Ophiophagus hannah 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Reptilia Squamata Elapidae

Scientific Name: Ophiophagus hannah
Species Authority: (Cantor, 1836)
Common Name(s):
English King Cobra, Hamadryad
Dendraspis bungarus (Schlegel, 1837)
Dendraspis hannah (Cantor, 1836)
Hamadryas elaps Günther, 1858
Hamadryas hannah Cantor, 1836
Hamadryas ophiophagus Cantor, 1838
Naja bungarus Schlegel, 1837
Naja hannah (Cantor, 1836)
Naja ingens Van Hasselt, 1882
Naja vittata Elliott, 1840
Ophiophagus elaps (Günther, 1858)
Taxonomic Notes: Because of the wide distribution of this species, many herpetologists believe that this is a species complex (R. Inger pers. comm.).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Vulnerable A2acd ver 3.1
Year Published: 2012
Date Assessed: 2011-09-01
Assessor(s): Stuart, B., Wogan, G., Grismer, L., Auliya, M., Inger, R.F., Lilley, R., Chan-Ard, T., Thy, N., Nguyen, T.Q., Srinivasulu, C. & Jelić, D.
Reviewer(s): Bowles, P. & Cox, N.A.
Contributor(s): Achyuthan, N.S., Aengals, A., Das, A., De Silva, R., Deepak, V., Dehling, M., Jose, J., Kulkarni, N.U., Lewis, S., Lintott, P., Milligan, HT, Mohapatra, P., Powney, G., Sears, J., Shankar, G., Thakur, S., Wearn, O.R., Wilson, P., Wren, S., Zamin, T. & Zug, G.
Ophiophagus hannah has been assessed as Vulnerable. This species has a wide distribution range, however, it is not common in any area in which it occurs (with the apparent exception of Thailand, and there only in forested areas), is very rare in much of its range, and has experienced local population declines of over 80% over 10 years in parts of its range. Pressure on this species from both habitat loss and exploitation are high throughout this snake's range, and while no quantitative population data is available, it can be conservatively estimated that the population size has declined globally by at least 30% over an estimated three-generation period of 15-18 years. More detailed population monitoring in the more poorly-known parts of this snake's range may reveal that this is a conservative estimate.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The King Cobra is widely distributed in South and Southeast Asia, from Nepal (where it is found throughout the lowlands of the Therai region - Schleich and Kästle 2002) and India (from Uttarakhand in Western Himalayas to Eastern Himalayas, down south along the Eastern Ghats up to northern Andhra Pradesh, and in the Western Ghats south of Maharashtra) across southern China (including Hainan Island), southward to the Philippines (where it is widespread) and Indonesia east as far as Sulawesi and Bali (where there are recent records from Negara [R.P.H. Lilley pers. obs. 2011]; Smith 1943, Zhao and Adler 1993, David and Vogel 1996, Whitaker and Captain 2004), as well as the Malaysian territories of Sarawak and Sabah, and Brunei (where a recent record exists from Kuala Belalong Field Centre - J.M. Dehling unpubl. data), on the island of Borneo. It occurs in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but is absent from Little Andaman and from the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra. It has a maximum recorded elevation of 2,000 m asl. (Smith 1943).
Countries occurrence:
Bangladesh; Bhutan; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; China; Hong Kong; India (Andaman Is., Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Goa, Jharkand, Karnataka, Kerala, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Orissa, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal); Indonesia (Bali, Jawa, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Sumatera); Lao People's Democratic Republic; Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak); Myanmar; Nepal; Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; Viet Nam
Additional data:
Upper elevation limit (metres):2000
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:The snake remains common in good habitat in Thailand, where it is a protected species, with no evidence of declines (T. Chan-ard pers. comm. 2011). However, this species is not frequently encountered anywhere else within its wide range. A population reduction of 30% over 75 years in India has been inferred from the numerous threats to this species, including habitat destruction and harvesting of mature individuals from the wild. A study in northwestern India showed that even though the species has been recorded in diverse habitat types, analysis of observations revealed that the abundance of king cobras is strongly linked to the availability of undisturbed forests (Das et al. 2008), indicating that the destruction of natural forests is likely to be causing significant declines in this species' population. In Nepal, a "very sharp decline" in larger individuals has been observed, which is likely to affect the population's reproductive fitness as large female reptiles typically produce the majority of offspring that survive to reproductive age (D. Jelić pers. comm. 2012). Local reports indicate that very large individuals can no longer be found in the Chitwan area of Nepal (D. Jelić pers. comm. 2012). In Viet Nam, the national Red Data Book estimates that this species has declined by more than 80% over 10 years as a result of habitat loss and overharvesting for the leather trade (Dang et al. 2007). The surviving population of this snake in Viet Nam may be very small (Q.T. Nguyen pers comm. 2011), as it is encountered more rarely in forest surveys than in the past. The species is rarely seen in Cambodia; T. Neang (pers. comm. 2011) reports as few as three sightings in this country over ten years of surveys. Similarly, only three or four have been recorded in twelve years of recent surveys in Myanmar (G. Wogan pers. comm. 2011).  It is very rare in Indonesia based on data from trade, where it is very much less frequently seen than species of Naja (M. Auliya pers. comm. 2011). The wild population in China was considered to be “very low” in the 1990s (Zhou and Jiang 2004), which very probably reflects the impact of exploitation and trade of this snake in China for medicinal purposes. The snake is considered to have declined by over 50% over ten years in this country as a result of exploitation for both subsistence and regional trade (Wang and Xie 2009). Population sizes in Peninsular Malaysia are reportedly small (L. Grismer pers. comm. 2011). Very little information is available on the status of the king cobra in Bali, where it was first reported by de Haas (1950). Presently, subpopulations appear to be small and fragmented, with the snake only known definitively from Negara in the island's west and from Bali Barat National Park. Due to hunting pressure and, particularly, deforestation for agricultural conversion, the snake is likely to be declining on this island (R.P.H. Lilley pers. comm. 2011).
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:This species is found in a variety of habitats, primarily in pristine forests, but it can also be found in degraded forest, mangrove swamps and even agricultural areas with remnants of woodland. It has also been found swimming in rivers in non-forested land and probably occurs in palm oil plantations (R. Inger pers. comm. 2010), however it is not yet clear whether oil palm plantations can support viable populations of this species (M. Auliya pers. comm. 2011). In India, this species has also been recorded from tea estates in the Western Ghats and Assam (Whitaker and Captain 2004). In Nepal this species is poorly-known, but has been reported primarily from undisturbed Sai forest and from dry high-altitude grasslands (D. Jelić pers. comm. 2012). Females build nests of dead leaves and stay with the eggs until they hatch, which takes 70 days at 28²C (Whitaker and Captain 2004). Reproductive age in captivity has been estimated at 5-6 years, and this is here conservatively taken to be the generation length in the wild population, although true generation length is probably longer. One individual was reported to have a 6.3 km² home range (Bhaisare et al. 2010), indicating that the species is likely to occur in low population densities, although it is unknown whether this is natural or a result of the depletion of wild populations.
Generation Length (years):5-6

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: This species is harvested for skin, food, and especially medicinal purposes in China. It is heavily harvested for the medicinal trade in many parts of its range, particularly Viet Nam, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar, both for domestic purposes and for export to China. It is also traded in Java and exported to China for medicine, local consumption and trophies, which is not traceable and so is unregulated (M. Auliya pers. comm. 2011). In Bali, hunting takes place primarily to supply zoos and international collectors, but the snake is also occasionally found for sale in snake restaurants (R.P.H. Lilley pers. obs. 2011). It is also used in snake wine in Vietnam (Somaweera and Somaweera 2010). It is found in the domestic and international pet trade throughout its range (M. Auliya pers. comm. 2010). Between 2000 and 2011, there was an annual quota of 90 specimens for the pet trade in Indonesia.  Almost 2,000 live animals were exported for the pet and venom trade between 2000 and 2009 from Indonesia, and internationally the medicinal trade in this species is considerably larger. Three thousand specimens from Myanmar, reported to have been ranched, were found in a single shipment from Myanmar to Vietnam in 2006 (CITES trade data), although researchers in this area are unaware of the existence of snake farms in Myanmar (G. Wogan and M. Auliya pers. comm. 2011). The major exporting countries for the pet trade are Indonesia and Malaysia, although it is exported from Peninsular Malaysia only in small numbers (L. Grismer pers. comm. 2011).

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): This species is threatened by destruction of habitat due to logging and agricultural expansion, as Southeast Asia is experiencing one of the highest rates of deforestation in the tropics (Sodhi et al. 2009) and this species appears to be most abundant in forested habitats. Snakes can however survive in a range of degraded habitats and so this is unlikely to be the primary threat to this species globally,. The extent to which degraded areas can maintain viable populations of this snake is unknown; in the Chitwan area of Nepal it has been observed that mostly young animals are encountered in agricultural lands, always close to forest, and these areas may simply be feeding grounds, or may be population sinks (D. Jelić pers. comm. 2012). Deforestation is however likely to exert strong pressure at local scales, particularly where snakes are also hunted, and is likely to lead to declines in many of the snakes on which this species feeds (R.P.H. Lilley pers. comm. 2011). In Nepal, the Therai lowlands have undergone a rapid increase in population since the eradication of malaria from this region, and most of this area is now under cultivation or exposed to pollution, with forests remaining only in protected areas (D. Jelić pers. comm. 2012). The king cobra is, however, particularly at risk from the harvesting of individuals for skin, food, pets, and especially traditional Chinese medicine. As the world's largest venomous snake, it is also suffers high levels of persecution by humans throughout its range. The possibility of this snake actually representing a complex of species makes all of these threats even more acute, as individual species within the complex will occur over a smaller area and as smaller populations than the currently recognized Ophiophagus hannah.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The species is listed in CITES Appendix II. This species has been regionally assessed in India, China and Vietnam. The Regional India preliminary assessment of Near Threatened was made by the BCPP CAMP, while in China it was assessed as Critically Endangered in the national Red Data Book, and as Endangered in the China Species Red List (Wang and Xie 2009). It is listed as Critically Endangered in the national Red Data Book for Viet Nam (Dang et al. 2007), where it is a protected species. There are protected areas within the range of this species which probably provide small safeguards from harvesting pressure. Conservation measures are required to reduce the rate of habitat destruction occurring within its range and to manage the trade levels of this species. Further research into, and monitoring of the population status of, this species is required, as well as research into sustainable harvesting levels. Taxonomic research is also needed to determine if this species actually consists of a complex of species. Educational programmes may help to minimise the persecution of the species. In Royal Chitwan National Park the King Cobra is included in a new project focusing on ecological monitoring of and providing education about large reptiles, run by Nepal's National Trust for Nature Protection, the park authority, and the Zoological Society of London (D. Jelić pers. comm. 2012).

Citation: Stuart, B., Wogan, G., Grismer, L., Auliya, M., Inger, R.F., Lilley, R., Chan-Ard, T., Thy, N., Nguyen, T.Q., Srinivasulu, C. & Jelić, D. 2012. Ophiophagus hannah. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T177540A1491874. . Downloaded on 17 January 2017.
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