On the Trail of the King Cobra: A tour that tracks India’s Most Revered Snake
By Dan Peltier
Most people tend to run away if they cross paths with a slithery serpent, but not the participants of the upcoming Steppes Discovery King Cobra Tour. That’s because they track them.
Jarrod Kyte, the Product Director of Steppes Travel, has long held a fascination with snakes, ever since he owned a Garter snake from the age of 12 years old. He read about the work of herpetologist and conservationist Romulus Whitaker and immediately wanted to do something to highlight his work to Steppes clients.
“Too many wildlife tours take the easy route and use megafauna as the hook – Google “Tiger Holidays in India” and you’ll see a surfeit of tour operators all professing to be experts. Steppes has always taken a different approach and where possible, looks for beyond the ordinary. Chasing King Cobras in India during the rainy season fulfills the philosophy of “beyond the ordinary” nicely,” said Virginia Haynes-Montgomery, the tour’s spokeswoman.
King Cobras in the Western Ghats
This 10-day journey off the beaten path takes place in the Western Ghats in India, the 1600 km long mountain range along the western side of India. In the reptile family, the King Cobra is culturally significant and superstitions have surrounded the creature for millennia. Indians believe that the King Cobra possesses exceptional memory.
It is also larger than other cobras and a diet of snakes, with rattlesnakes being its dish of choice. The King Cobra rarely attacks humans, which is reassuring given the fact that one bite has enough venom to bring down an elephant in seconds. But on the whole, they are very shy, which makes tracking them an adventure.
There is a “99.9999999 percent chance”, as Hayne’s-Montgomery puts it, of seeing the cobras on the tour. The cobras in Agumbe are micro-chipped making them relatively easy to find, but as with all wildlife there are never cast-iron guarantees since the cobra tries to avoid humans.
Tour participants trek with Irula tribesmen as they demonstrate age-old skills to track cobras and other snakes. This small Indian tribe holds the knowledge of indigenous wildlife, valuable resources for naturalists. Scientists often look to amphibians for signs of ecological issues as they are sensitive to environmental change.
The tour’s unconventional nature is the reason why only the most intrepid travelers are advised to embark on the journey.
“I think it takes a special kind of person to want to find this type of snake, and while the lure of getting within sniffing distance of a King Cobra is why Steppes is happy to fly the reptile flag and cater to niche interests,” said Haynes-Montgomery. This tour is not just about the adrenalin rush of seeing a wild king cobra – the king of snakes, but also has a strong academic element where clients can learn about snake taxonomy, conservation, and behavioral ecology in addition to learning about the medicinal qualities of snakes, whose venoms and toxins are actually very useful in human medicine.
Other amphibians that are tracked include vipers, wolf snakes, Caecilians, crocodiles, caimans, turtles, monitor lizards, flying lizards, tree frogs, burrowing frogs, and gliding frogs. The tour also shows you how locals live side by side with these creatures that are often portrayed as dangerous.
Sanjay Thakur: Sanjay has a wealth of wildlife experience in India and is one of the most respected naturalists in Central India. He has received the prestigious “Sarpa-Mitra” (friend of snakes) award in 2002 from the India Herpetological Society. This was in recognition of his contribution to research on snake ecology, conservation, snake rescue, rehabilitation and environmental education.
He has 20 years of experience observing herpetofauna and other wildlife in India. Sanjay has published research papers in scientific journals, participated in IUCN conservation status assessment exercise for reptiles, and training on amphibian and reptile taxonomy. He worked closely with Sapera (snake-charmer) community in Central India to document their interactions with snakes.
Most recently he has worked as Senior Project Officer for WWF-India, Satpuda Maikal Landscape Tiger Conservation Project for Pench-Kanha Corridor region, based at Seoni-Field Office, Madhya Pradesh. He has been a consultant a study of hunting techniques of the Paradhi community in Central India, conducted for TRAFFIC, India, and as a naturalist and expert escorted several groups in a number of India’s Wildlife parks.
He has been involved in many studies involving human-wildlife conflicts. In short, he knows the area and subject like no one else!
Gowri Shankar: Pursuing his passion for snakes against all odds was an answer to Gowri’s calling and there has been no looking back since. From very modest beginnings as an animal inspector with the Bangalore Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) (now known as KARUNA), he went on to train under Romulus Whitaker at the Centre for Herpetology, Madras Crocodile Bank and worked as an education officer.
He inculcated a scientific bend of thought and learned all he wanted to know about reptiles. He took after a special interest in king cobras and studied them in captivity. He was part of the pioneering king cobra captive breeding project at MCBT where for the first time in the history of zoos in India a king cobra breeding project was a success.
By the end of his tenure there he had co-authored a paper on ecdysis in king cobras and helped develop a manual on the captive breeding of king cobras. Gowri believes that a positive change through the right action can only happen if people are empowered with the right knowledge. Kālinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology is that medium of empowerment. He hopes that KCRE will evoke, motivate, and drive people to become the change that our environment needs today.
For more information and to view the full itinerary, visit www.steppesdiscovery.com or call 1-855-352-7606.