Killer instinct: Gowri Shankar gets us in the danger zone with the show, King Cobra and I
Gowri Shankar, who’s often associated with life-threatening encounters of the reptilian kind, tells us about his efforts to sensitise people about snakes, and to stop spreading fear among youngsters.
The name Gowri Shankar is spoken of with some reverence in Agumbe, where he lives and works. An expert on snake ecology and conservation, Gowri has authored and co-authored scientific papers on king cobras and other subjects of herpetology.
A popular figure on social media for his hair-raising rescue acts, he is founder-director of the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology, and was instrumental in initiating a radio telemetry study on king cobras, to discover their secret life.
Gowri’s work has been featured in documentaries such as the King and I, Secrets of the King Cobra, Asia’s Deadliest Snake, and Wildest India as a part of the BBC Natural Unit.
We got to chat with him about his work, and his personal interest in building better understanding of the elusive king cobras...
Describe that moment when you look into the eyes of a dangerous snake... When was the first time in your life that you felt like you had a personal connection with snakes?
Firstly, I don’t look at the snake with a preconceived idea that it is ‘dangerous’. I look at it with respect. Every time I look into the eyes of the king cobra, I feel a connection, and it helps me gauge its character. I have come to realise that each snake has a character of its own.
The first time I felt a connection was during my college days, when I used to visit Bannerghatta National Park, and spend many hours and days observing king cobras in their enclosure. Though, by this time, I had caught many other snakes, it was the king cobra with which I felt the connection.
Tell us about the most dangerous and miraculous encounters you’ve had. Do you find it more dangerous to rescue snakes in the wild open, or in the city?
We need to understand that the snake is being true to what it is. It is we who place ourselves in dangerous encounters. My most challenging encounters or rescues were when I had to rescue a king cobra from a well at Thallurangadi, near Agumbe, and when I had to remove one from a rooftop.
We only rescue snakes if it is close to human proximity. When you say wild, I take it that you are referring to village homes that have bigger courtyards and open into wider open spaces — that is how it is in Agumbe.
In these cases, the snake has ample space and opportunity to escape and find refuge in other spaces that are still close to other homes. While in big cities, the challenges are with narrow or small spaces, where the rescuer needs to manoeuver the snake efficiently, to ensure that neither is he bitten nor is the snake stressed.
Hence, both places have their challenges and cannot be compared. It all depends on your knowledge, presence of mind and quick action. In both cases, the rescuer must ensure that the snake is least stressed.
How close have you come to meeting death, and how many times have you defied chances of survival? Do you believe you have some kind of superpower, that you might have powers that are not natural?
Every time you rescue a king cobra, you are in a way, facing death. This is because there is no anti-venom for king cobra bites in India.
I have rescued over 350 king cobras, which means, I could have died 350 times, if the king cobras decided to bite me, but they didn't. I was bitten by a king cobra in 2005.
I survived, as it was only a scratch, and the snake did not pump in enough venom into me. That was the closest call. Yes, I do have superpowers, and they are called: knowledge, respect and patience!
How is it different to encounter a king cobra, when compared to so many other dangerous snakes? Does the king cobra inspire a different kind of fear in you? Do you see it as a majestic creature?
King cobra is no doubt a majestic creature. Being the longest venomous snake, one which stands its ground and stares into your eyes, possessing a huge quantity of venom that can deliver a fatal bite, and their unwavering demeanour — all that sets it apart from other snakes.
Fear is not a word that I would associate with my encounters or engagement with king cobras. I would rather call it respect, and this snake commands it.
Tell us about the crew that you worked with for the making of this show, and how they work with you in the wild. Importantly, how do you communicate with your team, in the presence of a snake?
This show was a great learning platform for me. I had previously worked as a snake wrangler in other documentaries, but this experience of being involved right from the planning to the completion stage was like attending university, for me.
The team was highly experienced, with great knowledge and understanding about the subject and most importantly, was very accommodating and willing to help a relatively novice person on the sets.
The producer and director Harry Marshall was very creative, and he would sketch out scenes that not only helped us coordinate and deliver what was expected, but also reduced the risk that usually
comes in, when you are working with subjects like a king cobra.
Alphonse Roy is a remarkable cinematographer, and by far, one of the best I have seen. He had a lot of patience and was very calm.
Romulus Whitaker, I would say, is like a walking university — he had so much knowledge, not just about the snake, but various aspects.
He would keep the team entertained with his witty and funny jokes, but if one was smart enough, you would understand and learn a great deal from the messages that would come through all the fun and laughter.
This documentary was also a great way to network, and I got to meet Sandesh Kadur on these sets. We have since worked on other documentaries, and we are good friends.
Communicating in the presence of snakes was not tough at all, as snakes cannot hear! This allowed us to speak and interact during shots, and we did not have to worry about disturbing the snake with our voice. We only had to ensure that we did not make quick and sudden movements in front of the snake.
We have all learned and studied so much about cobras in our childhoods, and from our grandparents. What kinds of secrets did you discover, in your own teenage years, which you can share with your fans?
Amazingly, snakes form a pivotal character in the stories that we listen to from our grandparents. For me, these stories did not frighten, and instead, they intrigued me.
Probably, that is why I sought to know more as I grew up, and here I am today. At the age of 13 years, when I caught my first snake, I realised that snakes did not come back to take revenge, that they do not chase you, and instead, if given a chance, they will try to escape out of your sight.
As for the secrets, they are now in the open — for all to know, if only they care to learn. I urge the younger generation today to take that extra step to learn the facts and not blindly follow movie exaggerations, many of which still bank on creating fear by representing them as monsters and dangerous animals.
Now, there are ways to learn facts, attend workshops, meet experts, etc. We urge people to please use them to educate themselves, stop propagating false stories, and stop this hate and fear from spreading to the next generation.
Tell us about working with Rom Whitaker — do you idolise him, in this field of study? How often have you joined him, on his quests in the Western Ghats?
I worked with Rom for 10 years. He is like a godfather, and a walking university, from whom I learned a lot. That kind of knowledge, perception and vision cannot be found in any book.
He is a leader and a cool boss. He would list out things to be done, and gave me a lot of freedom, and had faith in my work. This helped me get better at whatever I did.
I travelled many times with him, over the years, and we have spent several hours discussing snakes and conservation. These talks laid the foundation for my future work as well as direction for conservation.
King Cobra and I airs on November 22 at 9 pm as part of Wild Wild India Anthology on Sony BBC Earth.
— Jaideep Sen