Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Case of the Dead 12.5ft King Cobra

Lately I’ve been moseying about the jungle at night by myself. I’ve finally gotten comfortable enough to just wander off and see what nocturnal goodies I can scope out. Luckily Juara is situated next to some draw-dropping secondary and primary rainforest, with three purdy rivers cutting into the jungle around the village too.

A popular waterfall trek that tourists and school groups alike fancy during the day is all mine at night. And two of those rivers are ripe for nighttime exploration, whether on foot in my scuba booties or in a kayak.

My solo endeavors have reaped a bountiful list of jungle residents. On the mammal scene there’s been Mouse Deer, the Common Palm Civet and numerous Red Spiny rats, all firsts for me.
I spotted this Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphrodites) looking down on me while trekking up to the local waterfall at night.
The herps have been more than rewarding. I’ve seen one Blue Bronzeback snake and a few Reticulated Pythons. The frogs have been noisy, calling about everywhere, including the White-lipped frog, Poisonous Rock frog, Blyth’s Giant frog; fat, warty, loud River toads; and an impeccably bloated Banded Bullfrog on a ride home one night. Plus another endemic lizard species, being a spaz on rocks: the Pulau Tioman Bent-toed gecko.
The Pulau Tioman Bent-toed Gecko (Crytodactylus tiomanensis) posing quite nicely.
But none of these creatures compare to what I stumbled across about one week ago. The time was nearing 11pm and I had decided to turn around and head back down the river, toward my motorbike. The night wasn’t phenomenal, just three frog species, but it wasn’t a total bust either.

As I combed the left side on my walk back I noticed a long stretch of tan color that looked too light to be a tree root. This possible tree root stretched from down in the water, to up along the top of the stream bank. My headlamp could have used some extra battery juice so I couldn’t make out exactly what I was looking at. I quietly popped up onto a rock in the river, lit up the tan object and realized I was standing within one meter of a King Cobra.


The long-as-can-be King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) where it was found in-situ. Notice the the lower half of the snake heading right out of the tree trunk, up the bank.
I got goose bumps, stared mouth agape, hollered a few excitable expletives and then moved back onto a much larger boulder in the river, to verify I was definitely looking at the mack daddy of all cobras (Ophiophagus hannah). I was. As far as snakes go on Tioman they’re pretty unmistakable. The size, head and its scales, upper body and color all screamed cobra.

That night I pegged the length of the serpent at 3-4M (~10-13ft). Yeah, this specimen was a biggie. Longest snake I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. The head and upper body were in the water, with the rest of it meandering up through the base of a robust tree trunk, turning ninety degrees and then unraveling along the dirt bank.

The rock I popped up onto to get a closer than needed view when I first spotted the cobra.
Unfortunately it had another characteristic that made this discovery a little grim. The King Cobra was a goner. Dead as can be. This was verified the next morning when I returned to the sighting area with Adam, a friend/colleague of mine. 

Playing with the cobra the next morning, ya know, taking measurements and having a photo shoot.
The night before I noticed it hadn’t moved much. Since it was late, I was by myself and I had never found a King Cobra before I decided to not mess with it, e.g. throwing rocks and sticks at it to see if the snake still had a pulse. That’s exactly what we did in the morning. No reaction. The night before it’s head was partially submerged in the water, but right at the surface and alert. Now it was facing down, as if it had been placed in time out, and looking the part of dead. 

Plank vs. Cobra. Snake wins length battle easily! Adam is around 1.8M (6ft) tall.
We decided to get the cobra out of its current position and move it over to the rocky shore across the river. That’s how I know the first King Cobra I ever found ended up clocking in at 3.8M (12.47ft). Frickin’ awesome. This species has been known to grow as long as 6M (almost 20ft). Sadly, the snake had just recently shed too; hence the eye-catching tan color, the same shade of a fulfilling afternoon cup of tea with lots of sweet milk thrown in.
 

So we splayed the snake out and wondered how the hell it ended up dead. The tail had been gnawed on pretty well, with a few chunks missing, but the rest of the body was intact. The upper body and neck area, running up to its snout, were the only parts to not go through the shed. The old skin was still clinging to scales. We opened its mouth and peered inside, which was big enough to consume my fist or a plump grapefruit. Or both.

Open wide! A fist or two could easily get lost in there.
Obviously the fact that the King Cobra was deceased puts a damper on the finding. But there’s more than enough to be ecstatic about. A quick peruse through the herp guide for the Seribuat archipelago (and the scientific paper preceding this book) reveals the only confirmed sighting of this species on Tioman reigns from Kampung ABC, on the west side of the island and a good 8-9km (~5 miles) away from Juara.


Charlie from JTP has told me before he’s seen a cobra in the same river I did. I believe him. Sometimes in this part of the world it’s difficult to know when other people have seen a cobra species or not. Most folks think any snake out here is a cobra or python, just like people in Arizona who always think the snake they just came across had rattles and was ready to strike them in a moment’s notice.  

The head just underneath the water when first found. Notice the shed skin still lingering and the massive, plate-like scales on its head.
So yup it’s a bummer it had to be dead. But just knowing that an over 12 ft. long snake was out roaming in the jungle, scarfing down other snakes and eating monitor lizards makes me smile. Our world’s charismatic megafauna (tigers, orangutans, giant pythons and anacondas, crocodiles, wolves, etc.) is vanishing fast. As David Quammen has written, we are at war with wild places and along with that, the creatures that rule them.

Tioman is too small to support your classic big-game jungle animals: rhinos, sun bears, elephants and those aforementioned tigers. But we still got some hefty heavy hitters out there and I’ve seen ‘em: monitor lizards pushing 3M (almost 10ft); huge pythons that can squeeze a mouse deer to death and then have it for dinner; and now 12ft long King cobras on both sides of the island. Looks like Tioman, with its ever-developing coastline and the increasing 3D/2N package tourists that go along with that, is still a wild place after all. What more could you ask for? Well, maybe an alive 15ft cobra. I’d settle for that.


Maneuvering it around so we could measure it.
Tail area, which was the only part of the cobra that showed injury.
Large Water monitor (Varanus salvator). This sickly beast was almost stepped on by Adam while we were trekking to a summit view point in another area in Juara. These are top predators on Tioman. This one is easily over 2M (6.5ft).
Blyth's Giant frog (Limnonectes blythii)
Handsome Blue Bronzeback (Dendralaphis cyanochloris) found in streamside vegetation very close to the cobra sighting.

Sprawled out and chillax-ing.
White-lipped frog (Hylarana labialis)
Large stick insect (Phasmatodea sp.)
Obese-looking Banded Bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra) on my ride home.
Big Boi on the rocks: River toad (Phrynoides aspera).

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