Added 30 December 2009.

A Quick Look At



In the popular mind, cobras need no introduction. Their flaring hood at the back of the neck and their legendary powers leave a lasting impression on anyone who sees one in the flesh, behind glass or even on television. Perhaps no other snake is as charismatic, and feared, as the cobra.

In fact there are a few popular misconceptions about the cobra. Check the following list:

Cobras are members of the Family Elapidae, a family of venomous snakes that also includes kraits, mambas and coral snakes. Vipers and adders belong to a different family, the Family Viperidae.

The list of genera of snakes described as cobras is as follows:

Genus Common Name Number of Species Where found
Boulengerina Water Cobras 2 West Africa
Hemachatus  Rinkhals, Spitting Cobra  1 Southern Africa 
Naja  True Cobras  21

(may vary slightly among experts)

Africa, Middle East and Asia 
Ophiophagus King Cobra 1 Asia
Paranaja Burrowing Cobra 1 West and Central Africa
Pseudohaje Tree Cobras 2 West and Central Africa

Of the species listed above, some might omit Boulengerina and Pseudohaje, while others might add Walterinnesia. Some authorities also believe that Paranaja actually belongs instead to the Naja. The so-called Fiji Cobra, Ogmodon vitianus, is not listed here as it belongs to a different subfamily of the Elapidae. The Australian genus Pseudonaja is even less closely related despite its name, belonging to the vipers instead of the Elapidae.

Although human interaction with cobras should be kept to a minimum, for the sake of both species, it is worth remembering that like all snakes they perform a useful service to man by preying on rodents, which in poorer countries are often a bane on agriculture. The exception of course is the King Cobra, but even this may be seen as a balance in nature inasmuch as it preys on other snakes.

One exception to the human interaction aspect is of course the snake charmer, for whom the cobra is often a star performer in the show. Although some charmers supposedly cheat by defanging their snakes or otherwise preventing the cobra's normal use of its fangs, most appear to accept the risk from a highly venomous snake. The charming itself is done not by the sound from the pipe, the snake being incapable of hearing a sound at this register, but by the charmer's bodily movements.

Although I believe that venomous snakes are legitimate captive animals in private hands if the owner is responsible, I am wary of recommending any of the above snakes to any but the most dedicated and experienced keeper. The reason for this is the apparent intelligence of cobras in watching and learning from their keeper's actions and the potential for tragedy should anything go wrong. I am also unsure of the ready availability of antivenin. It is worth reiterating that many countries and local authorities require a license for venomous animals that usually involves an inspection of the premises and extra insurance in addition to the cost of secure accommodation for the animal(s). Failure to comply normally entails not only a fine but, worse, loss of the animal itself.


See under the page for each genus for the literature used.


John A Klein's is a good starting point for people wanting to find out more about these fascinating but dangerous snakes.