The Chinese cobra (Naja atra
) is definitely the curse of all my herping activities. Since I caught the herping bug two years ago, I’ve logged countless miles on foot and driving, and through sheer perseverance have managed to find almost every damn species on the island, apart from Sinomicrurus sauteri
and Naja atra
. Now, you will forgive me for missing a diminutive coral snake that spends most of its days under leaf litter – but how come my encounters with the Chinese cobra, a conspicuous snake if there ever was one, were mostly of the DOR kind, and the three that I found alive managed to get away. Granted, it’s not a very common snake in Northern Taiwan anymore – pesticides and morons have seen to that – but I’ve seen other less-than-common snakes in numbers that make them common in my log book at least. So, the only logical conclusion left is that someone’s out to get me. Most likely, there is a God after all, and he’s punishing me for being a rotten person (or, more probably, for my atheism) by keeping my favorite snake out of sight all the time.
Or so I reckoned until today.
Today I was on yet another prowl along Zhuzihu Road, a two-mile stretch of ditch-lined, dead-end road through dense mountain forest, without street lights, settlements or plantations. After exploring my geographical vicinity for an entire year in 2009, I realized that this road is the very best in the entire Greater Taipei area to find snakes at any hour, and so I’m up there most mornings now, losing weight, getting fit and generally having fun by walking inside the two-mile ditch for its entire length, and then walking it back again. Even with the occasional hikers (there’s a major trailhead at the end of the road), ditch patrol is a dark and lonely job, and my thoughts often float to the cobra: wouldn’t it be über-cool to see one rising up right here in front of me? Even a wee little one would do – a training cobra, so to speak, but a cobra nevertheless. Will I ever see one? Thus were my very thoughts when at one spot I had to cross the road to continue my journey in the ditch on the other side. Right before I stepped down into the drain, I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be just insanely cool to see a big, fat, black cobra slowly slithering inside this very ditch, right now?” And when I got to the word “now”, I saw it – not six feet away from me, a big, fat, black cobra slowly slithering inside this very ditch, right now, right there. After all the psychological pressure and frustration heaped on me over the years by the permanent absence of this species, I wasn’t able to believe my eyes at first. I literally thought I was dreaming. But no, no amount of rubbing my peepers and violently shaking my head could take that image away. There it was, the Beast Of My Nightmares.
After I’d realized that this was really happening, reality kicked in with a violent thump upside the head: what the hell was I SUPPOSED TO DO NOW? I had absolutely no experience with this species, only knew from fellow herpers that the cobra (a) doesn’t run away, (b) is quite aggressive, and (c) will sometimes even spit (the percentage of spitters in N. atra
is extremely small, and they aren’t exactly great marksmen, but the prospect was unnerving). The only thing working for me at that very moment of great confusion was the animal’s sluggishness: it wasn’t exactly gifted with a slender girth, and weighed at least an estimated four pounds, so even in my stupor I was eventually able to stop its attempts to get away from me along the inside of the ditch by hooking it out and laying it on the grassy stretch between ditch and road. I’ve done this with innumerable snakes before, but I wasn’t prepared for the fact that the cobra is a serpent unlike few others. Instead of freezing or trying to flee as soon as it came off the hook, it attacked me. Me
, not the hook. The beast seemed to be smart enough to understand that the hook was just an extension of my body, so it lunged at my legs instead of wasting time with the tool. As I was quite afraid of the animal, for the above-mentioned reasons and out of sheer lack of experience, I had maintained lots of distance right from the beginning, so its lunges petered out three feet from my body. Still, the sheer act of lunging, plus that formidable, low, and LOUD cobra hiss that punctuated every lunge, was enough to instantly create a ton of respect along with a hefty side of trepidation.
Okay, the snake was out of the ditch…what now? I had hoped it would just sit there, hood up, and occasionally bitch at me, but no – it went straight back into the ditch in that sluggish, but determined manner of a fat person trying to catch the last green seconds at a pedestrian crossing. Again I hooked it back onto the grass…again it went into the ditch. Attempts to calm it down by throwing my bush hat onto its head, a technique that works with all other snake species here in Taiwan, immediately ended in the agonizing death of the hat – before it even had touched the cobra, the beast snatched it out of mid-air and bit it twice in quick succession (I was leery to wear the hat afterwards….the thought of residual cobra venom oozing into my ears was too much to stomach). So on we went with the flee/hook cycle. After about ten minutes of this, my hooking arm was just about starting to complain about the heavy reptile, the cobra was finally tired, sat down, hooded up and began its famous staring contest. Finally I could relax a little. I put the cutlery aside, took my camera (always kitted out with a 70-300 lens for just this kind of encounter) and started shooting. Now, lemme tell you that photographing a cobra – any cobra, I surmise - it’s a major pain in the ass when you’re alone, because you will always be allowed only one angle: frontal portrait. You can walk around the snake until you’re dizzy, and it will always maintain eye contact with you, permanently keeping those beady little peepers on the foe. I was lucky, though, because eventually a car drove by, causing the snake to whip its head around and lunge at the new enemy (complete with that horrible hiss), staying in its new position long after the car had disappeared, totally forgetting about me, and giving me ample opportunities for side and back shots. Only after I’d gotten up again, my movement catching in the corner of the cobra’s eye, it whipped and hissed around to face me again.
Eventually, a young couple came along, hiking hand in hand. The atmosphere of their romantic stroll took a massive nosedive when they were about 30 feet away from the snake and me and finally spotted us sitting there on the grass by the roadside. They immediately froze, then hastily turned around to walk back from whence they’d come. I shouted at them to continue their walk and pass us by, “it’s safe, just keep to the other side of the road”. They actually complied, but I think I’ve never seen a face as utterly terrified as that of the young woman who tried very hard not to look at the snake, but couldn’t help sneak a peek just when she was closest to the beast (about 12 feet), which didn’t seemed to help her condition at all, judging from her contorted mug.
After about 150 pictures, I thought it would be a good idea to hook the snake back into the ditch. I’ve heard that cobras maintain their defensive stance long after the threat is gone, and I didn’t want the serpent openly sitting by the roadside as a target for human idiots. Problem was, my hook and tongs are only four feet long. Approaching the snake from the back was impossible, as it kept following me with his eyes, and every attempt to touch it with tools from the front resulted in a two-foot lunge, a nasty hiss, and a freshly re-intimidated Twoton. Two feet of safety margin are no safety margin in my book, so I went and found a ten-foot branch which I then used to gently push the cobra back into the ditch.
Just at that very moment a group of elderly hikers came along. One of them took in the situation and advised me to remove the snake from the ditch and instead put it in a large patch of very dense, seven-foot elephant grass, because “for a cobra this size you can get at least US$150 on the black restaurant market, and there are snake catchers around here in summer”. This time I was able to safely tong the animal from behind, as it had been preoccupied with all those old guys standing by the ditch and photographing it…..