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 Post subject: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 6:25 am 
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Location: Kuching, Sarawak (Borneo)
Nemesis Bird, definition:
A bird that is highly sought after by an individual birder but despite repeated efforts to be seen, remains elusive and is not able to be added to the birder's life list. Nemesis birds are often regularly seen by other local birders and the birder missing each sighting can eventually come to see finding the bird as a quest or challenge to one's birding honor. Birders may chase their nemesis bird for years before finally achieving a suitable sighting to turn the nemesis bird into a lifer.


There are nemesis herps, too, and I'm sure each of you has at least one. For me, it's the cobra - any cobra. It took me almost two years to find my first Naja atra in Taiwan, but I thought that was the karmic price I paid for seeing so many other rare snakes along the way. Little did I know that the entire Naja family has it in for me: since our arrival in Borneo, I've heard at least one person per week mentioning a sighting of the Sumatran Cobra (Naja sumatrana, aka Equatorial Spitting Cobra), the only, but ubiquitous member of the genus on the island. People keep telling me how these elapids, being opportunists, populate the huge, rat-infested storm drains surrounding every house in Kuching (including ours); strangers tell me about their meetings with cobras in their yards and gardens, where the snakes sometimes kill the family dogs or cats; and we've even received a few calls from friends asking us to remove cobras from their tulip patches, but always arrived after the snake had hauled cloaca. There's even a confirmed story about a spitter (this species is capable of spraying venom) that was found in a bank vault in downtown Kuching. And, of course, we see Crêpe Suzette a la Sumatranois all the time on country roads.

But never a live one. Nope, not a single one. Instead, Fate keeps messing with our heads by throwing oodles of Bornean Short Pythons our way. This is the snake for a glimpse of which every visiting herper would sell his or her old mother into slavery, but Python breitensteini hardly ever grants an audience to mortal men. My son and I, on the other hand, have already seen and caught five of the pudgy little buggers, all of them within exactly one month's time - the last three within two hours! That's like winning five Lamborghinis in a row at the Dubai Airport Luxury Car Raffle. But ask Fate for a humble, simple, dirt-common cobra, and the bitch chucks your application straight into the shredder.

Yet now, there's a glimmer of hope. Either Ms Fate has a new, kind-hearted office assistant who took pity on us, or her shredder malfunctioned, because last night our prayers were finally answered. Up to that moment, my son and I had been enjoying a fantastic male-bonding weekend: On Saturday we went go-karting and followed up with an all-night herping trip that yielded three Bornean Short Pythons (see immature whine above) and a little Wagler's, and laser-tagging and shooting pool had filled out the day part of the Sunday. That would have been good enough for most people to just stay home that Sunday night and watch Discovery Turbo, but for some reason I was antsy for more kicks. We had found no snakes at all the previous weekend, not even DORs, because our favorite cruising road, usually as traffic-dead as Central Greenland, had been inundated with all sorts of vehicles as well as pedestrians, as it was the "Gawai" weekend - the annual harvest festival observed by most indigenous tribes in Sarawak. Consequently, it had already been two weeks of no snakes for Hans & Hans, and while Hans didn't really mind, the other Hans did. So I proposed dinner at our favorite Indian greasy spoon, followed by a quick jaunt along the road outside Kubah National Park, where we had found quite a number of DORs during our early days, but never a live snake, therefore eventually abandoning the place for scalier pastures. But it's only half an hour away, just right for a quick herping fix, it being a school night and all. Even if we didn't see any snake, at least I'd get my cruising jones taken care of, plus we could always count on observing a Malaysian Eared Nightjar (Eurostopodus temminckii) or two, a highly peculiar nocturnal bird that operates very close to the ground and that displays a ridiculous lack of fear of motorized vehicles.

Fired up by a bellyful of Tamil grub (not for ulcer patients, that stuff), we arrived at our target road at 8 PM, did one loop, saw nothing, did another round, and then spotted a long, slender, and very black snake about to disappear into the grass on the other side of the road. I knew immediately what it was (not a brilliant herpetological feat, as there's only one nocturnal snake here that looks like that). I slapped Hans, who had already fallen asleep (too much male bonding, I suspect), on the thigh, yelled "COBRA!!!", and got out of the car. "Getting out of the car", by the way, requires a series of intricately interwoven moves for me: hit the brakes, pull the handbrake, put the gear in P, hit the hazard light, remove the key from the ignition, grab the tongs, switch on the headlamp, and then attempt to unscrew my massive frame and long legs from under the steering wheel and heave them all outside. I don't know how many snakes I've lost over the years just because I wasn't riding a f*****g bicycle instead.

Anyway, upon hearing the C-word (the other C-word, you perverts), Hans snapped straight from his slumber into action, shot out the door and ran almost fifty yards along the dark road in the direction we'd come from, yelling "Where is it? WHERE IS IT??" all the while. The snake was actually sitting right next to the car, on the driver's side, where I had been lucky enough to hook it back onto the asphalt just in time.

After the team had regrouped around the cobra, brainstorming ensued. How to proceed? We knew very little about the animal and its behavioral patterns, only that it was a potentially lethal elapid capable of spraying a fine mist of venom about three feet, aiming with surprising accuracy at the enemy's eyes. So, first order of the night: goggles. We'd been carrying two pairs of industrial-strength goggles in the camera bag for the last ten months, in anticipation of the armies of Sumatran Cobras we were sure to encounter on a daily basis. Good thing we never left them at home out of sheer frustration, because now their time had come. Hans put on his pair (I wear glasses anyway), and then we decided on the second order of the night: we'd take it slow. No intimate close-ups into the snake's nostrils, no messing around with it to make it hood up, no, until we'd gotten a feel for the beast, we'd just take a few leisurely shots of the snake moving around on the tarmac.

And move around it did. In fact, during the entire half hour we spent with the cobra, it only came to a complete halt once, at the very end, and even then for not much longer than 60 precious seconds. My experience with Chinese Cobras had taught me that, while they all want to get away at first, they will eventually tire and then hood up in an upright position, awaiting your next move like a spent boxer, by which time you can take all the time and pictures you want. No such luck with our new friend, though. After a series of top-down photos, we deemed it time for the money shot (if you'll pardon the crude metaphor). The snake had shown no sign of counter-aggression whatsoever, let alone spitting, and we were getting somewhat more comfortable around it. But when you catch a cobra for photos, you want - no, expect! - it to come through with its trademark pose. If it doesn't, you need to help it along. Alas, none of the stunts we tried worked, not even the normally sure-fire trick to stroke the snake's throat with repeated upward moves, ending at the chin. But no. No sitting up. No hooding. Nope. Nada. It was maddening. The only time the animal semi-flared its hood and lifted its jaw an inch off the ground was when I put my boot in front of its mug and showed it the sole. That did catch the snake's attention to a degree, but then, I was not sure if a size 14 hiking boot in its face wouldn't tick it off so badly that it actually started spraying...and by that time we were already quite comfortable with its unmanly behavior. If only it had hooded up just a little...like a real cobra! But maybe there's a peacenik movement going on in the world of N. sumatrana, based on the premise that hooding up and - Gaia forbid! - spraying venom are the reptilian equivalents to caveman machismo like chest-thumping and alligator boots?

I don't know, so I'll throw the question to all of you cobra experts out there: why the timidity? The lack of action? Is this species-specific? Or due to lack of testosterone? Or did we manage to find the only cobra dork between here and Kalimantan?

PS: This snake is the darkest animal I've ever met. The metallic, bluish-black tint has to be seen to be believed and made up a little for the dearth of action...

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Never leave your hat on the road...
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These two are the only "action" shots we got. And for the second one, the flash malfunctioned :-)
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Farewell, Mr. Naja...
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(Criminally OT, but what the hell: For those who didn't get the header's immensely clever reference to David Quammen's short, but delectable Darwin biography "The Reluctant Mr Darwin", let me highly recommend that book to you. It should be the first thing to read if you're going to research ol' Chucky Dee's life, work and importance. Quammen is one of America's most engaging and accessible science writers today, certainly one of my top favorites. I found "The Song of the Dodo - Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions" such a riveting yarn (in spite of its dusty-creaky title) that I bought a dozen copies and sent them to all my best friends, just to make sure they would read it...


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 7:17 am 
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Before you get props for the pictures, I just want to say that I really got a kick out of the colorful story leading up to them. Nice pictures, too.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 9:05 am 

Joined: June 8th, 2010, 1:17 am
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N. sumatrana is pretty cool. A few months back I nearly stood on one who decided it would be nice to slither right by my feet. Pretty dodgy. However, as you mentioned, despite the fact that this is a common snake, it is difficult to find when you're looking for it. Then again - isn't that the case for any herp you WANT to find?


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 2:40 pm 
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DavidG- So true...


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 3:21 pm 
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perhaps they aren't as defensive at night? I have seen snakes that were polar opposites depending on the light/time of day. It is just a random guess. Maybe a black snake can rely on the darkness and it's speed to get away and save precious venom and energy, but corner the same snake during the day and perhaps he's spray happy?

Anyways, I always look forward to your posts and hope to one day visit that part of the world.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 3:46 pm 
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Thanks for the replies, gents!

Andy, this is definitely a cathemeral snake (no matter what the field guides say about it being nocturnal). So maybe your theory warrants more attention...?


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 7:40 pm 
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Your storytelling is, as usual, so entertaining that the photos are hardly even necessary.

I generally have one species that I most want to see, and you perfectly captured the frustration of not finding it even when you're looking in all the right places, and the joy when you finally come across one. Congratulations! Now what is your new nemesis species? (Mine is Moloch horridus.)

John

P.S. Song of the Dodo is possibly my favorite book ever. Man that Quammen can write!


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 7:49 pm 
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Back when I was studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I read Song of the Dodo for much-needed recreation. Awesome book.

Another great post, Hans!

Gerry


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 8:06 pm 
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I'll third that book.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 10:42 pm 
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Thanks, guys!

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Now what is your new nemesis species?

Well, the one I want to see most is the King Cobra, but that's really hard to find in Borneo, no matter who you are. But one that everybody but me sees everywhere is the Paradise Tree Snake (Chrysopelea paradisi).

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Your storytelling is, as usual, so entertaining that the photos are hardly even necessary.

Thank you. That's what I've been aiming for lately. I know so many spectacular nature photographers by now that my photos aren't more than mere voucher shots, compared to them. Ch'ien Lee photographs snakes in the most unbelievable manner, and he's not even a herper....he's "just" a nature photographer :-)


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 12th, 2012, 10:44 pm 

Joined: June 7th, 2010, 5:32 am
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Hans Breuer (twoton) wrote:
Nemesis Bird, definition:
A bird that is highly sought after by an individual birder but despite repeated efforts to be seen, remains elusive and is not able to be added to the birder's life list. Nemesis birds are often regularly seen by other local birders and the birder missing each sighting can eventually come to see finding the bird as a quest or challenge to one's birding honor. Birders may chase their nemesis bird for years before finally achieving a suitable sighting to turn the nemesis bird into a lifer.


There are nemesis herps, too, and I'm sure each of you has at least one. For me, it's the cobra - any cobra.
.....

But never a live one. Nope, not a single one. Instead, Fate keeps messing with our heads by throwing oodles of Bornean Short Pythons our way.

....

But ask Fate for a humble, simple, dirt-common cobra, and the bitch chucks your application straight into the shredder.

Yet now, there's a glimmer of hope. Either Ms Fate has a new, kind-hearted office assistant who took pity on us, or her shredder malfunctioned, because last night our prayers were finally answered.




Hans, you have retold the story of my herping life when it comes to finding cobras! But you have a way with words that I could not even begin to match, and which brought out a broad grin across my face to start the morning (no mean feat any day, but especially not just before an all-day examiners' meeting)!

In the early 90s, I spent months in Asia and ended up with a score of 3 lousy cobras, and over the last few years I spent months in South Africa before I finally caught a Cape cobra, which my friends out there pull out of people's gardens on a daily basis (but then I got three in a week) - and I STILL have not found a wild Mozambique spitter, despite it being one of the most common snakes found while roadcruising in many areas of S. Africa according to all the local herpers.

It also looks like you have now learned that when using a hat to cover and settle a snake prior to photography, one without a chin strap is to be preferred ;)

More seriously, that is a very nice specimen! Bornean N. sumatrana are usually pretty small by cobra standards, so that was a very nice find. The juveniles are of course brightly banded in black and white.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 1:19 am 
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Thank you very much, Wolfgang - that means a lot to me, coming from one of the top authorities on Naja sp.. Now I don't feel so alone anymore :-)

What do you think about its un-fieldguidish behavior? When you look up "Naja sumatrana" on Youtube, you get to see tons of action (such as the video where our own Christ Storer releases on in West Malaysia); and the keeper forums are full of accounts of the creature's readiness to rear up and spit at the drop of a hood. What's your take on our Mr. Mellow?

By the way, in what locations does the "golden" (tan) morph occur?


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 2:10 am 

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Hans,

I've caught a couple of these guys in Sabah and Sarawak, and while all of them hooded when provoked sufficiently, I have yet to see one "spit". None of them were inclined to strike; it was more the usual threat display. While you might be drooling from sheer joy while socializing with these cobras, it may (still) be a good thing trying to keep your mouth closed, should they decide to spit.

/Bjorn


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 2:24 am 
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Thanks very much, Björn! Keeping my mouth shut is usually quite difficult for me, but I'll definitely try to restrain myself in such a situation.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 4:09 am 

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Hans Breuer (twoton) wrote:
Thank you very much, Wolfgang - that means a lot to me, coming from one of the top authorities on Naja sp.. Now I don't feel so alone anymore :-)

What do you think about its un-fieldguidish behavior? When you look up "Naja sumatrana" on Youtube, you get to see tons of action (such as the video where our own Christ Storer releases on in West Malaysia); and the keeper forums are full of accounts of the creature's readiness to rear up and spit at the drop of a hood. What's your take on our Mr. Mellow?


Cobras are very individualistic - I have no personal experience of Bornean spitters, so I can't say much about them (but a colleague did get some very nice photos of one hooding beautifully up in Sabah), but there are other cobra species in which some individuals are very reluctant to hood. I have seen quite a few recently captured N. kaouthia that could not be induced to act like the books say they should. Indeed, I gave one to a friend in Bangkok, who kept it in his garage in a viv without it ever hooding. His wife nearly passed out the first time it did hood, after several years, having been under the impression that her husband was just keeping another Xenopeltis in that viv....

Quote:
By the way, in what locations does the "golden" (tan) morph occur?


The "standard" tan/golden phase is from northern Peninsular Malaysia (Kedah, Perlis, northern Perak) and southern Thailand. There are also tan or lightish brown sumatrana in Sumatra and the Riau Islands, but I don't think they are anything near as "golden" as the southern Thai specimens.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 5:52 am 
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Nice find! I too have been searching in vain for a cobra (or any venomous snake for that matter), but have only seen them at illegal markets. =S I'm sure you'll find an evil one next time. ;)


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 9:03 am 
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Too sexy to get mad :lol:


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 11:25 am 
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Wow. That is one impressive snake. Nemisis snake huh....I have a long list of those...sad to say. My "list" changes from time to time. When I'm lucky enough to travel, I usually pick a target or two - but I'm usually VERY unrealistic - e.g going to New Mexico for a day and hoping to photograph obscurus. I've never been lucky enough to visit anywhere where cobras were native. That would be incredible. Thanks for another enjoyable account Hans.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 5:03 pm 

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Great story and pics. You should write a book (I love Song of the Dodo) and you already have a name: Song of the Cobra!


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 7:02 pm 
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Thanks again!

Wolfgang, that "Xenopeltis" story is precious :-) You sand that this was a rather big specimen - maybe it was just too old for all the standard antics?

Quote:
I'm sure you'll find an evil one next time.

So am I. Just a matter of statistics, really :)

Bob, I have written a book - it's currently in the layout phase - and it's called "The Cobra That Hijacked My Camera Bag". I'll let you all know when it comes out this Fall.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 7:57 pm 

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Just a wonderful write-up, Hans. If I'm guilty of laughing along with your frustrations (and I am), it's solely a sympathetic chuckle due to familiarity with uncooperative animals not doing what they "should do". :)

Thanks for the time and effort you put into taking us along with your journey.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 8:06 pm 
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<Han Solo>Laugh it up, fuzzball...</Han Solo>

Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. V! Go ahead and snicker, I'm writing these posts as much for (your and my) entertainment as I do it for (my) therapy :-)


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 13th, 2012, 10:51 pm 
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Nice Hans! Always great to find a snake you've been after for a while.

As for the temperament, my personal experience with wild N. sumatrana (In Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo) has been that they are generally very reluctant to bite, reluctant to sit still and hood and reluctant to spit. They have always been pretty laid back, although I have had a few wild ones spit at me (including once into my mouth....) after long periods of provocation.

I have previously assumed that reports of their "aggression" may have been based on experience with captive snakes. When you corner this species in a cage they seem to go a little bit mental (can't blame them really) and are much more prepared to spit and bite. I've had individuals which showed no interest in biting, hooding or spitting (only in escaping) when caught turn into fire hoses after being put into a cage.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 14th, 2012, 12:47 am 
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What a great find, Hans. You certainly are adding so many interesting species to the forum. The colours of the cobra were really nice. Too bad that it would not display for you.


Regards,
David


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 15th, 2012, 6:08 am 
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You could just cut and paste all your FHF posts together and that would make a great book.....except I've already read it. :lol:

I'm sure there is a sumatrana conspiracy. The snakes all get together and agree not too hood and spit for anyone who looks somewhat inexperienced. They'll wait until after you've caught your 20th specimen or so and get lulled into a complacent "cobras don't spit, leave the glasses at home" attitude.........then bam - right in the cornea! :shock:

In the time I spent in East Kalimantan, it was the same story....cobras in the garden,....cobras in the toilet,....be careful of all the cobras......and I never spied a single individual.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 15th, 2012, 2:32 pm 
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chrish wrote:
I'm sure there is a sumatrana conspiracy. The snakes all get together and agree not too hood and spit for anyone who looks somewhat inexperienced. They'll wait until after you've caught your 20th specimen or so and get lulled into a complacent "cobras don't spit, leave the glasses at home" attitude.........then bam - right in the cornea! :shock:


Haha indeed as I said above they will spit after enough provocation (i.e. after trying to get them to sit still and hood for 20 minutes). I'd actually recommend full face masks whilst handling these guys, they will spray venom all over your face and it's not something that you want to get up your nose or in your mouth (trust me, I know!).


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 17th, 2012, 9:14 am 
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Interesting story and great pics!

Could it be that all these reports of cobras aren't really cobras at all? I'm sure people find them in towns, settlements, etc. but if human nature holds true across the pond, I'm sure a good number of these "cobras" that are spotted aren't REAL cobras...Here in the good ole' USA, EVERY snake seen is a rattlesnake or a copperhead or a water moccasin...Even in areas where they don't occur! I've never been to Taiwan, and maybe everyone's an expert at identifying snakes there...But here we seem to have a lot of "rattlesnakes" that magically transform into gopher snakes (Pituophis) when gazed upon by someone that knows what they're looking at...

Re: the snakes' demeanor...I'm certainly no cobra expert, but I've found snakes in general to have distinct personalities and different tolerances for mammal molestation...Some Western diamondbacks (Crotalus atrox) I've found have been tamer than kittens, even hiding their heads in their coils when accosted...Others show no regard for such shenanigans, and let their intentions be known when I'm still 30 yards away or such...These animals won't hesitate to "rumble" if needed, and they sure do make a ruckus trying to tell you to stay away.

I've even found snakes of both personalities in the same wash, short distances from each other...I guess snakes are more like people than people give them credit for.

-Kris


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 19th, 2012, 5:12 am 
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Thanks again, guys! Two full-face masks already ordered!

azatrox wrote:
Could it be that all these reports of cobras aren't really cobras at all? I'm sure people find them in towns, settlements, etc. but if human nature holds true across the pond, I'm sure a good number of these "cobras" that are spotted aren't REAL cobras...Here in the good ole' USA, EVERY snake seen is a rattlesnake or a copperhead or a water moccasin...Even in areas where they don't occur! I've never been to Taiwan, and maybe everyone's an expert at identifying snakes there...But here we seem to have a lot of "rattlesnakes" that magically transform into gopher snakes (Pituophis) when gazed upon by someone that knows what they're looking at...

That's certainly true for a lot of snakes in a lot of countries, but the Sumatran Cobra is quite distinct here onaccounta its blackness and ubiquity. Nothing here looks like them...


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #42: The Reluctant Naja Nemesis
PostPosted: June 19th, 2012, 3:27 pm 
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Joined: March 22nd, 2012, 6:19 pm
Posts: 470
Darn, thats a huge one. Nice work Hans.


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