Cubs in close encounter with cobra

The cobra's out of the bag. The deadly secret that Tata Steel Zoological Park, Jamshedpur, held on to for a month and a half has slithered out into the open.

The African lion cub quintet at Tata Steel Zoological Park was attacked by a cobra on December 2, N.K. Singh, a snake catcher, told The Telegraph on Thursday.

The cubs, gifts from the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, were flown from Pretoria to Calcutta via Singapore. The quintet had a hearty lunch of chicken and lamb at the Calcutta airport before setting off for Jamshedpur.

Singh said he was summoned to the Tata zoo on the day of the attack and that three cubs had suffered injuries before the quintet killed the seven-feet-long white cobra, possibly one of the rare Indo-Chinese species.

Zoo director Bipul Chakravarty, however, said a caretaker spotted the white cobra and removed it before it could come into contact with any of the cubs.

Going by the snake catcher's version, the deadly snake had sneaked into the dry moat inside the lion enclosure. On spying the hissing visitor in the moat's rocks, the wild instincts of the cubs ' Zoya, Salya, Kimu, Ed and Jumbo ' took over as they indulged in a cat-and-mouse game.

The enraged cobra attacked Zoya, Salya and Ed before being struck down by the cubs. Injury marks were spotted on the jaws and paws of three cubs.

Singh, whose help was sought by the zoo authorities, said: "The cubs were lucky to survive the white cobra attack. When I reached the zoo, I found the snake dead. The lion cubs had killed it. Kimu and Jumbo were left untouched, while Zoya, Salya and Ed had injuries."

He added that the cubs survived as the cobra's fangs had not pierced the skin. "The venom had not entered the bloodstream of the cubs, though they were shaken," he said.

Zoo officials isolated Zoya, Salya and Ed to administer antibiotics, Singh added. He also said he had taught zoo caretakers what to do and what not to in case of snakebite.

The Tata zoo management kept the incident under wraps. The zoo authorities would have faced serious flak from National Zoological Garden in Pretoria, South Africa, from where the quintet came last June.

The Central Zoo Authority, India's apex body, would have pulled up the zoo authorities in Jamsehdpur.

Moreover, its plans to procure exotic animals from abroad would have been grounded for good.

Chakravarty, however, played down the incident. "The cobra had entered the enclosure but caretakers removed the snake without wasting a minute. One of the caretakers had spotted the snake and raised the alarm. A snake entering an animal enclosure is not a new thing. It happens in zoos in India and abroad and big cats generally survive snake attacks," he claimed.

Animal experts said cubs often succumb to venom, while adult lions, tigers and leopards recover after some time.

As they say, cats have nine lives. But a warning has been hissed ' the Tata zoo authorities can't afford to be complacent.

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