Published: November 2001

King Cobras

By Mattias Klum
Photographs by Mattias Klum
Lightning fast and just as deadly, an agitated king cobra strikes in self-defense during a "boxing march" between man and serpent. Villagers of Ban Khok Sa-nga in northeastern Thailand perform this perilous dance for coins from visitors and respect from peers. The act began as a way to lure potential buyers of herbal medicines and snakebite cures.

As if lit from within, the mist-drenched rain forest of Borneo's Danum Valley awakens with me before sunrise. Somewhere below stirs the king cobra—the inspiration for my journey to the villages and forests of Southeast Asia. The longest venomous snake, it produces startling amounts of neurotoxin—enough to kill an elephant with a single bite. But this serpent that can stand up like a man in a terrifying pose is shy and retreating, aggressive only if provoked. We know little about its populations, but fragmented forests and illegal wildlife trade may be putting it at risk. Though snakes strike fear in many Westerners, in the East the cobra is often an object of worship and reverence—and, in some places, a part of peoples' livelihoods. So I have come here to pay my respects to Ophiophagus hannah, with hopes that I might observe this king of snakes in its natural realm.

Once fearful of all that slithered in their wild, brimming forests, the villagers of Ban Khok Sa-nga for decades made use of venomous snakes by killing and eating them. Today locals, who rely on rice cultivation and a diminishing supply of wood, bring in much needed income by entertaining with, rather than stir-frying, the deadly king cobra. Waving and yelling "King cobra!" in Thai and English, roving shills enticed me and other passersby into a small building where, for 10 baht (about 25 cents), we watched the ladies of the King Cobra Club dance holding snakes' heads in their mouths. No one could tell me the origins of the performance, but it makes economic sense—and sends chills through an uninitiated crowd. A man for whom cobras are family, village elder Komchai Pimsaimoon has spent years learning the rhythms of the serpent—what calms it and what makes it fighting mad. Mad was in force back at the boxing ring, where a now rested king whipped toward me on release from its wooden enclosure. Though I managed to skirt its strike, I took some comfort knowing I had cobra antivenom in my pack. Locals assured me that their herbal remedy was also on hand—just in case mine failed to work.

Where the king cobra resides, no smaller snake of any species is safe. O. hannah, a formidable ground hunter, normally feeds on others of its kind. In Langkawi, Malaysia, I witnessed a victim being swallowed, the cobra's visible trachea allowing it to breathe despite a mouthful. In a behavior unlike other snakes, a female king rounds up leaf litter with her body to build a nest and may defend a small territory around it. She injects her potent neurotoxin in copious amounts through relatively small fangs (about ten millimeters long). Her hatchlings—usually numbering between 20 and 40—emerge already loaded with poison, which increases in quantity as they attain the great lengths (up to 18 feet [5.5 meters]) for which the kings are known. At the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute's snake farm in Bangkok, antivenom, the modern snakebite remedy, is made. Adult cobras are milked every few weeks, and small doses of venom are injected into horses, which develop antibodies to it. Horse plasma is collected and treated to make the final product—which, if given to a victim in time, stops the venom's toxic effects.

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