scorecardThis king cobra researcher is happy to endure a lethal bite or two for the sake of his passion
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This king cobra researcher is happy to endure a lethal bite or two for the sake of his passion

This king cobra researcher is happy to endure a lethal bite or two for the sake of his passion
LifeThelife7 min read
  • Gowri Shankar and his wife Sharmila have set up and run two organisations - Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE) and a non-profit organisation called Kalinga Foundation in Agumbe, Karnataka.
  • Shankar has rescued close to 400 king cobras and trained around 800 civilians across the country on how to ethically rescue snakes under his brainchild STORM programme.
  • While tracking a female cobra, Shankar inadvertently ended up tracking the male who ate the female that had the transmitter in her stomach.

The idea of coming face-to-face with a tiny garden snake is enough to make most tremble, but for Gowri Shankar, a wildlife biologist with a passionate love for the king cobra, it was an incentive to quit his job at IFB, a washing machine company and make a beeline for the rainforests of Agumbe in Karnataka.

Shankar’s career trajectory is quite remarkable, mainly because, at that time, very little was known about wildlife conservation 20-25 years back. He quit his cushy job and joined Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), now called Karuna, as an animal inspector to rescue snakes. He moved on to Madras Crocodile Bank as an education officer under the mentorship of the famous Indian herpetologist and wildlife conservationist Romulus Whitaker. The calling from Agumbe came when Whitaker wanted to set up a field station there and needed Shankar to help him set up the field station and work with wild king cobras. He is now pursuing a PhD on king cobras from North Orissa University.

Gowri Shankar and his wife Sharmila have now set up and run two organisations - Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE) and a non-profit organisation called Kalinga Foundation. Anyone from a software engineer to a photographer or even an organic farmer can join the workshops held at KCRE and learn about and get up close and personal with the wildlife marvels of the rainforest. And the Kalinga Foundation has been set up as a research station primarily for science students where they can learn on-field techniques to make them better scientists.

Edited excerpts of Business Insider’s conversation with Shankar follow:

What is it that fascinates you about the king cobra?

When I was young, I used to drop my sister at her college and go straight to Bannerghatta Biological Park, Bengaluru, just to see the snakes. And that’s where I saw the king cobra for the first time in the enclosure. I think they’re beautiful, really massive snakes. I was so surprised to see such an enormous snake because earlier, I had caught cobras, rat snakes, and checkered keelback, and they all looked so tiny in front of a king cobra. I just fell in love with the animal.

Tell us about your first experience with rescuing cobras and your interaction with the villagers in Agumbe?

When we started working in Agumbe, the villagers were understandably surprised to see a stranger from the city with a ponytail riding a Royal Enfield Bullet in the village. But I started interacting with them. I asked them to let me know when they spotted a king cobra around and to call me if they needed any help. That’s how it started, and to date, I have rescued close to 400 king cobras.

Villagers, particularly in and around Agumbe, are very, very patient towards king cobras. King cobras and common cobras, in general, are considered a god and are worshipped. They’ll never kill or try to disturb the snake. That is the most significant advantage we had.

What have you learned from the villagers about snakes?

People in the Malenadu region of Karnataka, where Agumbe is situated, have a lot of knowledge, particularly on king cobras. So, when I started working there and started interacting with the people, they told me many interesting facts like king cobras feed on other snakes and are even cannibalistic and feed on other king cobras, which was quite surprising. We already knew that this happened in captivity, but it was the villagers who gave us first-hand information that cannibalism exists among king cobras in the wild too.

Also, the king cobra is the only species that builds a nest out of over 3000 species of snakes across the world. The villagers told us how they build the nest. In 2005 or so, it was thanks to a villager that we spotted our first king cobra nest.

Why don’t you tell us a little more about STORM?

In the past decade or so, people have been following snake rescuers on television or YouTube. And without any training or practice, they started attempting to capture snakes, inevitably getting bitten and sometimes also dying. So that’s when I conceived Scientific Training on Reptile Management (STORM) - a comprehensive training program to teach people the right way to capture and rescue snakes. Now close to 800 people across the country are trained under STORM, apart from the Forest Department, Coast Guard, Fire Department, and Police Department.

How many times has a snake bitten you?

I've been bitten by numerous non-venomous snakes that don’t count; otherwise, I've been bitten by three venomous snakes - a pit viper, a cobra, but my worst bite was from a king cobra. I’m one of the few guys in the world who has been bitten by a king cobra and survived.

Did you have the anti-venom?

No, that’s the thing. We don’t have anti-venom for the king cobra, so the chances of dying from a bite are relatively high. But I think I survived because king cobras are one of the best snakes, and they don’t intend to bite you. They give you enough warnings. They tell you, ‘look, I don’t want to bite you. I can kill you in 20 minutes, but that’s not my plan’, but they don’t know what I’m doing, right? I’m trying to rescue it, but it doesn’t understand that. So this was an accident. Luckily I didn’t give him a chance to inject or pump enough venom into my hand, and I reacted fast. There was swelling in 20 minutes. I was hospitalised for three days. I almost died, but luckily I survived thanks to that king cobra who didn’t mean to bite me and didn’t inject its entire venom — that’s like 5ml or 6ml of venom — into me. He was kind enough just to give me a little dose.

Tell us a little bit about this radio telemetry study that you have conducted on king cobras.

Radio telemetry was initiated in 2008 by Mr.Whitaker and the team. This was the first time ever radio telemetry (a tool to track the movement and behaviour of animals) was done on a king cobra right here in the Western Ghats in Karnataka. So we were all very excited, but we didn’t know what to expect.

Unfortunately, within 30 days, our female king cobra was eaten by a male king cobra, which is quite rare, and the locals helped me gather that information — we knew king cobras fed on other snakes, but this was a male feeding on the female after mating with her.

Fascinatingly enough, though we were tracking the female, we ended up tracking the male instead, who had the female in his stomach because the transmitter was in her stomach.

Another interesting thing about this male king cobra was that it was a translocated one that had moved 15 or 20 kilometres to see what happens if they are moved from their home. So this guy wanted to go back to his home. He travelled a lot, and we think we figured out for the first time that a king cobra can travel up to eight kilometres in one day.

Are they territorial?

We are yet to figure that out, but we think they’re not territorial unless it’s a breeding season. If there’s a female, the male will guard her because he wants to mate with her.

When you were facing off with the king cobra, have you quietly wished you were sitting safely in that washing machine company?

Not for a single second. You won’t believe it, I was in the hospital for three days after having survived that bite, and my hand was still swollen, and I said I want to go home. And while I was heading back to my field station, I received a rescue call. With my swollen hand, I went straight to rescue king cobra before. Till today, I will sit in front of a king cobra the whole day without getting bored.


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