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This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 851 published on 6 May 1978.
Strange wailing music fills the air. It comes from a pipe played by an Indian in turban and robes, squatting before his circular baskets in a dusty market square.
Slowly, the lid of one of the baskets is raised and into sight comes a cobra, its large head swaying on its slender, sinuous body.
The spectators edge away for they know that the cobra is one of the most poisonous of snakes, capable of bringing death to its victim within a couple of hours of a bite being received.
Few creatures are more frightening then a two-metre cobra rearing upwards in this fashion.
One-third of its yellowish-brown body is raised on high. It sways gently to and fro, like the stem of a strange plant which carries at its head a deadly blossom. This is the head with its glaring eyes, darting tongue and hissing breath, framed by its hood – the great, spoon-shaped expansion of the neck.
That sinister figure spells death to any man or beast that dares to approach it too closely.
By day, the cobra sleeps in the long grass, although it swiftly attacks any man or animal that disturbs it.
In the evening, it becomes wide-awake, leaves its hiding place and goes hunting. It feeds on frogs, lizards, rats, birds or any other small creature that may cross its path, and sometimes it goes fishing in the forest streams.
A full-grown Indian cobra is about two metres long, but its cousin, the king cobra, often measures four metres from nose to tail. It can be a deadly and savage reptile.
Although it never eats anything but smaller snakes, it will strike at and kill any creature it comes upon.
Men dread the king cobra, for it will hide in the long grass ready to dart at all who pass, and its bite means death. Its poison will kill even an elephant.
Yet the cobras have their own enemies. Wild pigs are very fond of young cobras and eat them up with relish. Jungle cocks and peafowls eat them too, and the poison appears to do them no harm.
But the cobra’s chief foe is the Indian mongoose. This is a small, furry animal hardly bigger than a rat, with a long, narrow head like a weasel’s and a bushy tail that fluffs up to twice its ordinary size when its owner is angry.
The mongoose is a most warlike creature. Whenever it meets a cobra or other poisonous snake, it quivers with rage. Its tail fluffs up and its eyes grow red as it dances round and round the snake, watching for an opportunity to spring on the snake’s back and bite it in the neck.
Furious at being threatened in this way, the cobra spreads its hood and hisses angrily. Its long black tongue flicks in and out of its jaws. But the mongoose leaps aside or into the air, escaping the poison fangs.
Eventually, the snake becomes dazed – almost hypnotised – by the constant movement of the mongoose. The mongoose jumps on to the back of the cobra and breaks its neck with one quick crunch of its powerful teeth.
A distinctive feature of the cobra is its hood, which is formed by the ribs of the neck which the snake can raise and expand at will, stretching out the folds of loose skin.
The African cobra is one of several snakes to which the name asp has been applied. It lives in almost all parts of Africa, and one of its relatives is able to spit its venom to a distance of a metre or more.
Cobras usually live in pairs, near water. The female lays about 20 soft-shelled eggs the size of pigeons’ eggs. Once laid, the eggs are left to be hatched by the warmth of the sun.
The Indian cobra and its relatives in other parts of Asia and Africa have been worshipped since the beginning of history. In ancient Egyptian picture writing, the figure of the cobra with its expanded hood occurs constantly.
Because of this reverence, many people refuse to kill the cobra, preferring to grant a perpetual amnesty to this fanged terror of the reptile world.