Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Encounters with a cobra
In the eight years that I've been walking in the Theosophical Society's grounds in Chennai I've come across snakes only 3 or 4 times. This doesn't surprise me much because wooded areas have far fewer snakes than most people imagine. Also, being well camouflaged and alert, most snakes detect an approaching human early and move away before we can spot them.
A few days ago, while walking on one of the quieter paths in the TS, I startled a cobra that was resting in the grass beside the trail, noticing it only when it rose up with its hood spread. As is typical of these shy snakes, the cobra wasn't facing me, but was showing me the back of its spread hood, with the lovely spectacle marks on it. This is a typical warning display that means, "watch out, I'm here". A bit startled myself, I stood stock still and watched the beautiful reptile. A few seconds later, putting its head down, but with its hood still spread, the snake started moving in my direction. A non snake person would have taken this as a show of aggression on the part of the cobra and fled, thinking that the snake was chasing him. However, it was clear to me that the snake was probably just trying to reach its bolt hole beneath the vegetation. I saw it slide into the grass and disappear. When I went closer to investigate, I could see a number of holes in the ground comprising a low termite mound. The cobra had obviously found a nice 'apartment' to call home.
A couple of days later, walking on the same path, I intentionally slowed down to see if I could spot the cobra before it spotted me. As I approached the termite mound, a grey mongoose leapt away, it's hair standing on end, quickly followed by another one. Their body language indicated an encounter with the snake. I quickly moved forward, fearing that they may have killed it, but there it was, standing a foot off the ground, with its majestic hood spread wide. It was obvious that the mongooses had been hassling it. The moment it spotted me the cobra put down its hood and, in one fluid motion, dived into a nearby hole. Had I even blinked, I would have missed this amazing vanishing act.
I couldn't help wondering whether I had saved the snake's life by appearing at that crucial moment. Mongooses are famous for their snake killing abilities and, while the cobra could have escaped from a single mongoose, a concerted attack by two of these intelligent and lighting fast mammals would be quite hard for the relatively slower snake to evade. But why hadn't it dived into the hole in the first place when the mongooses appeared? Perhaps being an adult, venomous and five feet long, it felt well able to defend itself against adversaries somewhat its own size. When it saw me looming over it, the fear of humans that seems to run deep in all animals, sent it diving into the hole without a moment's hesitation!
Photos by Belinda Wright