King Cobras On the Brain

Two meter King Cobra found in Krabi, Thailand.
2+ meter King Cobra found in Krabi, Thailand.

When I first got back into snakes about nine years ago, I saw my first King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) at a snake show on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand’s Surat Thani province. The snake was beat up – there were scars all over it. The face was nose-rubbed horribly, and I couldn’t see what the snake’s head really looked like. Still, it was somehow majestic – all five meters of it. It was hard to understand that a snake other than a python could get that long. I’d never seen a King Cobra in a zoo in the USA, not that I ever went to zoos much. Staring at that massive snake made me wonder what it was capable of. Over time I’ve seen a little bit and learned a little bit, and I have to say, there is no more fascinating snake on the planet.

The Thai snake presenter at the show was cruel, smacking the King on the head until it became alert enough to carry on for a show and make the owner some money. I was sorry I paid to watch this ignorant ass smack around such an amazing snake.

And that was my first experience seeing King Cobras. There were more in cages, some looked slightly better physically, others worse. They were all lethargic and seemed to have lost their will to thrive.

I started attending a snake show near my home just to expose myself to various snakes and to teach them something about snakes. Funny, I know… you’d think after years of handling deadly snakes they’d have learned some of the simple things I taught them. For the most part, they just weren’t interested at all in any of the snakes health or living conditions. There are always more snakes to replace those that die and that are sacrificed for parts.

I made ‘friends’ with the Thai and Burmese snake guys, and the owner. In time I didn’t have to pay anything to come in and walk around. Sometimes I’d buy a snake to let go after I shot some photos and videos – my own form of exploitation of these amazing and secretive reptiles.

The show would get between 60 to 100 King Cobras per year. Over the nine years I’ve lived in this province, that’s 500-900 King Cobras taken from the wild. That’s a crazy number, still, it’s my best guess. Imagine all the other snake shows in Thailand doing the same – and it’s really a tremendous number of wild-caught King Cobras going to waste.

Tom Charlton with King Cobra (O. hannah)
Tom Charlton with his first-ever King Cobra in Krabi, Thailand.

Sometimes locals brought snakes with nooses around them. Sometimes they called the snake guys to run out with their motorbikes and catch a King on their property. It’s hard to believe there are so many King Cobras in such a small area. Taking so many each year from the wild and killing them for skins, gall bladders, or having them die early from dirty-cage induced disease, must be decimating the populations and seriously altering the balance that once existed in nature.

It’s a fitting moniker – “King” – there is nothing like it in the snake world. It can grow to over 5.85 meters (19+ feet) long and the girth can be as thick as a man’s thigh. It can eat three decent sized (2 meter+) rat snakes in a day if it chooses (in captivity). I’ve seen King Cobras eat banded kraits, Malayan pit vipers, keeled rat snakes, red-tailed racers, radiated rat snakes, tree snakes, and monitor lizards over a meter long. They have voracious appetites, and don’t seem to mind too much at all fighting a big 2 meter python, or a deadly krait or viper in order to have a meal.

A King Cobra’s venom is primarily neurotoxic. It affects the ability of the nerves to function properly. As a result, many muscles become paralyzed after envenomation by a King, and the victim – if human, needs immediate life saving resuscitation at a well-equipped hospital.

King Cobra venom typically takes a couple hours to work, but it’s all relative to how much venom is injected with the bite. A good dose can cause cardiac arrest or asphyxiation within minutes as the heart or diaphragm is paralyzed. I’ve heard a detailed story of this from the owner of a snake show who shared with me how a young trainee was killed within ten minutes by a big five meter long king he was bitten by during a show about ten years ago. Fairly recently we all learned of the fate of Luke Yeomans, bitten by one of his favorite King Cobras he kept in captivity – Elvis – which caused catastrophic heart failure within mere minutes.

A King Cobra can inject whole milliliters of potent venom at a time – the human body, even with medical care, just cannot cope with that. If the King means to kill you – it most certainly will. There’s something so amazing about that. The snake can kill you without ever meaning to eat you. It will just remove you as a threat in an instant, as soon as it is given the opportunity.

In the almost ten years since I’ve been studying King behavior I’ve noticed that all the handlers have treated the snakes with respect (meaning, fear) and as something distinct and separate from the handler interacting with it. You can see it in every video online before recently – the snakes are distracted or challenged directly, putting fear into the snake that it could be hurt. There is a tension between the snake and handler. There is sort of this understanding, based on fear, that each could kill the other. The snake handler always has the upper hand though. He always remains in control of the snake physically and is just out of reach, where the snake, if it was inclined, couldn’t strike fast enough to give an envenomed bite.

Here’s the most disturbing video of a King Cobra I’ve ever seen…

That video is really disturbing to me because I know the guy doing it. Not sure if he really believes the snake is his friend or not, but no matter – he’s just broken down the barrier that used to separate man from deadly snakes – by treating it like a kitten. There’s no separation between the two species here… both are open and available to the other. No fear in either. Well, there must be fear in David’s head, or he’s lost all grasp on reality, but the snake doesn’t appear to fear him at all. No threat display. No hint of aggravation. In keeping snakes, ideally the snake doesn’t fear the keeper, but should it be this intimate a setting?

There are people all over the world hand-holding venomous snakes of all kinds – vipers, kraits, and even King Cobras. Nobody really cares here in Thailand, they have things like bombs going off all over the south and ‘drink driving.’

The first time I saw a king in the wild was on the steps of a Buddhist temple – at step 378 I think it was. A friend came down the steps to tell me there was a big cobra that was blocking foot traffic up and down the stairs. I went up and looked at this very large, four meter King just laying on a couple square meter landing between steps, and poking his head in holes in the limestone. It was yellow toned and so beautiful. It turned in a second , hooded, and came forward down the stairs at me a couple meters before returning to the same spot to look in more holes. It paid me no mind again in a matter of minutes. It didn’t flee. It didn’t remain hooded… just went back to what it was doing before I rudely interrupted.

It blew my mind for a bit. This snake wasn’t all that interested in me, even though I touched its tail and encroached on its personal space.

It made me so much more aware of just how confident this snake feels about what it can do. When I backed off by running backwards down the stairs fast, the snake realized I was really no threat at all.

The next time I saw a King was on a country road. I had parked my motorbike in the street and was just walking around, looking in leaf litter. I was standing near the middle of the street at one point, and turned around. What I saw, I still cannot explain today, but it was the largest King Cobra tail I’d ever seen. By a factor of at least 2x. Now, remember I said I’d seen 5 meter Kings before? I’d seen many, MANY of them at the snake show by this point. Easily 50+. The tail I saw, two meters from leaving the road – because the snake had already crossed behind me – was so thick, it was like a dinosaur tail. It sounds ridiculous, I know. It’s just the way it happened. I was frozen in shock as I tried to come to grips with how big the King Cobra had to be to have a tail THAT THICK and LONG.

I literally couldn’t move toward it to grab the tail because my mind couldn’t make sense of it. I remember frantically searching through my known snake database for any other snake tail that might fit the very distinctive pattern of the King Cobra tail in front of me. I actually tried to make the Python tail fit – for a few seconds, before that crashed down on me and I was forced to realize – this was probably the biggest King Cobra in the entire world that just crossed 15 feet behind me while I stood in the street. That snake showed me no respect at all. It knew I’d run from it, if confronted. Probably nobody had confronted it for many years, if it reached that length. Probably some people would have outright feinted on the ground if they saw it. It was THAT big.

Later I saw a nice 3-4 meter king on the island of Penang, Malaysia… and then more recently I saw a nice 2-3 meter king with my buddy Tom Charlton – his first King ever! So, I’ve been lucky enough to see some really amazing specimens of this snake over the years. Always ready to see more though.

What’s inside a 4 meter long King Cobra? Video below: