The little island of Singapore has an abundance of wildlife. The government strategy is to evolve from a Garden City to become a City in Nature. Singapore already boasts an impressive list of iconic wildlife such as huge Saltwater crocodiles, otters that roam the city, wild boars in suburbia and hornbills in the sky above.
The green spaces are wriggling with a jewel box of snakes. Always nearby but hardly ever seen, there seems to be a snake for every occasion in Singapore. They range from the huge Reticulated python to the deadly Blue Coral snake, but there is one snake that captures the imagination of people all over the world like no other – the King Cobra.
I have seen many snakes in Singapore, but the elusive King cobra had evaded me for almost 2 years. It was top of my Most Wanted list and a target species each time I visited the coastal mangroves of Sungei Buloh Wetlands. So many trips, so much wildlife, but no sign of the cobra. It was a steamy Sunday in August. The sun was unforgiving but the air vibrated with the sound of storms raging over nearby Malaysia. I had been walking all morning and was looking for a little respite from the brutal force of the midday sun. I spotted a bird hide and headed towards it. It would make a good stop for water and a rest. I made my way to the entrance of the hide. As I approached the hide, I looked down from the wooden path at the mudflat to my right. I had been studying every movement on the mud all morning and had seen mudskippers, monitor lizards and even a baby crocodile. This time there was no need to search for movement because what I saw winding through the mangrove roots left me awestruck. There, just a couple of meters away from me, was a huge King!
I gasped, I froze and I exclaimed in a breathless whisper. I didn’t know what to do. Was it okay for me to move? I wanted to start taking photos but I didn’t want to get bitten by this legendary and deadly predator. I regularly photograph snakes and usually being bitten isn’t a concern for me, but this was a very big snake. I had read stories of King cobras standing up to a height of 5 feet tall when threatened and lunging like lightning. By now my heart was pumping like a piston engine. I stepped to the side and pointed my camera, firing off a few blurry photos of the back of its head as it passed under the small bridge beneath my feet. The blur was photographic evidence of a massive adrenaline overdose. Breathe. I had to breathe.
The King slithered into the dark mangrove roots. Photography was almost impossible due to lack of light and the snake’s constant movement. It explored every root and every abandoned lobster hole in search of a meal. I shot some video as I didn’t want the moment to pass with a memento. With open water to the right of the snake, and the main path to the left, I felt that it was likely to travel the thin mangrove corridor for a while.
I followed alongside the King as his eyes, tongue and nostrils seemed to trace an imaginary trail in search of a meal. The cobra stopped for perhaps 3 seconds, lifted his head and looked into my eyes with such intensity that I felt my heart skip. He had become aware of my presence and took a moment to measure me. With nose down the King carried on with his foraging slither. He knew I was there and he was relaxed. This allowed me to relax. We wouldn’t surprise each other.
The King Cobra is the largest venomous snake on the planet. The snake that I was keeping company with was over 3 meters in length. Compared to other large snakes that I have seen, the striking feature was the head. The head was broad running into a muscular body. The scales on the broad head were outlined in black. The pupil of the eye was round and eagle-like. This snake looked every inch an apex predator. The largest recorded King cobra was over 5 meters, which is mind boggling. The size and aura of this snake was intimidating enough without adding another 2 meters to its length.
Perhaps the reason for the King to evolve to combine size, speed and a potent venom is its preferred choice of food. The snake’s scientific name is Ophiophagus Hannah. Ophiophagus means eater of snakes. Here in Singapore there have been recent photographic evidence of the King feasting on a large Clouded monitor lizard, but also a Reticulated python and a fellow deadly snake, the Mangrove Pit Viper. Indeed, a large pit viper that I recently photographed was seen being devoured by the cobra a few days later. If your dinner is deadly you had better be able to disable it fast, before it bites back.
Like so many of the planet’s predators the species is listed as “Vulnerable” and in some countries killing a King is punishable by a prison sentence. It is appropriate that a prison sentence should be handed out for the treasonous act of king slaying. In Singapore occasional sightings are reported but it seems unlikely that there is a large population and they are listed as locally endangered.
The cobra disappeared into the undergrowth, only to emerge after a short while. Now the King turned and faced me again. I stepped backwards to give the snake some space. The cobra seemed to understand that this was his signal to proceed and I watched in wonder and admiration as it slithered across to the footpath before turning and heading back, crossing the path again.
Finally the cobra decided to try a new hunting ground. He wound his way to the water’s edge where he paused before inflating himself as he slipped onto the surface of the water and elegantly meandered out of sight.
Seeing a King cobra was the realisation of a dream. Spending an hour and a half with one was beyond what I could have hoped for. I met the cobra with a feeling of fear but left with a feeling of admiration and understanding. I would like to say that my craving has been satisfied, but as with everything that drenches our brain with dopamine, I find myself wanting more. I will be back at the wetlands and maybe next time I will see the King claim a meal or open that hood. I’ll be ready with my camera to capture more of this awesome, elegant and strangely endearing snake.
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