Sunday, August 5, 2007

King Cobra - the snake that would be King

Its size, deadliness, intelligence and ability to rear up and look a human straight in the eye have earned it a name that is more like a title: the King Cobra. The world's longest venomous snake, with a bite potent enough to kill an elephant. And no one knows that better than Romulus Whitaker, the Founder-Director of the Madras Snake Park who has spent most of his life in India wandering around the jungles of Western Ghats, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in his quest for King Cobras.

Whitaker's Emmy award winning film on the real King of the Jungle explores the relationship between the charismatic cobra and creatures such as the forest tortoise, vine snakes, cow elephants, and giant squirrels. The film shot mainly in the rainforests of Kerala is a result of two years of intensive research in which Whitaker and his team travelled the length and breadth of Western Ghats, Orissa and contacted every zoo that breeds the King Cobra to know its habits.

" We also set up a breeding programme in captivity to get the best shots of the female cobra laying eggs and then hatching them," says Whitaker. But the filming wasn't without its perils. The team's cameraman escaped narrowly when the King Cobra struck him on the head when he was trying to get a close shot of the snake without using the remote. Even Whitaker had a miraculous escape. When they were filming a fight between two King Cobras Whitaker got too close and one of the cobras pounced upon his back and hit him on his behind. " Luckily," says Whitaker, " It missed biting me. Though the venom of the King Cobra is less toxic than the common cobra, its massive glands have been known to yield over seven ccs of venom in a single extraction which is enough to wipe out an elephant."

One of the most exciting phases of the production came when the cameraman captured a long footage of a male and female cobra mating. " It was a unique sight to watch the male courting the female," says Whitaker. The King Cobra has a number of unique characteristics not found in any other snake. It has a higher level of intelligence, awareness and alertness as compared to other animals. The male is very conscious about his territory. If another snake ventures into his territory, he chases the intruder out.

The female cobra is the only snake that makes a nest and her presence on the pile of leaves over the eggs deters predators like wildboar, monitor lizards and the deadly mongoose. The King Cobra often feeds on other snakes. Its double hinged jaw and elastic throat permits it to consume prey much larger than itself. It is the largest venomous snake in the world, sometimes growing to over five meters in length.

Whitaker is the world's best known authority on King Cobra. A naturalised Indian, his association with country began in 1951 as a 7-year-old child. Following his schooling at Kodaikanal, he did a course on Wildlife Management in Wyoming, USA. In 1963, he joined as an Assistant Manager with Miami Serpentarium, Florida and in 1967 he returned to India as manager of the Venom Production Laboratory in Mumbai. In India, he has continued to actively pursue his pet passion - snakes!

Whitaker has produced many stunning documentary films including The King Cobra, Rat Wars, Spunky Monkey, Croc Man and Thunder Dragons. King Cobra, was awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding News and Documentary Programme Achievement in 1998.

Snakes have been a passion with him and he says, " My mother used to tell me jokingly that I started collecting snakes even before I started to walk. But seriously I caught my first snake when I was a student at Kodaikanal." And from then on its been a long crawly journey into the realm of the slithering creatures which has made Whitaker the most celebrated snake man of the world.

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