The name of the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) indicates its extraordinary characteristics. It’s the longest venomous snake in the world, with venom so potent it can kill an adult elephant. Its eyesight is the best among snakes. And it preys on other snakes. The powerful king of venomous snake sounds frightening. Yet it has a special quality which is rare among snakes — it takes care of its offspring.
King Cobra is easily confused with Chinese Cobra (Naja atra). When threatened, both raise their body and expand the hood at the neck to form a defense posture. They are indeed relatives, as they both belong to the Elapidae family. King Cobra, however, is two- to-three times longer than Chinese Cobra. It can grow to as long as 6 metres.
King Cobra in different regions differ in their body colour. Some are yellowish green, some olive green or dark brown. In Hong Kong, they are mostly black with pale bands and several yellow V-shape marks on their necks. The belly is pale yellow. Juveniles have a conspicuous alternating black and yellow pattern.
Snake eaters, but not eating their own offspring
The generic name of King Cobra is Ophiophagus, meaning “snake eater”. King Cobra indeed preys on smaller snakes, and sometimes lizards. The fierce hunter has its gentle side, however. Most snakes do not take care of their offspring. King Cobra is among the few that build a nest and defend it. Before egg laying, the female makes a nest on the ground with dried leaves and other debris. Upon laying the eggs, the female does not immediately rest, but continues to scrape up more leaves to cover the eggs. The whole process may take a dozen hours to a few days.
The nest may reach a metre in diameter, and 40 centimetres in height, like a small mound. In the two to three months after reproduction, the female will keep alert round the clock, to safeguard the eggs. Once the eggs are hatched, the female leaves the nest, to prevent herself eating her own offspring.
King Cobra is very sensitive to moving objects. When confronted, it raises its body in a defensive posture. A large King Cobra may “stand up” to the height of an adult man! It will expand the neck hood, expose its fangs and hiss loudly. If the other side does not retreat, King Cobra will give its fatal bite.
The venom of King Cobra kills very effecively. Each bite can release up to 7 millilitre of venom, and kill an adult human in half an hour. The snake has powerful eyesight and can see objects a hundred metres away. If you accidentally encounter a King Cobra, don’t provoke it. The best thing to do is to slowly move away!
It is not easy to encounter this snake, though, as it is shy, and scarce. King Cobra is distributed across South East Asia, yet its habitats are decreasing, and these cobras are hunted for their meat, skin and supposed medicinal value. The wild population is dwindling. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) estimates that the numbers of King Cobra have plummeted by 30% in the past few decades. The species is now listed as “Vulnerable”. The China Red Book even lists the species as “Critically Endangered”. King Cobra may sound powerful and majestic, yet in reality is now very vulnerable and needs our help to protect it!