in Sastur village in India have reason to be grateful to a cobra. They were wakened about 3:50 a.m. on September 30, 1993, by the loud hissing of a cobra as it slithered out of their house. They chased it into the fields to kill it. At 4:00 a.m., the horrendous earthquake in central India flattened their village killing almost everyone. The two families survived—thanks to the early-warning system of the cobra!
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Back and front views of the Asian cobra
Inset: A black cobra spreads its hood while sunning itself on a warm rock
Pictures on pages 16 to 20: A. N. Jagannatha Rao, Trustee, Madras Snake Park Trust
[Pictures on page 18]
Front and back views of a black cobra