Saturday, March 25, 2017

Befriending the King Cobra at Agumbe

I love snakes. They fascinate me. Having watched countless of documentaries on reptiles on National Geographic, Animal Planet and the Discovery channel, I have always wanted to meet Romulus Whitaker; the legendary snake rescuer. That too in Agumbe; India's largest home to the King Cobra. But I couldn't find his base and if I could go and spend some time with him there, possibly chasing the King. But his chase led me to P. Gowri Shankar who runs the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE). Gowri was trained under Whitaker and has featured with him in television documentaries too. And much to my joy, KCRE had planned a King Cobra workshop in March. It all fell in place then and I soon boarded a Jet Airways flight to Mangalore and hopped in the cab that took me 70 kms deep in the western ghats, onto the mountains of Agumbe.

(The western ghats as seen from Agumbe ghats)

Located about five kilometres from a small village called Guddekere, which itself is about 9 kms from Agumbe town, KCRE sits hidden in the lush greens and tall trees and surrounded by all sorts of creatures, beautiful ofcourse. The greenery at Agumbe hits you, much like many other parts of Southern India. It's known as the Cherrapunji of the south. In simple words, it receives amongst the highest rainfall in the country. Some of the spices found here can only be found here in Agumbe.

KCRE must be around 5-8 acre property. It has betelnut plantations and a thick tree cover. Cars can go upto a point, after which you have to hike a bit and then climb down a large flight of stairs. The forest cover is so thick that you cannot see an inch of KCRE till you are right in front of it. There is a main hall where all activities take place; workshops get conducted, it has a well-stocked library filled with all sorts of books on nature, wildlife, flora, fauna, snakes, King Cobras, other snakes, birds, mammals and everything nature for us to read and learn. Here's also where you have your food and- on one side- you put away all your luggage.

Tented accommodation is provided to all us (typically two people per tent); extra tents are set up in minutes if there are more guests. Each tent is provided with a mat, blanket and a pillow. There is a separate block for toilets and bathrooms. Care is taken to maintain it well. Hot water is available for a few hours everyday as there is no electricity. They use wood fire for cooking as well as bath. Food is cooked in a healthy way; everything is organic and grown nearby. It's quite tasty I should tell you. Simple, yet good food.

KCRE can really buzz with enthusiasts and nature aficionados who all want a piece of Agumbe, to suit their palettes. So there was a group of final year students from a Kerala biotech college on the day I landed in KCRE for a nature and wildlife outing trip. After they left, came another corporate group from Bangalore for a team building exercise. Not everyone comes for a King Cobra related workshop; there are other activities too like hiking, trekking, and so on. But everyone learns a little about the King Cobra; Gowri Shankar's speciality and in which he is also pursuing a PHD. Ours was specifically a 3-day King Cobra workshop.

Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology grounds

Malabar Pit Viper

The King Cobra workshop is a mixture of theory classes and practical observation. Every year- and especially during the breeding season of the King Cobra (February to April)- KCRE receives snake rescue calls from Agumbe villages as far as 20-30 kms away. Gowri Shankar and his right hand man Prashanth dash off and rescue the King Cobras (they only rescue King Cobras and not typically other snakes) and release them again in the wild. Note: it's rescue and not catching snakes. We use the term "rescue" because if the King gets very close to human habitat, KCRE's aim to take the King away and release them back in the wild, and preferably as close as possible to their habitat, not just anywhere in the wild. Snakes are not be collected nor should we kill them.

Gowri's PHD is to research- and document the findings of- behaviour Kings in India and particularly of the western ghats, and also those that are found in northeastern forests and the whole world (Gowri also visits Thailand to study the Thailand Kind Cobras, for instance). To support the study, he is gathering evidence on the Kings' defensive nature, breeding, home range pattern, evolution and so on  and more importantly, its genetics. Through his work and studies, he is also trying to get attention and funds to help conservation of snakes. The gene behind his PHD is to also determine if King Cobras behave differently in different parts of the world and whether they actually belong to the same species (at present, all Kings belong to the Tat o.Hannah species) or should they be classified under different species.

Apart from the watching presentations and some very engaging videos and documentaries that teach us various facets about the King, toxicology, etc., we also engage in team exercises. One such exercise is to build a King Cobra nest. The batch was divided in 3-4 groups and we have to go in the forest on the fringes of the KCRE and select a suitable spot and build a nest. It looks like a simple task, but it's not. The King's nest has to have the right temperature for eggs incubation, enough to allow sunlight, careful to not allow the rain to wash it away (nests are built in the monsoon and they need to be protected from the very heavy rainfall that they are not washed away or flooded) and so on.

There are leisurely activities to be had during our stay like hiking to the highest peak in Agumbe (you can also spot deers here), and numerous forest trails. There is also a stream nearby where we can go and bathe or just wet ourselves. It looks like in the middle of nowhere and all you can hear there are chirping of birds and rustling to leaves.

All in all, the workshop was a great success. We learned a lot and had a great time in this paradise called Agumbe. And did we see the King Cobra? Yes, once. On the last day, Gowri and Prashanth rescued a King Cobra that had come too close to a human settlement. He showed us how to gently handle the King, and then sensitised us about the need to release the King back in its own habitat. Care, he said, should be taken to release the snake in its own habitat as it's a territorial snake and will be comfortable only in its own home, and not just anywhere else in the forest.

Gowri Shankar gently handling the King Cobra

 Wine tree snake

 A moth sleeping while we were on a night trail

 The flying lizard (Gecko)

Sunset at Agumbe

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