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.

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Ever been woken up in the middle of the night from a peaceful slumber, from what sounds like a parrot being strangled by a horde of loud and obnoxious rats, which is then more often than not, followed by a pungent smell of urine? If so, you can thank an Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) for that. Locally known as civet cat (due to their cat like appearance), Kalaveddha / කලවැද්දා or Uguduwa / උගුඩුවා, their loud nocturnal theatrics and unsavory toilet manners have earned them some bad credit with the locals. If you do find one at home, don’t panic and don’t go to irritate it. Wait till it leaves and remedy any entrance points which it can use to enter the rafters/false attics (some chicken wire mesh to block entrances will do the trick).

But like most urban wildlife, they make up for their loose bladders and loud mouths by preying on rodents that inhabit the house they live in, thus effectively ridding your house of vermin. Asian palm civets are omnivores, and have a particular fondness for ripe fruit (mango, papaw, passion fruit, and pineapple are favourites),treacle palm (kithul) seeds, insects, and the occasional snail/slug if they happen to come across one. Much like the small Indian civets (Viverricula indica), they won’t mind raiding a poorly constructed coop to have some chicken. All this means that they are mainly arboreal as opposed to the small Indian civets, and they help maintain healthy tropical ecosystems by dispersing seeds which are already fertilized within their feces (the power of poop!). But their love of fruits can land them in trouble sometimes. When they gorge themselves on the wild banana species called “aeti kesel” (Musa balbisiana) whose seeds are substantially larger than the cultivated variants, the seeds can clog their anus’s and make the passing of feces troublesome, bringing them much discomfort. This has given rise to the Sinhala saying which goes along the line of “like the palm civet who ate wild bananas (ඇටි කෙහෙල් කාපු උගුඩුවා වගේ)” and it is used at those who have landed them in a sticky situation without a way of getting out of it.

Asian palm civets do love a good drink (cue “Sumihiri Paane”) and will sniff out toddy (a local alcoholic drink made from fermented coconut flower sap) if it is nearby and lap on it to their heart’s content (their way of TGIF). Their boozy antics are closely rivaled by the endemic Sri Lankan hanging parrot (Loriculus beryllinus), which literally pass out inside toddy collecting pots after having a bit too much, only to be discovered by the disgruntled toddy tappers in the morning (then comes the flight of shame, plus a killer hangover). Their love for toddy has therefore earned them the nickname “toddy cat”.

Asian palm civet investigating the fruits of a palm tree, in an urban garden in Colombo. Video sent in by (Uncle) Mike Anthonisz.

The species is spread throughout the island, and has a wider spread than that of the small Indian civet. Like the small Indian civets, they are mainly nocturnal and territorial but might step out during the day if not harassed (but they do avoid foraging on full moon nights, probably to avoid predators). Damp, shady places like the rafters and false attics of urban and suburban homes which border a forest patch or a wetland are ideal spots for them. These civets are solitary creatures, and if you see multiple individuals at the same time, it might be a mother with her brood. They also engage in scent marking and unlike Indian civets, they do this by dragging their bottoms on the ground (similar to dogs, but if your dog drags its bottom on the ground like this, it needs worm medication and it is not scent marking!). Very little is known about their mating rituals, but a couple of Asian palm civets have been observed copulating four to five times with slight intervals in between. Females usually give birth in between October to December, and a litter will have between three to four cubs.

They do enjoy a certain level of safety in Sri Lanka apart from the occasional roadkill. Though, like most wildlife, the biggest threat they face here is habitat destruction and deforestation. But in certain Southeast Asian countries they are caged under appalling conditions and force-fed coffee beans to produce “Kopi Luwak”. This is a supposed delicacy made up of coffee beans which undergo a chemical change as they pass through the civet’s digestive system, before being pooped out. The beans are then collected and washed of all signs of poop before being sold as an exotic variety of coffee. The more appeal for Kopi Luwak means the more endangered the Asian palm civets’ existence becomes. Since they play an important part in the spread of ecosystems, their loss will be monumental.

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Chances of having a backyard garden of sorts is not so uncommon these days if you have the space – a beneficial trend of sorts borne of the lock downs which were imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 – and you’d wake up one morning and pay a visit to see how those vegetables are coming along with your morning tea in hand, when suddenly your right foot sinks underground, upsetting the hot tea on yourself. There you are, turning the sky blue for miles along with such colourful language which would make a sailor blush, while frantically trying to pull your foot out, wipe that hot tea off your chest, and trying not to step on shattered pieces of mug, while not letting the sarong slip off. 

After this sudden turn of tragic events has passed and with a clear head you go on to inspect.

Then you note that the Manioc (Manihot esculenta) roots you’ve been carefully cultivating for weeks have been nibbled and munched with relish. A quick look reveals that the hole in the ground was caused by some really articulate tunneling. And then it clicks!

It’s the signature handiwork of a greater bandicoot rat (Bandicota indica) or as it locally known (with gritted teeth) as “ඌරු මීයා (ooroo meeya)” which literally translates to “pig-rat”. It is called as such not because it’s rosy pink and wallows in mud. It’s called so, because when it feels threatened, it will raise its bristly guard hairs (like some knock-off porcupine) and grunt like a small, yet very angry pig. They are big and can get bigger if there is ample opportunity for scoring food. They are not fastidious (not concerned about the what, when, where, how when it comes to food) eaters and would eat anything from grain, household waste, vegetables, fallen fruit, tubers, roots, yam etc…, making farmers and gardeners around the country to roll their shirt cuffs and shorten the length of their sarongs at the tell-tale signs of their presence.

Greater bandicoot rat grunting angrily. Video by Anya Ratnayaka.

Greater bandicoot rats are notorious for their tunneling skills and if the soil is moist and easy to break (like the embankments you find in paddy fields), expect a series of tunnels that would win a standing ovation from any VietCong. The tunnels are used mainly for shelter rather than being used as a larder. Adults are aggressive towards each other and if placed in the same enclosure, they will fight to the death. Their lifespan is about a year and therefore they mature very quickly as characteristic of their species, where the pups (newborn bandicoot rats are named as pups… awww!) sexually mature within 50 – 60 days. A female is capable of producing 8 – 10 litters during her lifetime with 8 – 14 pups per litter.

They are classified as vermin and are also disease vectors (vectors are living organisms that spread infectious agents like a virus or a bacteria from an infected animal to a human or another animal) for deadly diseases like hantaviruses, bovine schistosomiasis and leptospirosis and for the rat lungworm (Angiostrongylus cantonensis). Sadly we humans are contributing for their population boom by our improper management of waste (garbage sites are like K-Zones for these guys). Eliminating their natural predators like rat snakes, civets etc… would also contribute for them to thrive because it upsets the natural balance of ecosystems. Now terminating them left right and center and wiping them off the planet won’t do any good also because as mentioned earlier, they happen to be prey to certain animals and upsetting the way of nature is never a good idea. Best example would be Mao Zedong and his four pests campaign where he named the sparrow as a pest because sparrows ate the rice crop. Then the Chinese people were forced to kill as many sparrows as they can because the propaganda stated that less sparrows would mean more rice crop. Sparrows were driven to near extinction in China and instead of booming the crops, it bombed them because the insect population skyrocketed, driving the crop yield to abysmal levels which caused a famine which caused the deaths of approx. 15 million Chinese people. See how that escalated? Sure bandicoot rats are pests but their population controlling MUST be done after considering all the pros and cons. You can just contribute simply by disposing your garbage properly, having a cat around the house etc. It’s the smallest things that make the biggest change in the end.