A Clash of Titans

Featured Image: A king cobra in the midst of swallowing a reticulated python
Photo by Law Ingg Thong

Observing animal behaviour such as feeding, mating or fighting in the field is always a treat. But it is usually harder to witness a snake doing these things as they tend to be wary of humans and will slither away if given the chance. A couple weeks ago, a few HSS members not only managed to witness a predation event between two snakes but antagonistic behaviour between two large reptiles as well!

The encounter began when an NParks staff noticed a king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) wrestling with a reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus) in the mangroves of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve early in the afternoon.

King cobras are the largest species of venomous snake in the world, capable of growing up to 5.7m in length. They predominantly prey on snakes and occasionally on monitor lizards. Reticulated pythons on the other hand, are the world’s longest species of snake, growing up to a staggering 10m in length! This was truly a battle of giants (although these were smaller individuals). We estimated the king cobra was about 2.5m long while the python was only 1.5m long.

A 3m reticulated python encountered by the author
Photo by Law Ingg Thong

After having bitten the python, the king cobra slithered away, presumably to wait for the python to succumb to its venom. HSS member, Drima, managed to witness the king cobra slithering away to hide in a nearby berm. They managed to observe the dying python, which took almost two hours to succumb to the cobra’s venom. In its death throes, the python appeared to have trouble breathing, finally dying a short while later.

The envenomated reticulated python seen with its mouth wide open, seemingly gasping for air
Photo by Drima Chakraborty

We observed the python for another two hours in the hopes that the king cobra would return to consume its meal. By that time a few more HSS members had arrived; we all waited with bated breath for the Return of the King. But it was nowhere to be seen.

We prepared to leave at around 5pm, but saw a large Malayan water monitor (Varanus salvator) started to approach the carcass of the python. We looked on with hope tinged with disappointment. Perhaps we wouldn’t see the king cobra feeding on the python after all. It would have still made for an interesting observation if the monitor lizard had eaten the python. However, it was not to be. While the monitor was still scoping out the carcass, we saw a quick flash of gold in the distance; the king cobra had returned to claim its kill!

The king cobra seen slithering back to the carcass of the python
Photo by Drima Chakraborty

Both large reptiles seemed to be wary of each other. They appeared to confront each other in the mangrove understory. But neither seemed eager to start a fight with the other.

The king cobra and Malayan water monitor face off in the foliage of the mangrove
Screencap from video by Jonathan Tan

Eventually, the monitor lizard left the area, leaving the king cobra alone with its prey. While confronting the monitor lizard, the king cobra had moved some distance from the python – it did not seem like it would return to consume its meal. Some of the HSS members left at this point.

The king cobra seen amongst the pencil roots of mangrove trees
Photo by Law Ingg Thong

It’s not every day you see a King, and in my case, I had waited six years for this. So, I decided to stay for a while more to observe it, just in case it tried to eat an early dinner anyway.

As it turned out, things were just about to get interesting! About 20 minutes after the other members left the scene, the king cobra started swallowing the python head first!

The king cobra swallowing the python head first
Photo by Law Ingg Thong

It was such an amazing sight to witness! When snakes eat, it always looks like it requires a gargantuan effort. This encounter was no different; over the next 40 minutes, the king cobra swallowed the python whole in front of us.

The king cobra swallowing the rest of the python
Photo by Law Ingg Thong

Funnily enough, it didn’t really seem that much bigger for just having swallowed an entire python. Usually after such large meals, snakes will stay in the vicinity as it is harder for them to move around with that much food in their bodies. The king cobra however, seemed unfazed and gracefully slithered away, no doubt to find a hiding spot to rest and digest its meal.

The king cobra slithering away after having swallowed the entire python
Photo by Law Ingg Thong

It’s incredible that even on an island as tiny as Singapore, titanic moments like these still happen. We’re lucky to be living alongside them. So, keep a look out for them when you explore Singapore’s green spaces!

If you encounter a king cobra, keep a safe distance from it, and take photos to document it. These snakes mean us no harm, and their presence is an indication of a healthy ecosystem. Let’s celebrate that!

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