Around the world, various different culinary traditions have developed based on locally available ingredients. Across Asia, one specific meat would be considered “exotic” to those of us in the west: Cobra. This extremely dangerous snake is used in southeast Asia and parts of China as the main ingredient in soups, and while most Americans would never consider eating snake meat, it is an extremely good source of protein. However, for those who prepare the dish, it can pose deadly hazards, as one chef discovered the hard way.
Chef Peng Fan was preparing a cobra soup recently when he was fatally bitten by the animal. The recipe calls for fresh cobra meat, which requires that the cook cut the head off of a live cobra. Once the head has been severed, the body poses little threat. However, due to the peculiarities of the snake’s nervous system, the head can still deliver a deadly bite for some time after death occurs.
Chef Peng had severed the animal’s head and began to skin the meat, when his hand drifted too close to the head of the snake and it delivered a deadly dose of venom.
Unfortunately for Peng, cobra venom is among the deadliest in the reptile family, and before he was able to receive aid, it took effect and he died in the kitchen of his restaurant.
Reptile expert Yang Hong Chang has worked with snakes for more than forty years and says that cobras can continue to function up to an hour after death. Cobra venom causes paralysis and asphyxiation as the diaphragm and other breathing muscles begin to fail. The only treatment is anti venom, which is not always readily available.
Cobras belong to the family Elapidae which is made up of a number of species. All are extremely poisonous and are capable of killing humans, and most are capable of rearing and flattening their heads. They are among the most aggressive of all snake species.
Most species grow to about three feet in length, but some, including the forest cobra, can grow up to ten feet long.
The family Elapidae is made up of the genus Naga (pronounced with a hard “g”) as well as about twelve other species commonly associated as cobras.
Most species have a venom based on a neurotoxin, which causes paralysis, however a few species also have venom that contains compounds that can cause necrosis, and anti coagulants. The species that are referred to as “spitting” cobras can deliver their venom by squirting venom from their fangs instead of working like a hypodermic needle. These so called “spitting” cobras also have caustic agents in their venom that can cause severe skin irritation and blindness.
Most cobras are found in Asia, africa, and Oceana, although the North American coral snake is often placed in the same group as true cobras. Their range at one time included southern and eastern Europe. The most deadly venom is carried by the Caspian cobra, which is found in central Asia.
Because of their range in the developing world, cobras are medically significant. High human and snake populations coupled with poor medical resources, equate to a relatively high fatality rate for humans.
While all this may seem to make cobras out to be dangerous pests, they are also critically important in controlling rodent populations. Rats, mice, and other rodents can be serious disease vectors for humans, and cobras help keep down their populations.
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