So what’s it like to handle an 11.5 foot king cobra? It is just as terrifying and adrenaline-pumping as you can imagine! These are the world’s longest venomous snakes, and it goes without saying that they can be a real handful. We use specific tools and methods to keep us and the snake as safe as possible when handling these animals. Handling my first king is no doubt the most intense wildlife experience I’ve ever had.
We here at the Sakaerat Conservation and Snake Education Team respond to calls from local people who need us to remove a snake from their house. Much of the time these are just harmless ratsnakes or pythons, but every once and a while, we do in fact meet venomous snakes that need to be extracted. Only our field managers who have extensive experience remove the dangerous species, and they have trained a local Thai rescue team in safe extraction and handling methods as well. The people on the Thai rescue team are the ones who extracted this large adult male king from a villager’s house, and we picked it up from them to take morphometric (body measurement) data.
To take measurements and scale clips from a snake, we first “tube” the animal where we literally coax the snake into a plastic tube to secure the head, allowing us to safely manipulate the animal onto a table and begin the process of anesthetization. Once the snake loses all muscle tone, we can start taking measurements. During this process, we have multiple people constantly monitoring the snake, calmly alerting everyone if the tail starts to regain tone. The process of the anesthesia leaving the body is very gradual, so there is never a threat of the animal suddenly waking up and thrashing around. The muscles in the tail are always the first to start regaining rigidity and if this happens, we stop what we’re doing, retube the snake, and add just a little more anesthesia to ensure that the snake is completely under for the remainder of the procedure.
While monitoring the snake’s vitals, we pay close attention to the heartbeat. The heartbeat can actually be seen pulsing powerfully beneath the scales in the upper quarter of the snake, pumping blood forcefully throughout the entire length of the snake’s elongated body. A king cobra’s heartbeat feels no different than our own. The rhythmic pulse serves as a reminder that these animals are not as different from us as we might think. They have all the same vital organs that we do, just arranged a little differently to accommodate their unique legless body plan. I actually find it quite a special privilege to examine these incredible animals at such a close and personal level, reflecting on their regal presence and biological sanctity within the animal kingdom.
We take standard measurements of the snout-vent length (which is the length from the tip of the nose to the cloaca or uro-genital opening) as well as the tail length, head width, and mass. The sex is determined and pictures of any identifying markings are taken and documented. In addition we collect small scale clippings for genetic and biochemical analysis as well as remove any ectoparasites clinging to the snake’s skin. When we are done taking these morphometrics, we place the snake back in a container, monitoring it over the next hour or two to make sure it is acting normal and healthy.
Before collecting the morphometric data on this particular king cobra, my field managers took the opportunity to give us some professional training in handling venomous snakes. I cannot stress it enough that we take all precautions possible when handling these animals and safety is our top priority . It’s no hiding that there is some risk to this activity, but with the use of tools, proper protective clothing, and focused instruction we minimize the chance of any accidents occurring. Everyone here on the team has the utmost respect for these animals and handling is done in a way to keep the snake and handler as relaxed as possible.
The thing that surprised me most about working with his majesty, the king is just how heavy the animal is. This individual weighed in at about 12lbs, but the weight distribution was such that if I did not get my hook in the right position, it was physically impossible for me to lift the snake. This meant that I had to get my hook under the first upper quarter of the cobra, which seemed a daunting task at first. Part of handling an animal like this is learning how to detect and react to the snake’s next move. It is possible to read the body language and predict when the snake will focus on attempting to slither away, and when he will turn and charge. Of course, the animal can react any way at any time so you constantly need to be ready if he reacts unexpectedly. Complacency is never okay and you need to have complete focus at all times.
As with any project dealing with wildlife, it is important to minimize the direct human interaction with animals. We rescue snakes in circumstances where they come into conflict with people and we use the situation to gather data and give training workshops. In Thailand the king cobra is a threatened species and we have special permits and protocols from the government to work with these animals for conservation, research, and education purposes. Another big part of the team’s job here is to give educational presentations to schoolchildren to teach them about snakes and their importance in the ecosystem. We talk about how to identify venomous species, dispel myths about snakes, and explain the fascinating ecology of these animals. It is my firm belief that one of the most important aspects of any conservation initiative is education and I hope that the project here can help curb the many negative attitudes people here have towards snakes. Who knows, we may even be planting seeds and inspiring the next generation of herpetologists! For more information about the work done by the snake teams here at Sakaerat, please visit the Sakaerat Najas Project Blog.