I was hoping this year was going to be THE YEAR I found a king cobra hatchling – at least one under a meter. Alex Gillard made it happen for me, I didn’t get to find it, but we were at the same place and I’d actually just passed the place he found the little king – about 30 minutes before. Good enough for me, I just wanted to see one in the wild and get some photos and videos.
This has been my target species for about ten years now. I’ve found some adults, and one adult even found me, but I have never seen a king cobra in the wild less than three meters in length.
Juvenile king cobras are very difficult to find. People say they’re ‘smart’ – and yeah, I guess they are. I’ve never even heard of someone finding a hatchling king in the wild. One time a doctor from Malaysia sent me a photo of a tiny hatchling outside his clinic – in the middle of the day. It had probably just hatched.
Certainly, nobody goes looking for and finds king neonates.
Until Alex found one.
So, anyway. My life is complete. Enjoy the photos of this stunning little one-month old king cobra found in Krabi. I don’t know how many times I’ve been herping over the last ten years, certainly well over 1,000 times. And still, I’ve never found one myself!
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.
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 genus into a number of species, as differences exist in coloration, scalation, and in comparison, king cobras can be easily distinguished by the shape and size of the neck hood. 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 Creative Commons – Wikipedia. Link here.
In Thai language, it sounds like Ngoo how chang (literally “snake cobra elephant”, 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 few 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 and got some great shots and video of it. Facebook photo of it here.
Kings are all over Thailand and can be found 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.
KING COBRA HABITAT
Kings like many types of habitat. Dense forest near water and open grasslands. Love 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.
Kings seem to prefer mountains. The other two I found were also at some elevation (200 m and around 500 meters). King cobras are usually terrestrial, but have been found many times in trees.
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 snake is mainly diurnal – found active during the daytime, but can also be active also 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 red tailed racer 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 scare you much more because they can be 5 times as long as the monocled or other 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 arm/shoulder 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 the King is in the volume of venom it can inject in one bite – maximum around 7ml! Kings can (and have) 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 .8ml 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).
Ophiophagus hannah is the only snake known in the world that creates a nest (usually of bamboo and other leaves). This snake lays eggs which they stay with in the nest until ready to hatch. When the eggs begin hatching, the female king leaves because it eats other snakes primarily – and would likely eat the young. The young are fast, and deadly from the time they hatch. Juvenile king cobras from Thailand have yellow bands across their black bodies and heads. They look radically different from adult king cobra snakes. There is a danger of mistaking them for mangrove cat snakes (Boiga dendrophila).
Young king cobras spend their early months, and possibly years in the trees. However, recently (Spring 2016) 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.”
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 every show caught and disposed of 50 king cobras annually, that’s 600 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.
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 7/20/2016 – 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. 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!
Many people are trying to find a king cobra in Thailand, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere.
How Do You Find a King Cobra?
When I first got into the hobby eight or so years ago, I thought there was some sort of formula I could use to find snakes I was targeting. This was my mentality back then because I was an addicted kayak fisherman who was on the ocean every weekend and a fair number of weekdays floating around and catching gator trout, snook, redfish, and other amazing species. I figured catching snakes was just like catching fish. Target them with the right equipment, time, weather, and bait, and I could catch whatever I was focused on.
I’ve since learned that snakes and fish are radically different.
To start with, there are very few snakes you can target and catch repeatedly. Here in Southern Thailand I can usually target a Homalopsis buccata (puff-faced water snake) and have a good chance of catching one because I know where they generally are. Generally. Sometimes I cannot find them. Where they go is anyone’s guess, maybe to the deeper water during the dry season – because at the moment they are very difficult to find in the shallow pools I’ve been looking in.
Anyway, back to the King Cobra and how to catch one.
There are people who come over to Thailand and are lucky enough to find a snake during their vacation. One fell over a waterfall for a guy who sent me a photo of him standing beside one floating in a pool of water. Then, there’s everybody else.
Finding a king cobra comes down to just two things. Persistence, and luck. That’s it really. You can try to go out during daytime hours, or limited daytime hours. You can go out early evenings only. You can target patches of bamboo. You can go out during mating season. You can go out in areas where they are known to have been previously. You can rub captive king cobra feces all over your pants and walk around the forest. To my knowledge, it is only people who are persistent and who get lucky, that will find king cobras.
I’ve found four of them now. I live here in Thailand full-time and I am always looking around for them on the road, in open fields or wherever I am. I go looking for snakes in the forest a couple times a month on average. I can’t remember when I found the first one – there are two that were fairly close together. One was on step 357 of 1,200+ steps leading up a mountain at a Buddhist temple. People were screaming and a friend of mine ran down the steps and ran right into me.
Him: Hey Mr. Vern! Snake! You catch snakes, right?
Me: Sure, uhm, what kind of snake?
Him: Cobra! Big!
Me: How big?
Him: I don’t know, 4 meters maybe?
Me: No, I don’t catch 4 meter cobras!
I did however go up and touch the tail and poke it with a stick a couple times to move it off the steps. It was a real beauty – light brown, yellowish and in perfect shape. Very strong, and definitely the top of the reptile food chain in the area.
So, I wasn’t looking for snakes, and there she was – a real mindblower!
The next time was while looking half-heartedly for snakes and standing on a road that goes up a mountain. I was looking one way, turned around in time to see a massive tail of a king cobra disappearing into the thick brush. I mean massive as in twice the size and thickness of any other king cobra I’d seen at the snake show I used to visit a few times per month. It was ridiculously large. Apparently it just crossed the road behind me with no fear at all. I was only maybe 10 meters away.
Another time I found one on Penang Hill in Malaysia while running down a forest trail.
The last time, and this was one of the best for sure – was when I was herping with Tom Charlton, and he found one in the early evening as we herped some man-made pools I’d been to over 100 times before. I’d never seen a king cobra anywhere near there before. Still, there he was – 3 meters of absolute reptile perfection!
Tom had been coming to Thailand and Malaysia for 12 years and hadn’t found a king cobra before last week. They are NOT an easy species to target. You probably shouldn’t pay for a herping trip – a wildlife tour that promises to find you a king. In Indonesia they are actually promising you can find a wild king, but they’re putting them in bags and releasing them in front of the tourists that just paid stacks of cash to see one in the wild. It’s nuts!
There are two parts of the equation for finding kings – persistence and luck. Really, only luck is necessary – you don’t even have to go looking for king cobras to find them. You just need a lot of luck!