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

11 comments:

flowergirl said...

However much I resolve to fight my fear of snakes, I find it hard to do so. Yes, I would have definitely fled I think, or maybe I would have been frozen in fear!

So is the display of the front of the hood - that is, facing you - a sign of possible aggression?

Maybe you provided a diversion for it to escape from the mongooses? Maybe they had blocked off its escape path?

Shekar Dattatri said...

Hello! As you will have noticed from the post, I saw the cobra on two different occasions - the first time was when I almost stepped on it (which is when it showed me the back of its hood in warning) and the second time when it was obviously being hassled by the mongooses. By appearing when I did on the second occasion I obviously scared away the mongooses. Had the cobra not seen me, it probably would have put its hood down gradually, calmed down and then continued lying outside the hole. What made it bolt was seeing me looming over it.

Facing an adversary with hood open is a defensive posture adopted by a cobra under extreme provocation. Like most snakes, spectacled cobras are rarely proactively aggressive. I hope this answers your questions. Shekar Dattatri.

flowergirl said...

Thank you Shekar. I will remember your phrase - "rarely proactively aggressive".

My closest encounter with snakes (in the wild) has been on the recent MNS trip to Bharatpur, where we saw pythons up-close. (Written about it in my blog)

I still have mixed feelings abut wanting to see snakes in the wild.....maybe one day, I shall overcome!

'Smee! said...

Beautiful pictures. Sadly, it's been a while since I came across any snake in the wild. Either I'm not looking hard emough and in the wrong places, or there aren't that many around.

Shekar Dattatri said...

Snakes are hard to spot unless one is looking very carefully and in the right places. Warm nights after the first showers of the monsoon tend to bring them out in large numbers.

Ramana said...

I'm very happy to know that cobras still have a place in Chennai. I once saved a cobra(hiding under a stair case)by standing guard to it till the people searching for ti leave the area.

Sowjanya said...

Are Kukri snakes harmful and venomous? The one which I saw seemed kind of aggressive. But there were many people surrounding it.

Shekar Dattatri said...

No, kukri snakes are not venomous and, like all snakes, they are not aggressive unless provoked.

workhard said...

Awesome.. that would have been pretty scary stepping on the cobra.. The pics came out real nice..

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surya said...

I live in Rajapalayam,a small town in Rajapalayam.our school is spread over a large area amidst many tress peacocks and snakes are quite common in our school.Most persons see peacocks and snakes rarely,but the blessed little souls have got a wonderful opportunity.So,we don't have much fear on snakes,so many of the students frighten the snakes,especially the green slim and sleek snake they used to go near it shout and give actions,it will just move this way and that but never come near,how can I change the mentality if my friends(I am afraid of snakes though I have seen many,I just don't like the way the move)

Anonymous said...

nope man nope