KING COBRA (Ophiophagus hannah – Thailand King Cobra)
In Greek, ‘snake eater.’ Sometimes called ‘Hamadryad.’ Discovered and described by Danish naturalist, Theodore Edward Cantor in 1836. The species name, hannah reflects the snake’s arboreal habits, from Greek mythology it refers to tree dwelling nymphs of the same name.
(Page Updated: 26 July 2017)
Ophiophagus hannah occupies its own genus, Ophiophagus. This is different from other cobras in the Naja genus which have multiple species within the genus. There has been talk about breaking up the Ophiophagus genus into a number of species, as differences exist in coloration, scalation, and in comparison. King cobras can be easily distinguished from others in the Naja genus by the shape and size of the neck hood, and the King Cobra has a much larger head. Kings have a longer, thinner hood. Other cobras grow to maximum length around two meters in length – much smaller than king cobras. The king cobra has chevrons lighter in color than the body color, on the neck and body that may be very pronounced, as in kings from China, or muted, as we see on melanistic king cobras here in Southern Thailand. A technical difference between Ophiophagus hannah and all other cobras is the existence of a pair of scales on the top and rear of the head called, ‘occipital scales.’ They are located adjacent to each other behind the usual 9-scale arrangement typical of colubrids and elapids.
Image from here.
In Thai language, it sounds like Ngoo chang ang (งูจงอาง) (literally “snake elephant cobra”, or ngoo chong ahng. There are many names for this snake.
AVERAGE AND MAXIMUM LENGTH
Max length about 5.85 meters. The presenter at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Snake Institute in Bangkok said the largest king was caught in Nakhon Si Thammarat in Thailand’s south, near Surat Thani province and it was 19 feet 2 inches in length.
All over Thailand and most of Southeast Asia.
I’ve seen a number of king cobras (hamadryad) in the wild. One I saw in a park in Krabi – just the tail as it crossed the road behind me. I’m guessing it was an eight meter long snake. I know it is probably impossible, but I’m not joking. The tail was absolutely massive, longer and thicker by nearly double that of other 5-meter kings I’ve seen many of. This was quite possibly the biggest King Cobra in the world.
Another king I saw on the island of Penang, in Malaysia. I was coming down a very steep hill and I saw this 3-4 meter king cruising through the dense underbrush. It was absolutely awesome to see it there when there were so many people climbing the hill close by.
Another time I saw a king about one-hundred twenty meters in elevation up a limestone mountain in Krabi province. This one rested on the steps of a popular temple – Wat Tham Seua and I had to move it away so people could come down the steps. A large four-meter long king that was very fast! Note to self – don’t try to move a king that is higher than you are (it was on steps up ahead of me and was very fast to come down to attempt to strike at me because it had the height advantage.
Recently Tom Charlton and I found a 3-meter king cobra in Krabi at night and got some great shots and video of it. Facebook photo of it here.
Kings are found all over Thailand in large fields, on mountains, near houses, or really – just about anywhere. But they are not found often. They are tremendously strong and smart animals. Please give the snake a large space and do not poke it with a stick. They are very fast moving. Juvenile king cobras can also kill you. Their venom is every bit as toxic as adults. One study done by the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute in Bangkok showed that king venom is actually more toxic the younger the snake is. “Characterization of Venomous Snakes in Thailand,” Chanhome, et al. Asian Biomedicine Vol. 5 No. 3 June 2011; 311-328.
KING COBRA HABITAT
Kings like many types of habitat. Dense forest near water and open grasslands seems to be preferred. They also choose a place near bamboo thickets for a nest. Ideal cover is a web of small bamboo growing about a meter high with soft bamboo leaves underneath. The King I found last night was up a limestone mountain around 100 meters elevation. In Thailand they are often found wherever rat snakes might be found because they seem to prefer them.
Other Kings seem to prefer mountains. The other two I found were also at some elevation (200 m and around 500 meters). King cobras are mainly terrestrial dwelling, but have been found many times in trees. Luke Yeomans one time said that kings will climb 50 meters up into the tree canopy and just sit there. He joked that they were surveying their kingdom and saying – “This is All Mine!”
Another interesting bit of information is that the king cobra is said to be able to see as far as 100 meters during daylight.
The king is mainly diurnal – found active during the daytime, but can also be active at night.
King cobras eat other smaller snakes primarily, but also will eat monitor lizards. Occasionally they’ll eat other king cobras, pythons, lizards, birds, rodents. I saw a 5-meter long king attempting to eat a 2.5 meter reticulated python. The King appeared intimidated by the strength of the python – it’s no pushover. Here is a photo of a 3 meter king eating a 2 meter long red-tailed racer (G. oxycephalum) snake.
Lifts its head off the ground sometimes by as much as 4-5 feet, and flattens out the neck. The hood of a King cobra doesn’t flare as wide… but, a big King will surprise you because it can be five times as long as the monocled or other spitting cobras! These snakes are not usually that afraid of people, and move slowly to ‘escape’ if they move away at all. Last night I moved a 4 meter king off some steps at a local temple so people could pass. It was not in any hurry to get away, and it came at me a couple of times. Impressive snakes, and not to be taken lightly. I know a man personally, his brother was bitten on the upper chest and died in less than 10 minutes on the way to hospital.
Very toxic, but monocled cobras (Naja kaouthia) and kraits (genus Bungarus) are more potent on the LD50 scale. The power of O. hannah is in the volume of venom it can inject in one bite – maximum around 7 ml! Kings can (and have) supposedly killed elephants with a good bite. More information on venom constituents and treatment for king cobra snakebite here.
O. HANNAH ANTIVENOM
There is a specific antivenin for the king cobras manufactured by the Red Cross – Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute in Bangkok, Thailand and available online for about $110 (May, 2015) for enough antivenin to counteract .8 ml of king cobra venom. If the hospital you’re in does not have it in stock and cannot order it quickly from another nearby source, there is an alternative. Tiger snake antivenin can also work well. Online: Snake-Antivenin.com (no affiliation).
The king cobra mates and the eggs are laid approximately 60 days later. The female king cobra builds a nest, while the male doesn’t play any role in protecting the young.
Ophiophagus hannah is the only snake known in the world that creates a nest (usually of bamboo and other leaves).
The nest is around 1 to 1.5 meters in diameter (from above) and about 1 meter high. The eggs are laid around 30 to 50cm off the ground in the pile, keeping them safe from rain water. The temperature inside the nest is around the optimum 28°C.
The nest is usually built on a hillside at around 45° angle. The steeper the hill the better in very wet environments like the Western Gats in India. Here in Southern Thailand we don’t get that much rain, so the nests might not be built on such an extreme slope.
The nest will often be built under strong cover of bamboo or other trees which can block the rain from falling directly on the nest. The nest will also often be built among standing bamboo or other small trees – as it strengthens the nest in case of flowing water which would otherwise wash the nest away.
Once the eggs are laid, the female covers them with another approximately half meter of leaves. The leaves of the nest are packed tight, using her weight and movement.
The female stays with the eggs at the nest until they are ready to hatch, approximately 60 to 113 days later – depending primarily on temperature. Cooler temperatures mean longer incubation. Before the eggs begin hatching, the female king leaves because it is primarily a snake eater – and to remain as the young emerge from the eggs wouldn’t be a good idea.
The young are fast, and deadly from the time they hatch. Juvenile king cobras from Thailand have yellow or light creme colored bands across their black bodies and usually three yellow bands on the head. They look radically different from adult king cobra snakes. There is a danger of mistaking them for mangrove cat snakes (Boiga dendrophila), or even golden tree snakes (Chrysopelea ornata).
Young king cobras spend their early months, and possibly years in the trees. However, recently (Spring 2016) a friend, Elliot Pelling and I have found two hatchling king cobras dead on the road in Krabi. Did they attempt to cross the road immediately after hatching while in search of a proper tree to climb? Not sure. Would love to find out. If you have any insight – do let me know!
From Luke Yeomans: “A female usually deposits 20 to 40 eggs into the mound, which acts as an incubator. She stays with the eggs and guards the mound tenaciously, rearing up into a threat display if any large animal gets too close, for roughly 60 to 90 days. Inside the mound, the eggs are incubated at a steady 28 °C (82 °F). When the eggs start to hatch, instinct causes the female to leave the nest and find prey to eat so she does not eat her young. The baby king cobras, with an average length of 45 to 55 cm (18 to 22 in), have venom which is as potent as that of the adults. They may be brightly marked, but these colours often fade as they mature. They are alert and nervous, being highly aggressive if disturbed.”
Note: At the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute in Bangkok, Thailand, they did a study in which the venom from juvenile king cobras was measured according to LD-50 scale, and they found that hatchling and juvenile kings have venom which is multiples stronger than adult king cobra venom.
The IUCN Red List publishes information about the conservation status of reptiles across the globe. Here is what they had to say about King Cobras:
Ophiophagus hannah has been assessed as Vulnerable. This species has a wide distribution range, however, it is not common in any area in which it occurs (with the apparent exception of Thailand, and there only in forested areas), is very rare in much of its range, and has experienced local population declines of over 80% over 10 years in parts of its range. Pressure on this species from both habitat loss and exploitation are high throughout this snake’s range, and while no quantitative population data is available, it can be conservatively estimated that the population size has declined globally by at least 30% over an estimated three-generation period of 15-18 years. More detailed population monitoring in the more poorly-known parts of this snake’s range may reveal that this is a conservative estimate.
I mentioned earlier having seen many dozens of king cobras run through the snake show here in our local area. That is just one King Cobra Show out of perhaps a dozen in the country. If staff at every show caught and disposed of fifty king cobras annually, that’s six-hundred adult king cobras yearly that are being depleted from the forests just here in Thailand. Kings mate once per year and their eggs are highly vulnerable to predators like monitors, other snakes, rats, and weather phenomena like high humidity and monsoon rains. Kings lay eggs just before the rains start.
My best guess is that king cobras are disappearing from the wild at a frightening rate. We only mentioned snake shows here, but what about all the king cobras that are found and killed across southeast Asia for food, or out of fear? There must be hundreds more, perhaps thousands per year more that are killed by people that come across them.
I hope the IUCN Red List updates their listing for Ophiophagus hannah and assigns a label more serious than “Vulnerable.” Something drastic is needed to save the country of Thailand’s wild king cobras before they disappear like they did in Penang, Malaysia.
KING COBRA SCIENTIFIC CLASSIFICATION
Species: O. hannah
The kings in these photos are all beat up from bashing their faces against the cages at a snake show in Thailand. In the wild they are so beautiful… majestic, amazing snakes. I was so glad to see my first one in the wild. Even better to interact with it. Gotta love Thailand!
This page is focused on King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) snakes because their demise is imminent here in Thailand, and already in most countries they are not found in near the numbers they once were. On the island of Penang in Malaysia, it is said that kings can only be found very occasionally on the mountain. They used to be common. I was lucky enough to see one there on a very steep section of the hill while descending. It was three to four meters long and much thicker than my forearm. It was in the underbrush, moving slowly, perhaps thinking it was unobserved. That was two years ago, and maybe that snake has been a meal for someone by now. It’s entirely possible.
In Thailand I’ve watched just one snake show take over fifty king cobras each year out of the wild. They ‘rescue’ them from homes, yards, businesses, gardens, and farms. The kings spend a couple weeks or months rubbing their faces raw and bleeding against the fence trying desperately to escape. Some of them are put in the king cobra show – where they are teased mercilessly three to ten times each day for tourists that are interested in seeing snakes, but don’t really understand the state of the kings that are held there.
I cannot imagine that king cobras as a species have more than another few years of existence in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Laos, Singapore, and Taiwan. The IUCN Red List site lists king cobras as ‘Vulnerable.” Kings are being collected and sold in great numbers to buyers in Bangkok who cook them up as a meal, or send them on to China for the same purpose.
It wasn’t long ago that the Queen Saovabha Snake Farm – “The Red Cross Snake Farm” in Bangkok was ‘broken into’ and something like seventy king cobras were ‘stolen.’ Hmm, wonder where they went. Seventy king cobras had to fetch a nice price, I’d think. Tens of thousands of US Dollars – easy. Not accusing, it’s just a very sad state of reality for these and other snakes poached for their skin, blood, bile ducts, tongues, and meat.
So this page will be a collection of all the best information I can source about my favorite species of snake, King Cobra – Ophiophagus hannah. If you have some article, book, documentary, photo, video, or other bit of information you’d like to see listed here, just write via the contact form at this link. It is found under the HOME menu at the top of all pages.
Video of a King Cobra breathing – Listen – You Can Hear It:
Update – I’ve seen a number of king cobras in the wild now over the years. Four of them have been hundreds of meters high on mountains. One of them at a small pond only around 50 meters ASL. Many snake enthusiasts want to come to Thailand to see king cobras, and I have to tell them… the chance of seeing one is slight. I’ve lived in Thailand for ten years and I’ve seen only a handful, and I’m in the rainforest often. Your best bet is to come to the country and stay for a couple of months. Stay at PhanomBenchaMountainResort.com in a bungalow, and hike during the days around there. That’s my best advice. Your chance at seeing a king cobra is not high – you would probably need weeks of walking around during the day to see one. It’s all luck!
Thais are a bit crazy about cobras – it is the most easily recognized snake, and though I have met few people that can identify other snakes, most know what a cobra looks like. There are even amulet necklaces of cobras!
KING COBRA RESEARCH
MORE KING COBRA VIDEOS
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