Hushed-up cobra attack on cubs

Cobra's out of the bag. The deadly secret that Tata Steel Zoological Park, Jamshedpur, had hidden for a month and a half has slithered out in the open.

The African lion cub quintet at Tata Steel Zoological Park had a brush with death on December 2, a snake catcher told The Telegraph on Thursday.

N.K. Singh told The Telegraph he was summoned by the Tata zoo on the day of the attack when three cubs suffered scratches before the quintet killed the seven-feet-long white cobra, in all likelihood one of the rare Indo-Chinese species.

Contradicting this, zoo director Bipul Chakravarty said a caretaker had spotted the white cobra and removed it immediately before it could touch any lion.

Going by the snake-catcher's version, the rare but deadly snake had sneaked into the dry moat inside the lion enclosure and given the prized African cubs a near-fatal taste of the wild. On spying the hissing visitor in the moat's rocks, the wild instincts of the five cubs Zoya, Salya, Kimu, Ed and Jumbo took over as they played a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with it.

The enraged cobra scratched Zoya, Salya and Ed ' "two on their jaws and one in a paw" said Singh ' before the lions struck it down, Singh, who was summoned by the zoo authorities for help on that fateful morning, 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 nip marks," Singh said.

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 on what to do and what not to in case of snakebite.

Tata zoo management appears to have kept the incident under wraps for obvious reasons. Had the snake attack killed any lion cub, it would have proved fatal for the Tata animal habitat's premier reputation. It would have faced serious flak from National Zoological Garden in Pretoria, South Africa, from where the quintet came last June. Central Zoo Authority, India's apex body, would have pulled Tata zoo up. Moreover, its plans to procure exotic animals from abroad would have been grounded for good.

Chakravarty, when asked, downplayed 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 an 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 attack," 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 ' Tata zoo can't afford to cosy up to complacency.

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