king cobra split image

The longest venomous snake ever recorded in history became a tragic victim of the Second World War.

It’s the king cobra or Hamadryad (Ophiophagus hannah) species that’s the longest of all the world’s venomous snakes.

The slithery creature is native to India and southeast Asia, and average adult examples of the snake are around 3.7-4 m (12 ft 1 in-13 ft 1 in) in length and weigh around 6.8 kg (14.9 lb).

And the longest specimen ever found measured a huge 5.71 m (18 ft 8 in).

It was captured in April 1937 near Port Dickson in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia and put on display in London Zoo, in the UK, where it grew to its extraordinary length by autumn 1939.

But tragically, when war broke out, the snake had to be put down along with many of the zoo’s other venomous snakes.

It was feared the zoo could be bombed, and that venomous animals could escape into the city, so the difficult decision was made to prevent the public from danger.

London Zoo reflects on the devastating period in its history on its website.

A king cobra

It states that the Zoological Gardens were closed by order of the Government when war broke out on 3 September 1939.

The zoo had been preparing for the war for some time, and many of its animals – two giant pandas, two orangutans, four chimpanzees, three Asian elephants and an ostrich – were transferred to Whipsnade Zoo, where they would be safer.

The page continues: “All the venomous animals were killed to remove the possibility of having dangerous animals escape if the Zoo were bombed. However, some reptiles were saved, among them the Komodo dragon and Chinese alligators. Two large wooden boxes 8 ft long by 4 ft wide and 2 ft deep were built to accommodate two huge pythons, one 28 ft long and the other 25 ft long.”

It was an incredibly difficult time for the zoo and the keepers looking after the animals that remained.

king cobra at london zoo

Many crucial things were in short supply, including fuel and food.

The zoo used camels and Shetland ponies to carry supplies around and had to breed its own mealworms to feed many of the birds and mammals they had on site – something they would have usually imported from Germany.

The British people pulled together to help the animals though.

An appeal was broadcast on radio asking people to gather acorns that could be used to supplement many of the animals’ diets.

london zoo is home to king cobras today

The zoo soon began receiving acorns by the ton.

An ‘Adopt an Animal’ scheme was also launched, with members of the public and organizations signing up to donate money to feed the animals.

In 1940, it cost a shilling a week to feed a dormouse, while something like a sealion would cost around £1.10 a week.

The scheme still exists today despite being originally set up as a temporary measure to help the zoo through the difficult period.

An air raid shelter at London Zoo during WW2

The zoo was bombed several times during the war, with varying results of destruction.

At times, there were no more than a few shattered panes of glass, but on other occasions, whole buildings were blown up.

Amazingly, no animals were injured during the bombings, although a zebra and a wild ass and her foal did escape the zoo.

The zebra was found heading for Camden Town and returned.

Zebra ride outside London Zoo offices in June 1914

One day in January 1941, the camel house was hit by a bomb.

Keepers feared the worse, but when they went to investigate, they found all the camels sitting placidly and chewing cud.

Today, the zoo is home to around 16,000 animals of around 750 species, from tiny ants to giant silverback gorillas, and of course, king cobras.

Part of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), a global wildlife conservation charity, conservation plays a big part at the zoo.

A snake at London Zoo being kept safe during WW2

The team works with specialists around the world to restore habitats and protect wildlife.

London Zoo has set plenty of records over the years too:

• It’s the first zoo with a children’s zoo – opened in 1938 by six-year-old Teddy Kennedy, who went on to become Senator Edward Kennedy of the USA.

Oldest zoo – The Zoological Society of London, England, was founded in 1826. In July 1996 the collection comprised 14,494 specimens, housed in Regent's Park, London and at Whipsnade Park, Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

London Zoo today

• The zoo also has the first insect house, which was opened in 1881.

Strangest animal diet – an internal examination conducted on a dead ostrich that had been living at London Zoo revealed all of the strange things it had swallowed – including an alarm clock, a Belgian Franc, two farthings, a roll of film, three gloves, a handkerchief and a pencil.

• London Zoo is also home to the first public aquarium, opened to the public in May 1853.

First three-species big cat hybrid displayed in a zoo – the first ever confirmed example of a three-species hybrid – the li-jagupard – was exhibited at London Zoo in 1908. The female cat’s mother was a jagupard (the result of mating a male jaguar and leopardess) that was mated with a lion. It resembled a slim, long-limbed lioness but was dappled with large brown rosettes.

Heaviest stick insect – the largest officially recorded specimen of the giant jungle nymph Heteropteryx dilatata was an adult female living at London Zoo in 1977. It weighed 51.2 g (0.11 lb) and measured 14 cm (5.5 in).

London Zoo war memorial

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