Even the road up to Agumbe is coiled like a giant serpent. There are 15 hairpin bends on the last stretch via Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary from Mangalore. Waterfalls with names such as “Pounding Stick” crash through the dense forest cover into the hillside.
“Agumbe is the king cobra capital of India,” says Romulus Whitaker, the famous herpetologist who has spent a lifetime tracking the creepy-crawlies of the subcontinent. A small village tucked into the folds of the Sahyadri range, the place receives so much rain that it’s called the Cherrapunji of the South. Its further claim to fame is that it is here that the late Shankar Nag filmed the delightful television series Malgudi Days, based on the novels of R.K. Narayan.
You get the feeling that you’ve been here before when you finally reach the village and are told by the folk at the local tea shop that the ‘cobra place’ is down a dirt road that leads straight into the jungle.
“It was Rom’s dream to start a research station for king cobras here because this is where he caught his first,” explains P. Gowri Shankar, who is now the resident herpetologist at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS), the first of its kind in the country. We don’t realize it at the time, but Shankar is something of a hero in these parts.
Like most townies, we have been making jokes about snakes all the way from Mangalore. My three companions have been complaining about spending two days in a forest camp. One of them, my sister from the US, wants a clean loo and bottled water. The other two are dreaming of chilled beer and Mangalorean fish curry.
“Most people who come here ask us whether the water is filtered,” explains Shankar with a gleam in his eye. “It is. Through the hillside. The worst thing is that we sometimes get techies, who come here, who don’t even seem to be interested in snakes.”
Shankar has identified so closely with the king cobra that he cannot imagine that others might not share his passion for them. He spreads a groundsheet for us on the opposite side of the road. There are small earth embankments on each side, with snake holes. Shankar has already picked out a rat snake from one of the holes with his long snake-catcher’s pole and thrown it back into the bush.
Across the road from us, in one of the larger holes, there’s plenty of action. The female cobra is hiding in her burrow, prior to mating, while her partner, the king cobra, is trying to defend his territory.
Sujan and Avinash, young part-time volunteers, have been sitting in the half-dark of the forest monitoring the movement of the male. When Sujan staggers out he is limping so badly that we freeze in alarm. Has he been bitten?
He shakes his dreadlocks and smiles, “No way,” he says, “It’s just that I’ve been sitting there so long that I’ve got cramps.” Sujan works for a BPO in Bangalore but snakes are his weekend passion. The two boys track the movements of the male king cobra using walkie-talkies. Every slight turn and twist is recorded. We watch from a distance how the male keeps coming back and stuffing his head into the female’s hiding place, as though to reassure her. Sujan has named the two cobras Ramu and Lalitha. We never get to see Lalitha. Like a typical film heroine, she’s playing hard to find.
Soon, we are so involved in this domestic drama that when the moment actually arrives, we are totally paralyzed. Two giant snakes, their black and pale yellow ringed bodies rippling with muscles, are rearing up in the undergrowth and thrashing at each other. Each has a chevron at the back of the head. The terror we feel is so primal, the scene almost surreal, that we are rooted to the spot.
Shankar’s terse commands direct us to move slowly, to back off, to keep out of the range of sight of the two snakes, which seem to us to possess almost supernatural power and strength. Their passion for combat is as deadly a struggle of the life force as we will ever witness. We don’t even realize when we leave the spot that evening that we have spent over six hours there.
All through the afternoon, the villagers come and ask about the “Kalinga” as they call the king cobra. This is part of the Whitaker initiative to get the local people involved in the preservation of the king cobra and its natural habitat.
It is for this reason that he received the Whitley Award from the UK in 2005. The citation mentions that it was given to him for making “The king cobra a flagship species for the vanishing rainforests of the Western Ghats of the Indian subcontinent.” “What it means,” explains Shankar, “is that it is possible that a species such as the king cobra, the largest venomous snake in the world, can also become an umbrella species like the tiger, lion or panda that everyone would like to save because they are so beautiful.”
These animals are easily seen as representing an important link in the chain of life. Whitaker used the prize money to build the facilities at ARRS. The emblem of the Whitley Award, a butterfly, decorates the entrance to the main building. The tenuous beating of a butterfly’s wings is symbolic of the inter-connectedness of the unseen forces that keep our life in balance on earth.
Whitaker’s great skill, even in the past, has been to inspire a new generation of people like Shankar to take over from him and become leaders in their own right.
Both of them realize that it’s not enough to ‘Save the king cobra’ but to get the people living in the area to understand the importance of the creature that has been a source of power and mystery in the legends of the region. They do this by both educating the public and learning more about the life and habitat of the king cobra.
Apart from encouraging scholars, they also hope that research will be done in hillstream ecology, sustaining forest produce by the planting of indigenous trees and ensuring the participation of the local population in saving the rainforest.
By the time we get back, we have learnt something of the ways of the jungle. We know that chewing a bit of the wild honeycomb that Shankar has given us will keep us fresh for another two hour walk. We have watched the fireflies tap on our windowpanes at night.
We have felt the rain come down with a silent ferocity. Most of all, we have learnt to stand still and watch a king cobra defend its territory. Can we display the same passion to save our earth?
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