The largest venomous snake in the world is the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah). These amazing beasts can grow up to 6 meters in length, and when well-fed can weigh over 12 kilos, although these giants are much more rare now than they used to be. Most wild king cobras are smaller. They are particularly fun snakes to work with, as they are also the most intelligent snakes in the world. When working with them, you can see them thinking and anticipating their next move. I was able to track down a gourgeous female in the wet rainforests of Indonesia. King cobras are egg layers, and they construct a nest with rotten leaves and vegetation in which the eggs are layed. This makes the king cobra the only snake species in the world that actively builds a nest for her eggs. After the eggs are laid, the female king cobra also defends her nest against predators (for example mongooses), which is unique too. The female king cobra that I caught was actually protecting her nest when we found her. It was an amazing sight for me and something that I will never forget. I had found snake nests before, but never with the mother nearby! Of course, she was released again after a photo session.
King Cobras are good mothers untill the babies hatch. The scientific name for king cobra, Ophiophagus, means 'snake-eater'. King cobras mainly feed on other snakes, but occasionally take a large monitor lizard (Varanus) as well. The mother king cobra knows intuitively that she needs to leave her nest before her babies start hatching. Otherwise, she might feed on her own young. She leaves her nest only a few days before the eggs hatch, which takes two to three months. This demonstrates the beauty of evolution.
Working with king cobras demands concentration. Large adults have enough venom to kill an adult elephant. Luckily they do not set out to bite humans, which would be a waste of their oh-so precious venom. King cobras are very intelligent snakes. They know I am not food for them. They will only use their venom if they feel threatened. This is the case with all venomous snakes, contrary to many popular beliefs. A snake will only use its venom on a human being if it feels that its life is threatened. Herpetologists and professional snake catchers therefore handle snakes as gently as possible to lower the chance of envenomation. If the snake feels fine, there is usually no problem. Furthermore, in 40-50% of all bites no venom is injected; this is what we call a 'dry bite'. King cobras are no exception.
King cobra courtship behavior is also very fascinating. Before a male gets to mate with a female he often has to go into combat with other males, who also want the 'prize'. This combat never involves envenomations or bites. Animals usually don't use their worst weapons in these combats. Instead, the two males 'dance' together, lifting their front parts up and each male tries to press the other's head and body to the ground. The male that succeeds, gets to mate with the female. This behavior also decides territorial issues, the winner getting the territory. This behavior is so genetically incorporated into the king cobras DNA that we can use it when we work with king cobras by gently pressing the head down to the ground, grabbing the cobra by the head, and lift it up. They always respond in a submissive manner once they are picked up.
Although king cobras can put one's life at risk within minutes, their aggressiveness is definitely much exaggerated. They prefer to flee, before going into combat. And even when cornered, king cobras will first exploit their impressive defensive behavior, including hooding and hissing loudly, before biting. I have huge respect for these animals, and it is sad that so much of their habitat is being fragmented and destroyed. Luckily there are people such as Romulus Whitaker, director of Madras Snake Park in India, who spend their lives protecting king cobras and educating the public about their beauty. It would be very sad if this iconic animal does not survive the next century because we abuse its habitat. These amazing rulers of the Asian rainforests deserve our respect and protection!