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Joe Wasilewski

King cobra, Ophiophagus hannah  epic battle during breeding season, 2023


Joe Wasilewski traveled to Agumbe, Karnataka India on March 2023. He met with Ajay Giri, manager of the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) and king cobra expert. Ajay is responsible for fielding phone calls regarding snakes entering human inhabitations. Once the call is received and assessed, Ajay decides if he should travel to the residence/farm and remove the snake. 

During the king cobra mating season, many calls are received with the "house guest" snake being king cobras. Ajay will safely capture the snake, conduct scientific data collection, administers a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT tag) into the snake for permanent identification. Afterwards, he sets out to inform the multitudes of people always present as to the natural history of king cobras in the area. Once this is complete, he will take the snake to a nearby forest, usually no more than one kilometer from the capture location.

While spending four days at ARRS, there were four instances of king cobra calls. 

One of the calls came from a farmer who raises coconuts, bananas (plantains) and peppercorns.

Ajay was there the prior day and noticed a pair (male/female) king cobra in a burrow.

On Tuesday, April 4, 2023, he suggested that we travel to the farm at the time of their peak activity, approximately 1530hrs. Ajay, Guatam Bhupathiraju and I arrived to the location at 1530hrs and waited for the time they emerge from the burrow. Guatam is a volunteer at ARRS and spends an entire month at the research station assisting Ajay. He also is an excellent photographer that documented this event digitally.

During the time waiting, JW sat near the entrance to the burrow housing the pair of cobras. Outside of the burrow, another, large (4 meter) king cobra was lurking about. It was lying in the shade approximately 10-15m from the burrow. Ajay surmised it was a male which would be vying for the attention of the attending female. Ajay thought that we would observe male combat, once the males noticed each other.

JW positioned himself and camera near the burrow and after waiting approximately 10-15 minutes, a large king cobra glided past his observation point and went directly into the burrow. 

What we didn't realize at the time is that this was the original male from the burrow. He must have emerged sometime during the day and returned. What happened next was amazing:

The snake quickly entered the burrow and began some convulsing twitches. We wondered what was going on in the burrow and after 30 seconds another, smaller king cobra (the female) emerged from a different burrow entrance. However, it was not the typical king cobra graceful exit. The snake kept jerking and it seemed like something was impeding the progress. The only explanation could be that the larger (male) had grabbed ahold of the smaller female. After some struggles, the female broke loose of his hold and began crawling along the ledge of the well. The fact that the male had her in his grasp was confirmed as there was blood and an obvious bite on her midsection. Whether intentional or not, the king fell into the well. It is about 4 meters from the top of the well to the water.

Next, the larger male emerged from the burrow and frantically searched for the female. It was obvious that he was using his olfactory senses to detect her, as it took the exact route of the female. As the male was on the trail of the female, he followed the scent trail and jumped directly into the well.

Once both of the king cobras were in the well, the male began predatory behavior. He chased the female around and around until he bit the female and hung on. The female would fight back, biting the larger male numerous times. This situation lasted almost 2 1/2 hours. The battle was constant and savage. The male bit the female numerous times and the female bit the male over and over. The male held the female under the water several times and the observers thought she had drowned. Every so often the female would escape the clutches and rest for a few moments in an area of the well away from the male. However, the male continued his quest relentlessly. Several times the male had the entire head of the female in his mouth---and we thought he would begin swallowing, but she always had enough energy that she was able to escape the hold. They bit each other, twisted, turned over and remained under water for long periods of time. By the end of 2 1/2 hours, both were exhausted. All the observers agreed that both would die in the well, especially the female.

By this time, there were approximately 10-12 observers, including the owner of the farm. He asked Ajay to interfere and remove both from the well. He showed Ajay a long pole used to harvest crops with a hook on the end. Ajay first hooked the female out of the well and carefully walked her over to one side of the well, approximately 10-15 meters away. In fact, he carried the female king cobra off the ground so there would not be a scent trail for the male to follow.

Next, he hooked the male and put him down on the other side of the well. Once on the ground and safe, he quickly crawled out of sight. The epic battle now finished seemed like the end of the event. However, JW went to look for the other male who was in the same position throughout the battle. This male disappeared from our view, but upon further investigation was located crawling away from the well. The king was not in any hurry and crawled away slowly, distancing itself from the well. He was observed crawling into a root ball near a creek.

The battle ended as well as could be imagined. Neither snake seemed to experience any debilitation injuries and all three went about their lives.

We often wonder what the real outcome, after a day or two. Did the female survive long enough to nest? Did the two males locate each other the next days and battle? Did one or the other locate the female and eventually consume it?

We might never know the answers, but for today the ending was positive.


Joe Wasilewski

July 1, 2023

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