Published: 11th June 2019
Jungle stories: How conservationist Ajay Giri is educating locals in Agumbe about King Cobras and why they should be preserved
The Karnataka-based conservationist and researcher has been studying King Cobras for years now and aims to protect the biodiversity at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station
The Western Ghats in South India have been home to King Cobras for many years. Therefore in 2005, Romulus Whitaker, the famous herpetologist, had set up Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS), an organisation to initiate studies not only on King Cobras, but the flora and fauna of Agumbe too. Ajay Giri started his journey with ARRS and dedicated his life to saving King Cobras and educating people about their biodiversity.
Ajay Giri is originally from the city of Akola in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. He was only 15-year-old when he developed an interest in rescuing snakes, birds and mammals. After completing his Bachelor’s in Commerce from a university in Akola, he moved to ARRS in 2009 to work as a Research Associate for one of their projects. He says, "Though I don't come from a Science background, I was always curious to learn and work in the wildlife sector. This is what brought me to Agumbe from Akola. After joining ARRS, I pursued a Master’s in Environment Science from a university in Nagaland through correspondence. It was only in high school that I heard about ARRS which was working for King Cobras found in the Western Ghats. Since 2009, I have been part of every project executed for King Cobras."
Starting with snakes
The first project that Ajay took up at ARRS was King Cobra Radio Telemetry Project under which, a chip-size transmitter is fixed in the muscles of a King Cobra and the snake is released into the wild. Then, these reptiles are tracked to understand the path they take, food consumption habits, habitat, mating and their reproduction cycle. Ajay says, "While transmitters were used in other animals to study them in different parts of the world, ARRS was the first organisation to use transmitters to track and study King Cobras. In the first phase, we inserted transmitters in four King Cobras. Every day, I would track them and monitor their activity until they went to sleep. I still remember how one female King Cobra, which had our transmitter fitted in it, was consumed by a male cobra. That's how our research lead to the understanding of cannibalism in these reptiles. Currently, the project is in its second phase where we have fixed transmitters in two King Cobras."
Biggest threat: Rubber plantation, road widening and deforestation are the bigger threat to his profession and wildlife
Gradually Ajay rose to different positions at ARRS. Currently, he works as a Field Director and Education Officer. Apart from handling the radio telemetry project, he is involved in two other projects, Human-cobra Conflict Mitigation Project and King Cobra breeding biology project. These two projects are designed to teach the lifecycle of King Cobras in a step-by-step method. Explaining further about these two projects, Ajay says, "There are agricultural lands and homes around the Western Ghats and the rain forest region in Agumbe. We come across many cases of human-King Cobra conflict on a regular basis. Whenever people find King Cobras in their homes or on their agricultural land, they call the Forest Department who in turn call us and we rush to the spot. We usually work within 100 metres radius of the Agumbe rainforest. We rescue the reptile only in the worst case scenarios like, if it is found on the ceiling of the house or found in a kitchen or a bathroom. If it is found near the house or in a burrow, then we let it move into the woods without any disturbance. There is another misconception people have about us, they think that we capture them in cages, which is not true. We believe in their right to live in their habitat."
Ajay further adds, "During this whole process, we educate people about cobras. These snakes tend to take shelter in human settlements during their breeding season. I ask people about when they spotted these King Cobras and make them understand that most of the female cobras build a nest and lay eggs during their breeding season in the month of March and April. Meanwhile, more than one or two male King Cobras will follow the female’s smell for mating. In such cases, I request locals to observe them from a distance and don’t disturb them. When some people find it difficult to understand, I show them pictures and videos we captured. It is only then that they believe us. I have conducted many such programmes with the local villagers around Agumbe and Shimoga whenever snakes or King Cobras were rescued." After these awareness programmes, people have truly learnt the basic steps. Now, whenever they find a King Cobra, they call Ajay and tell him about watching it from afar.
His way of living: Ajay Giri has been into this work of rescuing King Cobras for 20 years
Ajay says that the interesting part of the female cobras is that they build a strong nest so that none of the animals, or even rain, can destroy their eggs. "Here, the female cobras neither guard the nest nor incubate them until they hatch. It leaves the place once its work is done. The eggs hatch by themselves. But in many cases, when the female Cobras lay eggs near human settlements, I build a barricade around the eggs and guard them so that wild animals don't eat them. I take the permission of the locals and the Forest Department before doing so," he explains.
It is in this stage that Ajay brings school and college students into the picture. They are brought to the place where these eggs are incubated and informed about the King Cobras and why they shouldn't be killed. They are even allowed to touch the eggs. According to his observation, it takes about 80 to 100 days for the eggs to hatch. Once these eggs hatch, Ajay accumulates data like the number of male and female snakes, their length, weight and colour. Then, these baby King Cobras are left into the wild.
When asked about the food they consume and their behaviour, Ajay says, "Cobras feed on rat snakes and vipers in India. If they sense a venomous snake, then they attack it on the hood and hold it in the mouth until the snake is paralysed. In the case of non-venomous snakes, they attack any part of the snake's body. Due to cannibalism, which is in their nature, the larger King Cobras eat small King Cobras too. They are elusive-natured and prefer to stay under canopies, in bushes and trees. King Cobras usually don't come out when there are animals like dogs, cats or even a hen around."
ARRS is open to anyone and everyone who has the interest to learn about wildlife. People, especially kids, can visit the place, observe the functioning and gain knowledge to spread a word
Ajay Giri, Field Director, ARRS
Ajay’s latest project, which required him to take permission from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Karnataka Forest Department, involves him tagging every rescued King Cobra in Agumbe. He says, "It is called Passive Integrated Transponder Tagging in which, the tag is as small as a grain. It is inserted between the muscle and skin of a King Cobra. Like the transmitter, it doesn't need any battery to function. This helps us check the changes King Cobra undergoes in length, weight and other parameters at length. It also has GPS to track the snakes' location and how fast it moves and so on over a period of few years. Till date, we have tagged 140 King Cobras. I will need two more years to complete this project and get a number on the exact population of the King Cobras in Agumbe rainforest."
Ajay hasn’t gone home for two years now. He says, "My work and projects, undertaken for the betterment of forest and animals, keeps me engaged. Even my parents have been very cooperative. Earlier, they were concerned and worried about me getting attacked by animals or snakes. Now, they understand that my work involves much more than handling animals or snakes."