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30th May 1999

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In the third part of his series on cobra lore, Richard Boyle details methods of capture and cure

To catch a Cobra

"The natives in gen eral rather vener- ate this snake, than dread it," remarks John Davy about human reaction to the cobra in his An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and of its Inhabitants, with Travels in that Island (London: 1821). "They conceive that it belongs to another world, and that when it appears in this, it is merely a visitor; they imagine that it possesses great power, that it is somewhat akin to the gods, and greatly superior to man."

Dr. John Davy was physician to the British troops in Ceylon between 1816 and 1820. As importantly, he was a physiologist and anatomist, and was one of the first to make a systematic study of the island's snakes. Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter of his book to ophidia zeylanica. Davy was a Fellow of the Royal Society and placed much reliance on careful observation and meticulous experimentation. In fact he came from a scientific family, for he was the younger brother of the illustrious chemist, Sir Humphry Davy, who is best known for his research on the effects of nitrous oxide, his theories on electrochemistry (a term he coined), his discoveries of potassium and sodium, and his invention of the miner's safety lamp.

While he was stationed in Ceylon, John Davy collected a variety of harmless and venomous species of snake, including the cobra, and accurately described them. One of his main interests was experimenting with snake venom on dogs and other animals. Apart from recording the effects of venom, he also detailed his attempts at curing the victims.

In addition, Davy conducted an analysis of the amazing snake-stone - the object I described earlier - which has been used for centuries to extract venom from wounds. Davy came to the same conclusion that Michael Faraday was to forty years later when requested by Sir James Emerson Tennent to undertake such an analysis. (Curiously, as a young man, Faraday had been Sir Humphry Davy's laboratory assistant. Davy claimed that Faraday was his greatest discovery of all.)

Remember that Faraday had concluded that snake stones were made of a porous material, probably animal bone or horn, which had been charred. This property makes snake-stones efficient at extracting venom if applied soon after being bitten. According to Davy, the manufacture of snake-stones was a lucrative trade at the time. He says they were made by monks from Manila, who supplied the merchants of India, who in turn supplied the peoples of Asia and beyond.

In his Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon (London: 1859), Sir James Emerson Tennent quotes Dr. C.P. Thunberg, the Swedish naturalist, who examined the snake-stones used by the Boers at the Cape during the 1770s. They were, Thunberg said, "imported from the Indies, especially from Malabar." However, they were so expensive that few ranchers could afford to buy them. This type of snake-stone sounds similar to the variety found in Sri Lanka today. Thunberg describes it as "convex on one side, black, and so porous that when thrown into water, it caused bubbles to rise."

Tennent, being the fastidious researcher that he was, supplies additional material on the subject by quoting an account of the method of preparing and applying the piedra ponsona, the snake-stone of Mexico. This account demonstrates a wide if not universal knowledge of the material and manufacture required for a reliable porous object with which to extract snake venom:

"Take a piece of hart's horn of any convenient size and shape; cover it well round with grass or hay, enclose both in a thin piece of sheet copper well wrapped round them, and place the parcel in a charcoal fire till the bone is sufficiently charred. When cold, remove the calcined horn from its envelope, when it will be ready for immediate use. In this state it will resemble a solid black substance, of the same shape and size it was before it was subjected to this treatment.

"The wound being slightly punctured, apply the bone to the opening, to which it will adhere for the space of two minutes; and when it falls, it should be received into a basin of water. It should then be dried in a cloth, and again applied to the wound. But it will not adhere longer than about one minute. In like manner it may be applied a third time; but now it will fall almost immediately, and nothing will cause it to adhere any more."

Since prevention is infi- nitely preferable to cure in the case of the bite of the cobra, I should remark on the methods by which this snake is believed to be subdued. In an earlier Sunday Times article concerning the novel Dangerous Inheritance (London: 1965), by Dennis Wheatley, I told how the hero, the Duke de Richlieu, was locked in a room with an aroused cobra. However, he was able to avoid being bitten by employing a method learned in Madagascar, which he later describes to his friends as follows:

"An angry snake can be calmed if one has the courage to extend one's hand with two fingers pointing downward over its head. Why that gesture should have such an effect I have no idea. No doubt willing the snake not to strike is the real secret." De Richlieu goes on to describe the effects of his action: "For a few minutes the reptile continued to sway its head and hiss at me, then it relaxed, sank down and went to sleep."

I believe the earliest documented report of the capture of a cobra by a European is contained in Philip Baldaeus' A Description of the Great and Most Famous Isle of Ceylon (Amsterdam: 1672) . As luck would have it, this incident is the subject of one of the marvellous engravings that embellish the Dutchman's book.

"Whilst I lived at Jaffna," Baldaeus relates, "a certain German soldier belonging to the garrison ( commonly known as the serpent catcher) was sent for to catch a cobra living in the residence of the Governor of Coromandel. Holding his hat before his face in one hand, the soldier seized the serpent with the other, and yet came to no harm.

"He handled the creature afterwards in our presence, and not only carried it about in his rucksack but also used to sleep near it. Suspecting some witchcraft in the matter, I questioned him closely about it, but he assured me that he had done nothing that was not by natural means, and that he always carried the head and heart of a serpent with him. I was forced to be satisfied at this answer, he being not willing to reveal the whole mystery."

Of course in Sri Lanka, cobras and other snakes have traditionally been subdued with the use of a piece of desiccated white root - rather like the broken stem of an antique clay pipe - which is supposed to be obtained from the aptly named snakeplant. As with the Malagasey method of subduing snakes, the local version requires that a downward or lateral movement be made from above the reptile's head.

Many years ago I acquired both a "root of the snake-plant" and a snake-stone from an Ahikuntakaya (snake-charmer) at Anuradhapura. The snake-stone is the more impressive of the two, being, as Tennent perfectly describes it, the size of a small almond, intensely black, highly polished and extremely light in weight. In many ways it is difficult to imagine that it was once a piece of bone or horn. Whatever its composition, the snake-stone appears to be most effective, which is why I like to have one handy.

Just as I have never been presented with a situation where I have been forced to find out the efficacy or otherwise of my snake-stone, so too with the snake-root. However, I am of the opinion, as was the Duke de Richlieu, that the success of the action to subdue cobras - whether with the aid of fingers, root or whatever - undoubtedly has much to do with focusing the powers of the mind. Indeed, as any Ahikuntakaya will admit, his success depends on not showing any nervousness, because cobras can sense fear.

"It is probable that the use of any particular plant by the snake-charmers is a pretence, or rather a delusion, the reptile being overpowered by the resolute power of the operator, and not by the influence of any secondary appliance," is the admirable way that Tennent articulates this theory. "In other words, the confidence inspired by the supposed talisman enables its possessor to address himself fearlessly to his task, and thus to effect, by determination and will, what is popularly believed to be the result of charms and stupefaction."

While there are many descriptions of snake-stones being employed, this is not the case with the snake-root. However, the ever-reliable Tennent obliges. He describes how, during the capture of a cobra, "an Indian took from his bag a small piece of white wood, which resembled a root, and passed it gently near the head of the cobra, which the latter immediately inclined close to the ground. He then lifted the snake without hesitation, and coiled it into a circle at the bottom of his basket. The root by which he professed to be enabled to perform this operation with safety he called the Naya-thalic-Kalanga (the root of the snake plant), protected by which he affirms his ability to approach any reptile with impunity."

Tennent also records an instance where the snakeroot was used in conjunction with the snake-stone. In 1853, the District Judge of Kandy witnessed a snake-charmer being bitten on the thigh by a cobra. "He (the snake-charmer) instantly applied the Pamboo-Kaloo (snake-stone) ," Tennent writes, "which adhered closely for about ten minutes, during which time he passed the root which he held in his hand backwards and forwards above the stone, till the latter dropped to the ground."

He believed that several species of plant were used as snake-roots: "One appears to be a bit of the stem of an Aristolochia; the other is so dried as to render its identification difficult, but it resembles the quadrangular stem of a jungle vine. Some species of Aristolochia, such as the A. serpentaria of North America, are supposed to act as specifics in the cure of snake-bites; and the A. indica is the plant to which the mongoose is popularly believed to resort to as an antidote when bitten."

The mongoose is, of course, the main natural enemy of the cobra. However, the monitor lizard, peafowl, jungle-fowl, deer and pig are also adversaries of this snake. As J. W. Bennett states in Ceylon and its Capabilities (London: 1843): "The mongoose is the deadly foe of all venomous snakes. To this little animal is attributed the power of distinguishing venomous from harmless snakes by the pupil of the eye."

He proceeds to describe the Common Sri Lanka Grey Mongoose (Mugatiya), the Indian variety of which features in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. "It resembles the common ferret in shape and size, and when young its fur is of a pencil grey, which changes by age to an iron grey, tinged at the extremities with brown."

In fact four species of the insatiably curious and eternally active mongoose inhabit the island. The other three are the Striped-Necked Mongoose (Gulmugatiya or Loku-mugatiya), the Brown Mongoose (Ram-mugatiya), and the Sri Lanka Ruddy Mongoose (Hotamba), which is said to be the only species that does not attack either harmless or venomous snakes.

Mongooses are almost always victorious in fights with cobras because of their speed, agility, timing, and the thickness of their coats. P.E.P. Deraniyagala, in A Coloured Atlas of the Vertebrates of Ceylon, Volume Three: Serpentoid Reptilia (Colombo: 1955), includes a detailed description of the phases of a staged fight between a mongoose and cobra. This is accompanied by an invaluable series of sketches of the fight, drawn from the frames of a cine film taken of the encounter.

"The cobra quite unable to shorten the range of its blow when a foe, such as the mongoose, apparently aware of the disability, springs close in within the striking circle, waits the snake's attack, and seizes it, usually by its lower jaw, as it opens its mouth preparatory to striking," Deraniyagala begins his account. "Should the latter hesitate the mongoose invites the attack by uttering a strident "cack", which promptly induces a strike, incidentally proving that the cobra can hear air-borne sounds quite well since its head is high above the ground. (My italics. This is contrary to conventional wisdom, for snakes are devoid of hearing, although they can sense vibrations conducted by solid matter.)

"The cobra fears the mongoose and attempts to escape, but the latter brings it to bay when the fight is conducted in a series of rounds, each of two to five seconds' duration. When the mongoose secures its first jaw hold, it grips the upraised body of the cobra with all four limbs, but as it tires in subsequent rounds it lets its body go limp and is swung about by the writhing and threshing cobra. Once on the ground the mongoose rolls over and over in an attempt to break the snake's jaw or dislocate its neck, then suddenly relinquishing its hold, it jumps back, rests and returns to the attack. "The duration of the fight depends on the size of the cobra. Often the mongoose is bitten but frequent inoculation has rendered it highly immune. However, unless a captive mongoose is permitted to fight cobras regularly it loses its immunity after about one year and refuses to face them as if instinctively aware that it is no longer safe to do so.

I understand recent research has shown that the mongoose is tolerant of small dosages of cobra venom but is not immune to it, so I am uncertain as to the veracity of Deraniyagala's theory. This brings us to the question of whether the mongoose seeks an antidote on being bitten. Although Tennent mentions the Aristolochia indica as a possible candidate for an antidote, he also remarks: "I have found universally that the natives of Ceylon attach no credit to the European story of the mongoose resorting to some plant, which no one has yet succeeded in identifying."

Tennent goes on to argue: "Were the mongoose inspired by that courage which would result from the consciousness of security, it would be so indifferent to the bite of the serpent that we might conclude that it would be utterly careless as to the precise mode of its attack. Such, however, is far from the case; and next to its audacity, nothing can be more surprising than the adroitness with which it escapes the spring of the snake and the cunning with which it makes its leap upon the back and fastens its teeth in the head of the cobra."

Back in the 1830s, Bennett had also staged a fight between a mongoose and a cobra. He noted that initially the mongoose was reluctant to face the cobra and "retreated" to a nearby hedge. After that "it showed no fear but made several detours, each time reducing the circle and nearing the snake, which also was upon the qui vive, watching every motion of the enemy.

"The mongoose suddenly crouched with its nose close to the ground, and having waited its opportunity, sprung forward in the twinkling of an eye, and fastened its teeth in the back of the cobra's neck. The snake twisted itself in every direction, vainly endeavouring to envelop the mongoose in its folds, and lashing its tail against the ground, but all to no purpose; the little animal maintained its hold until the snake became completely exhausted, when giving it a farewell shake, it relinquished the cobra, but only as life departed." The mongoose then went back to the hedge but it was difficult, apparently, to ascertain the plant the animal had ingested: "Some aver that it is the Mendi of the Singhalese, because almost every part of the tree is employed by the native doctors in curing snake bites; others that it is a variety of Mimosa Sensitiva; others, that the plant is the Ophioxylon serpentinum, which is everywhere abundant. Both these plants are of the Eka-wariya family of the Singhalese botanists."

Bennett also reports that "Madung Appo, a doctor at Galpiadde", had assured him that he had observed a mongoose after it had been bitten by a cobra. The animal, it seems, ran immediately into a hedge of ayapana and ate both the root and leaf of the plant. The doctor also claimed that he had cured a cobra bite victim by giving him tea made of the aromatic leaves of the ayapana, and then suspending the wounded leg over a pan of boiling water in which a quantity of the leaves was infused.

In addition, Bennett relates a curious incident where a pair of mice got the better of a cobra. It occurred during the voyage homewards from Ceylon. "One of the passengers had a very fine specimen in a case adapted for the purpose, of which a portion was glazed," Bennett remarks. "At the usual time for giving it food, which was once a week, two small mice were put into the case; and upon looking at the case the next day, we found both the mice alive and uninjured, but the reptile deprived of both its eyes, and in a few days it died. Instinct therefore must have pointed out that the only means of preserving their lives from the destroyer, was by depriving it of sight, which no doubt the little animals affected by eating its eyes."

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