Being conscious about your health is a mighty good thing, and most seem to maintain this by engaging in morning or evening walks – or dashes – along the pathways built within close proximity to Colombo’s urban wetlands. So while you are on the run (not from the law, better not), if you come across a very handsome looking dog with mottled fur, who darts into the bushes after throwing a cursory glance your way, don’t worry. It’s not Uncle Stuart’s beloved Rex but a Sri Lankan jackal (Canis aureus naria)! Jackal, in Colombo?!? I mean, fat chance seeing them in a national park, but to actually see them in Colombo, out of all the places?

Well, yes! There was actually this wonderful sighting in Thalangama recently (and one a few months earlier), and Thalangama is an area which is as urban as it gets. 

Now the accepted way to address a jackal in Sinhala would be by calling it හිවලා / Hiwalā, considering the root of the word which stems from Sanskrit.

Shrigala (Sanskrit) -> Sigāla (Pali) -> Siwalā (Sinhala) -> Hiwalā 

But a jackal is also addressed as නරියා / Nariyā, which is now used to mean fox in Sinhala. The apparent confusion and the misconception that there were foxes in Sri Lanka stems from the fact that the same word in Tamil நரி / Nari, is used to address both fox and jackal, in a general sense (there are other specific terms which are used to address these two creatures but some are outdated and not in use). Some of you might have come across a term called குள்ள நரி / Kulla Nari (kulla meaning dwarf or short stature), which is the word used to address the Sri Lanka jackal in the Jaffna Tamil dialect. You might be thinking “all this for one word?”, but that’s how a language evolves over time and space.

If we shift our perspective from the linguistic towards the animalistic, you begin to see that they truly are resourceful creatures. The Sri Lankan jackal is a subspecies of the golden jackal (Canis aureus), which calls habitat for a truly large range which stretches from South-east Asia towards Eastern Europe. 

Sri Lankan jackals are the same build but less heavy than a normal free-ranging dog you find in a city. Jackals have a relatively slender snout, longer frame and legs, and a bristly coat with a bushy tail which can be reddish or yellowish red, with grey speckles when compared with a free-ranging dog. They are opportunistic omnivores, which means that they are not picky about what they eat. That, along with the fact that they can tolerate cold and dry conditions, was the boost that gave them the ability to spread throughout the island. Even though they have the ability to tolerate cold conditions, they get scarcer with the increase in altitude. Jackals are quite wary of human presence and will adopt a nocturnal lifestyle if humans are near their habitat, otherwise they are cathemeral (meaning animals that are active during both day [diurnal] and night [nocturnal]).

Sri Lankan Jackal photographed in the Thalangama Wetland. Photograph by Thikula Samaradivakara.

When we consider their diet, jackals are happy with rodents, birds, the young of grazing animals (such as spotted deer), vegetables, and fruits. When they hunt, they utilize their excellent sense of hearing to pinpoint their prey and once the target is locked on, they pounce on it to render their prey immobile. Jackals are excellent scavengers as well and utilize their perfect sense of smell to locate decaying carcasses from miles away. By scavenging, they help to break down the organic material in a carcass as nutrients, back into the ecosystem. If the carcasses are disposed of in a timely manner, they help in the prevention of diseases among animals. So jackals really do a thankless job to the ecosystem which they are a part of.

Folklore around the world where jackals are found have spun tales on their cunning nature, and their intelligence. But nowhere does it merit their excellent parenting skills. Yes, jackals are model parents and practise monogamy, where they stick with one partner until their death. They practise this so much so that the basic social unit of jackals is a mated pair or a mated pair and their young. They go on about nearly every major aspect in their social life together, namely rearing their young, foraging, hunting, resting and protecting their territory from intruders. In fact, the sync increases their chances of netting good prey by a factor of three when compared with a solitary individual. The jackal’s bond is so strong that it has been observed that when one parent dies, it is unlikely that the rest of the family survives (if they are not mature enough to fend for themselves).

But, jackals have found a way to clear that hurdle as well, in the form of “helpers”. Mostly these “helpers” are pups from a previous litter and they act as assistants to their parents. Their presence has an indirect benefit on the young pups as the parents can spend more time foraging and hunting, which in turn means more sustenance for the pups aiding in their uninterrupted growth. Plus with the aid of these helpers, they can manipulate a carcass more quickly than a solitary individual can, and defend it from other animals. Sightings with such helpers may have given rise to reports of large packs hunting together, which is quite uncommon.

An affectionate mated pair grooming (L) and jackal pups (L). Image by Chandika Jayaratne primary investigator of the Sri Lankan Jackal Project.

Since Sri Lanka is a tropical country, jackal births occur throughout the year. A healthy mother can give birth to litters for up to eight years. After a gestation period of approximately two months, an average of two to four pups per litter can be expected. Jackal pups are absolutely adorable and will have your jaw on the floor like you saw something scandalous. They are nursed for about two months and then introduced to solid foods. Because of the bond their parents have, they are well protected, and if a threat is sensed, parents “rumble growl” and “predator bark” to warn the pups to take refuge, while one of the parents drives off the potential threat, should the occasion call for it. The location of a jackal “den” also aids in the defense of its pups, as it is mostly a hollow interior with only one entrance which an adult can guard without much hassle.

There is a Sri Lankan myth about the purported “jackal’s horn” or “narric-comboo”. This bony, cone-shaped structure about half an inch long, found on a jackal’s forehead is said to grant wishes to its owner, or guarantee the holder victory from any lawsuit (from the way things are done in the legal environment these days, looks like every single of the accused have a jackal’s horn with them). It is also said that only one jackal in a 1,000 possesses this horn, and is the leader of all jackals. Given that a real jackal skull does not have a true “horn”, this is either a protrusion, deformity, or a skin tumor behind the jackal’s sagittal crest. Or in most cases, a tuft of hair that’s matted into the shape of a horn, leading to this misconception. 

Given the fact that the alpha predator that we are most familiar with, the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), has a restricted distribution based on the availability of suitable habitats, the Sri Lankan jackal is the top predator in most of Sri Lanka, and controls animal populations to maintain a healthy ecosystem balance. If jackals are culled without reason, this can mean a boom in the population of pests and vermin species who can do real harm, not just to the environment but to human settlements as well. Now you understand the extent of the service that they provide. 

The threats that they face currently include habitat loss, and death caused by humans – driven by the fear that jackals infect other animals with rabies. Sure they could be carriers of rabies (all mammals are), but in most cases it’s unvaccinated pet cats and dogs that infect wild animals with diseases such as rabies – there are also cases on jackals getting severe cases on mange from domestic animals. So we can all do our part by vaccinating our pets, and street dogs to curb the spread rather than to vilify wild animals.

A jackal infected with mange. Image by Chandika Jayaratne primary investigator of the Sri Lankan Jackal Project.

If you have ever been in a peaceful slumber, only to be suddenly woken up by what sounds like a bicycle bell on steroids… then there’s definitely a red-wattled lapwing (Vanellus indicus) near you. These leggy birds are known for their peculiar, yet highly obnoxious and accusatory call which sounds like “did-he-do-it” which has earned them the nickname of the did-he-do-it bird or as it is known locally, Kiralaa (or more specifically rath/රත් (red) yatimal/යටි මල් (wattled) kiralaa/කිරළා). Note that the stress is on the “L” sound in Kiralaa. If you don’t stress the “L” hard, it sounds like “kirala or කිරල” which means “Mangrove Apple”. Mangrove apples are used to make a refreshing, cooling drink by mixing its pulp with coconut milk which is quite popular in the down-south region of Sri Lanka.

Red-wattled lapwings are distributed through a large area stretching from West Asia to certain parts of Southeast Asia. They are often seen as couples or trios, and occasionally groups ranging from 20 – 200 individuals. They feed mainly on invertebrates picked from the ground, and have quite a peculiar way of picking food off the ground. If you look closely, they look like a drunk person trying to collect his fallen keys without bending properly, teetering on the edge of falling on his face. They would also run in short blinding bursts rather than walk calmly, much like my two year old niece.

There is no distinct sexual dimorphism between males and females to identify them easily (males are slightly larger and their wing length is approximately 5% longer, but good luck trying to measure that in the field). Males court females by puffing their feathers and pointing their beaks upwards towards the sky, which ends with a shuffle around the female. During nesting season, red-wattled lapwings are masterful deceivers, and are able to lure away predators and herbivores who stray too close to their nests. They’d either feign a weakness pointing out that they are an easy target or would circle around calling “did-he-do-it” repeatedly, until the threat moves away. If the theatrics don’t work, they will literally dive bomb the threat like a WW2 era Stuka / Douglas SBD aiming for the soft parts (like eyes and ears).

The main reason for these aggressive and impressive tactics is because they only make their nests on the ground (these look more like a small hole in the ground than a nest because they would even lay eggs in deep footprints left by water buffalo. Lazy much?), thus leaving them at the mercy of technically anything that moves (How ingenious and aggressive the tactics are, lapwing eggs have a high mortality rate compared to hatchlings). The eggs themselves have evolved with cryptic markings on them and the hatched chicks also have cryptic plumage, making them really hard to spot on the ground. Parents are observed to soak their belly feathers in water to cool their hatched chicks or their incubating eggs during exceptionally warm weather conditions.

Lapwing sitting on nest. Image by Sebastian-Kennerknecht.

The red-wattled lapwing is generally considered to be a loudmouth and is therefore despised by predators and welcomed by prey (like that one relative in every family) because it will call out any who comes near, be it day or night. It is hated by hunters and poachers for the same reason so in a way, it pitches in for the protection of wildlife in its own way.

Very few animals, very few, can even come close to the effect that the spectacled cobra (Naja naja) has on Sri Lankan culture and society. The sheer amount of cultural significance that accompanies this downright impressive creature just warrants a look into them, because that is the only way one can gauge how impressive they sound. If we go through the historical records, they speak of four ancient races of Sri Lanka, namely the “Yaksha, Naaga, Deva, and Raaksha”. Out of these, the Naaga people were known as great seafarers and one of the speculated reasons as to why they are called as Naaga is because they adopted the cobra as their symbol. Other theories slither to the realm of fantasy where it says that they were called as such because they were supernatural beings who had the ability to turn into snakes at will. 

Culturally, cobras have been given the role of guardians of the water for centuries. Generally a rock carving of a cobra with multiple hoods was placed near the reservoir / tank, in the hopes that it would cast a protective charm over the sluice and the dam, two of the most important parts of a reservoir / tank.

Cobra guard stone at the Rajagala ruins. Image taken by Road Less Traveled Sri Lanka.

A very strongly rooted common belief among the locals is that if you don’t hurt a cobra, it won’t hurt you (which is basic common sense). Plus that belief is cemented by the legend that cobras can curse you if you hurt them and a curse by a cobra is as deadly as its venom. Back then, rural people address cobras as “Nai Haami / නයි හාමි or Mr. Cobra” and would kindly ask it to leave their premises rather than resorting to violence, should they ever find one coiled inside their house (a more humane solution which has drastically changed). This is because they believe that sometimes, your loved ones reincarnate as cobras and would visit their relatives in their homes. 

They also forbade the playing of flutes or other wind instruments inside homes, near a jungle or while in an open plain because they believed that cobras, upon hearing these tantalizing tunes would slither towards their source and would strike the player down if he stops playing the flute – this could also be a fabrication of an irate father who couldn’t get proper sleep at home because of his child’s impromptu fluting which, sounds like a cat with hernia coughing up a fur ball at 3 am in the morning. However, contrary to popular belief, cobras are tone deaf so they can’t hear those choking tunes coming from the flute of a snake charmer no matter how hard they try. That “dance” they perform is by mimicking the movement of the flute, which is in their direct line of sight. Plus living so close to the ground makes them adept at picking up vibrations from far away, giving them a “sound” advantage over their deafness.

Snake Charmer with Cobra in basket. Image by Cristian Ungureanu.

Ever heard of the “Naaga Maanikya / නාග මානික්‍යය” or the ”Cobra Gem”? Well, as per legend, it is believed that certain cobras have a brilliant gemstone hidden in their neck and they regurgitate it when they are about to feed, and it is said that the sheer brilliance of the gemstone sets the area alight. They are quite fond of the gem and guard it with their life. If one who’s overcome by greed, wants to recover the Naaga Maanikya, they must follow the correct cobra, wait until it purges the gem and cover it with cow dung. The snake would then be distraught at losing its precious gem and disgusted that it can’t go through the cow dung and so would strike its hood at the ground and pass out with grief (so dark it makes Stephen King pucker). Plus there is the legend of the “Kobō Nayaa” (not to be confused with Kobōneela / කොබෝනීල or Bauhinia purpurea, which is a flowering tree found in Sri Lanka), cobras that are only found in the Himalayas. When they grow old, they lose a segmented body part and when only one body segment is left, they are said to sprout wings from it and fly away into the sunset.

As evident by these interesting and captivating stories, the spectacled cobra truly is a magnificent animal. Locally it is known as Nayaa / නයා or Naagayaa / නාගයා, it’s common English name is actually Portuguese! In Portuguese, “Cobra” means “Snake”. The reason it’s called a “spectacled” cobra is because of the distinct black and white marking which is clearly seen when it’s impressive hood is inflated. This marking looks like a pair of spectacles without the handle parts, also known as a pince-nez in french (“pince” meaning to pinch and “nez” meaning nose as it was tightly pinched on the nose when in use). They are also referred to as binocellate cobras, meaning having two eyespots (“bi” meaning two and “ocellate” meaning marked with spots resembling eyes). 

To us, it looks like the letter “p / ප” of the sinhala alphabet. Also the word “පලයන් / palayan” starts with the letter “ප” which is a very informal way of saying to get away in sinhalese, which you should be doing if you are in the vicinity of a spectacled cobra. So consider it a sort of pre-warning. How considerate are they! 

Different spectacled cobra hoods. Image by Anil Kanaskar.

But, not all hood marks look the same (they aren’t being minted out of a factory, see) and can be used to identify individual spectacled cobras from one another. Some have the perfect “ප”, others have hood marks that look like they were drawn by a blindfolded toddler, and some even have no hood mark at all! But in the end, everything goes on to show how much diversity nature has to offer, if we are to look more closely.  

A cobra will expand its hood only when it feels threatened, in an effort to intimidate the apparent threat and keep all its focus on the source of the threat. Speaking of threats, the Indian grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsii) is well known to engage in Mortal Kombat with cobras, ending the cobra with a Soul Purging, Spinal Column Rip! – any Mortal Kombat fans in the house? This is nature’s way of keeping the cobra population in check, as they have very few predators. Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) are also well-known cobra hunters, and so are certain birds of prey such as serpent eagles (Spilornis cheela). Such is the way of nature, everything is cyclic, everything has a role to maintain a delicate balance.

Heading back to the original battle, when they fight, the mongoose bobs and weaves, floats and stings like Muhammad Ali, aiming for the head of the cobra. An interesting thing to observe here is that the cobra keeps nearly one-third of its body upright, and the mongoose knows this well enough, and keeps that exact distance safely away from the cobra, waiting for the right time to pounce. Most fights end with mongoose victory because of their speed, agility, shaggy coat and their specialized immunity to cobra venom. 

There is folklore on mongooses actively seeking out the leaves of the plant spirit weed (Eryngium foetidum) or as it is known in Sinhala, අඳු කොල / andhu kola, as a remedy for snake venom and that cobras despise the scent of the leaves. This gave rise to the Sinhala expression “නයාට අඳු කොල වගේ / like spirit weed leaves to a cobra” which is used at something that will cause an angry or violent reaction (like the terrible mobile signal strength of a certain service provider). There is however, no scientific background to this, yet it is used in traditional medicine for snake venom so it is open for research.

(R) Adult spectacled cobra showing its upright body position; Image by Dushmantha Kulathunga. (L) Andhu kola / spirit weed; Image taken from Wikipedia.

Generally, cobras measure around 1 to 1.5 meters in length but there are records of specimens from Sri Lanka reaching 2.2 meters, although this is a bit uncommon. It is a heavy bodied creature, found in forests, agricultural lands, wetlands, and urban areas, which is a true testament to its ability to adapt to any environment – but keep in mind that they are not found at altitudes of 2,000 meters above sea level. They are primarily terrestrial but should the occasion call for it, can also swim very well. They have a preference for areas with close proximity to water and prefer abandoned termite mounds, rat burrows and tree hollows as ideal hiding places.

Large spectacled cobra photographed via camera trap at the Diyasaru Park.

Spectacled cobras are mostly crepuscular (active during twilight hours) and can sometimes be seen slithering about during the day as well. Like most considerably larger snakes, it has a special penchant for rodents but will add reptiles, amphibians, and the occasional birds to its diet. When it’s done locating its prey, it quickly bites the would-be meal, and once completely immobilized by the cobra venom, it is swallowed whole. 

Cobra venom comprises cardiotoxin (primarily affects heart functions) and a neurotoxin (primarily affects the functions of the nervous system) and therefore, if not treated properly, causes muscle paralysis and cardiac arrest. The main thing to do if you get bitten by a cobra, is not to panic – which is easier said than done – but if you panic, the increase in adrenaline in your body will course the venom through your body faster, thereby speeding up its effects. So, keep calm and rush to the nearest hospital (a new tshirt idea perhaps?). For such a lethal substance, cobra venom does have its medicinal uses, and is used to make painkillers and drugs which go into treating cancer.

Come mating season, spectacled cobras reproduce sexually and lay between 12-20 eggs in a hollow tree or in a secluded hole. Unlike many other snake species, once the eggs are laid, the female remains coiled around her clutch, guarding them until they hatch, which would take approximately 48-69 days. During this time, she only leaves her post to feed. Once hatched, a hatchling snake (also known as a snakelet – yes, you may die from cuteness overload) is perfectly capable of rearing its hood and striking any potential threat, and it is possessed with a fully functional venom gland even from birth. Snakelets are independent from birth and won’t need its mother after hatching.

(R) Spectacled cobras feeling romantic; Image by Niraj Pathak. (L) A newly hatched snakelet; Image by Chandrima Bose.

Despite their legendary status and fearsome reputation, they provide us with more good than harm. They take care of the vermin problem which plagues us, which is created most of the time by our own doing especially when we dump garbage irresponsibly, creating a boom in the rat/mouse population. If you want to see what kind of destruction, hordes upon hordes of rodents can do, see what’s happening in Australia at the moment. When there are no natural predators, no threats for the survival of a certain species, their populations increase rapidly, which spells doom for the ecosystem. This is why predators like snakes are important in an ecosystem. If you encounter one at your home, make sure all entry points to the house are remedied and wait till it leaves. Don’t go dousing it with kerosene or beating it with sticks like a piñata. The saddest thing is that even harmless, snakes like oriental rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa) are killed on sight because people mistake them for cobras. This is why articles like these exist, to raise awareness and to teach people how to coexist with these amazing animals. They have a right to live as well as you do, and they do their part towards upholding the balance of nature and it is high time that we do so as well.