‘I am Nag,’ said the cobra; ‘look, and be afraid!’….But at the bottom of his cold heart, he was afraid.
It was our last full herping day in Thailand, and so far all of our venomous snakes had been pit vipers (Trimeresurus vogeli), at rest on tree branches over our heads. This last day we were at Kaeng Krachan National Park, a few hours southwest of Bangkok, and as it was hot and dry we were driving from water hole to water hole, looking for herps out to get a drink or a meal. The water holes, vaguely square or lozenge-shaped, were man-made, and dug for the park’s elephants and other charismatic wildlife.
The abrupt edges of the water holes were mostly bare clay, thanks to the elephants, but here and there were spots where Elephas couldn’t easily reach, and grasses and other plants kept a foothold. The herper eye is naturally drawn to these, and being at the right water hole at the right time, I saw the back portion of a heavy brown snake, half in the water and the rest disappearing into the grass. I knew it was a cobra; in the milliseconds of discovery the sorting and classification areas of my brain made a pretty good guess.
I had nothing to catch a cobra, and while snapping in situ photos I shouted for the others in my party, somewhere nearby. “Big snake! Bring the tongs! Bring the tongs!” Jeff brought the tongs. Time sped up rapidly for a bit, and scenes played out in parallel. Applying the grabbers mid-body, he lifted the snake out of the grass and back to higher and drier ground. At the same time there was a thrashing movement from the grass and I thought Jeff was losing the cobra, but no – it was a second snake, and it vanished into the water. Switching focus back to the cobra Jeff was landing, an everted set of hemipenes made it a clear case of coitus interruptus. In all my excitement I hadn’t noticed there were two serpents, entwined. While I was excited about the cobras, I was sorry for spoiling their moment, and I hoped the two serpents were merely basking in the drowsy post-coital afterglow of cobra sex.
Whatever the reality of the situation was, everything was changed after that moment, and now cobra and hominid must play out their time together. Like most serpents, the cobra first attempted a high-speed getaway in the gap between humans, and when that was thwarted, it assumed the classic position. How many times, in photos and film, have I seen the raised head, the neck spread to reveal skin between scales? How many times has reality shoved two dimensional experiences back into their flat little boxes?
My first wild cobra. This was Naja kaouthia, the Monocellate Cobra, although it lacked the signature O-shaped mark on the back of the hood. The snake was close to four feet long, and at times it raised close to a third of its length off the ground. It swayed, swiveled and hissed as we shot with our cameras, and at the time I thought to myself “this is nothing like the rattlers back home”. How ridiculous – the cobra was very much like a rattlesnake, albeit quieter, and somewhat higher on the Z axis. Neither cobra nor rattlesnakes are aggressive, seeking first to escape. When cornered, both snakes assume a defensive posture and attitude – ‘come at me bro, and we’ll both go down together’. Up to the point where some line is crossed and they strike and bite, they give an assailant the option to think things over, and perhaps just leave. Blind aggressiveness is not a long-term survival tactic, but a formidable defense might allow a snake to live another day.
We had what seemed like just a few minutes with the cobra, and then guided it back to the capture spot, where it made for a nearby tree and disappeared into a hollow section. Afterwards, and 30 meters away, we found the largest Reticulated Python of the trip, but as they say, that is another story. I’m grateful to the cobra for giving me the opportunity to observe and experience a Naja firsthand, and I’m really very sorry for interrupting its afternoon tryst. I owe you one, friend.
Special thanks to Tony and Tan from TonTan Travel for their excellent assistance!