A snake which feeds on venomous snakes, like the krait and cobras, as well as the young ones of large constrictors, like the python. That, by far, is the best possible introduction of the King Cobra. The peculiar feeding habit also justifies its scientific name - Ophiophagus hannah, which is derived from the Greek word for snake eater.
The king cobra is a member of the Elapidae family of snakes; the members of which are typically characterized by their hollow, fixed fangs, which they use to inject venom into their prey. As with several other members of this family, even the King Cobra is capable of expanding the skin of its neck to form a hood - which it usually does when confronted. However, the characteristic hood of this species is relatively narrow and long, and this sets it apart from the other members of this family.
Even though it is quite lengthy, the King Cobra is known to be quite agile, and that - clubbed with its ability to deliver venom in large quantities - makes it one of the deadliest snakes in the world. If bitten by a King Cobra, an average human can die within 15 minutes.
Facts about the King Cobra
While its common name gives an impression that the King Cobra is directly related to other cobras, that is not the case. Other species with common name cobra, like the Egyptian cobra, Indian cobra, Equatorial spitting cobra, etc., belong to the Naja genus of the Elapidae family. The King Cobra, on the other hand, belongs to the Ophiophagus genus - a monotypic genus, with the king as its lone species.
On an average, the King Cobra can attain a length of 12-13 ft. at full growth, and weigh anywhere between 13-15 lbs. Having said that, specimen measuring around 18 ft., or so, are not really rare as such. The species generally sports an olive-green, tanned, or black-colored skin, with faint yellow cross bands running down the length of its body. There is little questioning the fact that the beautiful appearance of this species makes it a wildlife enthusiasts' delight.
The King Cobra population is largely restricted to the tropical rainforests of south and southeast Asia; parts of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Burma, to be precise. The species is found in southern China as well, but its occurrence in this region can be best described as "rare". As for the habitat, studies have revealed that the King Cobras prefer dense forests with water bodies in the vicinity.
The diet of a King Cobra primarily consists of different types of snakes, including venomous species, like the krait, and the young ones of sizable species, like the python. Of the various snake species, the rat snake seems to be the king cobra's most preferred food. At times, especially when there is a scarcity of food, the king also resorts to smaller prey, like lizards and rodents. In fact, the species is also known to frequent human settlements in search of rodents.
Even though the King Cobra's venom is not as potent as that of various other venomous snakes, the amount in which it is delivered makes it quite lethal. Its venom is basically a neurotoxin, which affects the nervous system, with traces of cardiotoxic compounds in it. The toxic compounds in this venom affect the central nervous system and eventually result in the person's death.
The snake uses its half-inch fangs to inject venom into its prey. The amount of venom it delivers in a single bite is enough to kill an adult elephant. Even the young ones of this species have as much venom as a full-grown adult, thus making them equally dangerous.
On an average, the female lays around 20-40 eggs, which get hatched after the incubation period of 60-90 days. The King Cobra happens to be the only snake species which builds a nest on the ground, and guards it fiercely from the predators.
On an average, a King Cobra has a life span of around 20 years, which isn't quite surprising as it has very few natural predators. The mongoose is by far the biggest threat for the species, but given a choice even this archnemesis of the cobra would prefer to take on a smaller snake species.
Relationship with Humans
When threatened, the King Cobra expands its hood, stands its ground, and starts hissing loudly. The aggressive stance, which is actually meant to ward off the predators, has earned it a notorious reputation. They say that it is an extremely aggressive snake species, which wouldn't hesitate to take on an elephant. As astonishing as it may sound, this can be best described as half-truth. Like other snake species (or any wild animal) even the King Cobra becomes aggressive only when it is cornered.
The King Cobra is very shy in nature and usually prefers to stay clear of humans. Though the confrontations with humans are rare, they do occur, with casualties on either side. Such encounters mostly take place when the snake ventures into human settlements in search of rats especially in times of food scarcity. In true sense, the King Cobra, like the rat snake, can be considered a friend of the farmers, as it keeps a check on the rodent population, which are notorious for destruction of crops.
Snake worship has an important place in several cultures; you come across them everywhere - right from the Hindu texts to the ancient Greek accounts. As for the King Cobra, Hinduism and Buddhism have several references of serpents resembling this species.
In Hindu mythology, the species has been often associated with deities, like the Shiva (depicted wearing a serpent around his neck), and the Vishnu (depicted resting on the multi-headed serpent - Shesha.) In fact, cobras are even worshiped in India, and have an annual festival known as the Nag Panchami devoted to them.
While this association with religious sentiments might seem interesting, the environmentalists believe that this festival does more harm than good to the species. Every year, on this day, snake charmers catch hundreds of cobras in the wild and torture them by defanging them, forcibly feeding them milk, or by putting them on public display.
Snake shows are not just common in India, but are also common in Southeast Asia. An individual showing his daredevilry by handling a cobra, or kissing its head, might be of high entertainment value for humans, but the amount of pain that the species experiences in course of this cannot be measured. Pain is inflicted upon them even during the festivals, wherein they are subjected to rituals, some of which are really bizarre such as snake fights.
Even worse is the fact that King Cobras, like other reptilian species, are killed in thousands every year for their skin, meat, and traditional medicine. This large-scale exploitation by humans and loss of habitat has put the King Cobra population on decline.
In 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had to shift the King Cobra from the list of Least Concern species to the list of Vulnerable species due to significant decline in its population. This trend further continued, and unfortunely the species has been now shifted to the IUCN Red List.