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Kunjumon has a way with snakes

Snakes don't scare Kunjumon, for he has caught many of them, including King Cobras. While K. BALAKRISHNAN was interviewing him on this score, there came a call to catch a King Cobra. Kunjumon, of course, rose to the occasion, at Thattekkad.


TO P. E. JOSEPH a.k.a Kunjumon, courting disaster and putting his life at stake to ensure the safety of others is commonplace action. At considerable risk to his own life, Kunjumon has, till date, captured live six King cobras (Ophiophagus Hannah). Known in the vernacular as Raja Vembala, this snake is the most venomous in the Indian sub-continent.

It is neither for profit nor fame that Kunjumon risks his life to capture these snakes. Instead, a deep-rooted and simple faith in God, a genuine compassion for all living things and above all the need to protect both humans and the snake from the consequences and danger to life that may result from an encounter _ these factors are what drives Kunjumon to do something that ordinary mortals even dread to dream of.

Recently, this scribe visited Thattekad with a view to procuring an interview with Kunjumon. Kunjumon readily agreed and while it was in progress, a hue and cry was heard. On enquiry it was found that C.K. Sujith, Forest Guard, who was in charge of the ticket counter at the entrance to the sanctuary had sighted a King cobra just behind the ticket counter.

Being a Sunday there were a lot of visitors to the sanctuary including groups of children. Considering the risk to human life, the Forest officials decided to capture the snake and Kunjumon was pressed into service. The commotion disturbed the snake, which climbed into a bamboo cluster behind the ticket counter.

Kunjumon stripped off his shirt, rolled up his trousers, armed himself with a forked stick and swung into action. He attempted to scare the snake down from the heights by beating against the bamboo shoots. The snake, instead, climbed higher and transferred itself to an adjacent jackfruit tree. Attaching a rope noose to the end of a pole, Kunjumon climbed up after the snake. Once within reach of the snake, he attempted to snare it with the noose. Attempting to avoid the noose the snake got dislodged from the tree and fell to the ground.

In a flash Kunjumon also descended and was after the snake. A short chase ensued. But Kunjumon got the better of the snake. He pinned it down with a pole, trapped its head with a forked stick and had hold of it in minutes. It required the assistance of another man to carry the snake back to the sanctuary zoo premises where it was kept overnight and released back to the wild the following day.


All that Kunjumon has to show for the daring and considerable risk he has taken to capture the six King Cobras are the certificates issued by the Forest officials acknowledging the fact that Kunjumon had captured the snakes and also recording the length and girth of the individual snakes.

Ranging in length from 16 _ 10 feet, all the six King cobras captured by Kunjumon, were from areas where they posed a danger to human lives.

Except for the last one captured by him, all the other King cobras were caught from areas with heavy human habitation.

A native of Kuttampuzha of Kothamangalam Taluk, snakes were nothing new to Kunjumon from very early days. The adjoining forests of Thattekad and areas surrounding his village teemed with reptiles. A boyhood prank of Kunjumon's was to capture rat snakes and let them loose among his unsuspecting schoolmates. Giving up his studies after the fourth class, Kunjumon took up working as a planter/liner with the timber outlets to supplement his family's meagre income.

While transporting timber in the forest, Kunjumon was bitten by a krait (Bungarus Caeruleus) but, fortunately for him the bite did not prove to be harmful. Till the age of 35, Kunjumon eked out a living doing odd jobs. When Thattekad was declared a bird sanctuary and named after the legendary ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali, Kunjumon was recruited in 1997 as a watcher on daily wages by the Forest Department.

Kunjumon's first encounter with a King Cobra was at Njayappally near Kuttampuzha. The snake was sighted inside a house there and the forest officials were informed. A team of foresters rushed to the spot by jeep.

Out of sheer curiosity Kunjumon followed them on a bicycle. When all attempts by the foresters to catch the snake alive failed and it was seriously being considered whether the snake should be exterminated, Kunjumon asked for permission to make an attempt. Though there was some scepticism, permission was granted and Kunjumon managed to capture it. When another king cobra was sighted at Kootampra the lot fell upon Kunjumon to capture it. Likewise king cobras three, four and five followed.

Married, Kunjumon lives at Kuttampuzha. He has two daughters and son. An ardent fan of Romulus Whittaker of Chennai, Kunjumon's one aim in life is to equal or surpass Whittaker's catch of seven live King cobras.

Incidentally the zoo at Dr. Salim Ali Bird sanctuary has a King cobra, affectionately called Rosemary, caught by Kunjumon, on display.

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