Exquisite illustration of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose and an unspecified Indian snake, from a 1924 French edition of The Jungle Book (public domain)
…when Teddy came running down the path, Rikki-tikki was ready to be petted.
But just as Teddy was stooping, something flinched a little in the dust, and a tiny voice said: 'Be careful. I am death!' It was Karait, the dusty brown snakeling that lies for choice on the dusty earth; and his bite is as dangerous as the cobra's. But he is so small that nobody thinks of him, and so he does the more harm to people.
…Karait struck out. Rikki jumped sideways and tried to run in, but the wicked little dusty grey head lashed within a fraction of his shoulder, and he had to jump over the body, and the head followed his heels close…[but] Karait had lunged out once too far, and Rikki-tikki had sprung, jumped on the snake's back, dropped his head far between his fore-legs, bitten as high up the back as he could get hold, and rolled away. That bite paralysed Karait [killing him].
Rudyard Kipling – 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', in The Jungle Book
Two of my best-loved books as a child (and still today, for that matter) were The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), both authored by Rudyard Kipling, which I first read at much the same time that Disney's classic animated movie version was first screened in cinemas (1967), and which I also adored despite its many liberties taken with Kipling's source material. Although they are most famous for their Mowgli stories, these two books also contained a number of others that did not feature him and were not set in the Indian jungle.
Of these non-Mowgli tales, my own personal favourite was 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', which was included in the first of Kipling's two Jungle Books. Its eponymous mongoose star (henceforth referred to here simply as RTT for brevity) successfully and successively saved from a series of potentially lethal attacks by Nag and Nagaina – a malign pair of garden-inhabiting Indian (spectacled) cobras Naja naja – the human family that he had 'adopted' after their young son Teddy had rescued him from almost drowning in a flood.
The front cover and spine (the latter depicting RTT confronting a cobra) from the hardback first edition of The Jungle Book (1894) (public domain)
However, cobras were not the only snakes that RTT dispatched. He also killed a much smaller but seemingly no less deadly serpentine threat to Teddy and family – namely, the "dusty brown snakeling" Karait, whose meagre description provided by Kipling is quoted in full at the beginning of this present ShukerNature blog article. Even as a child (and nascent cryptozoologist), I was fascinated by Karait, for whereas cobras were readily familiar to me, Karait remained mysterious, because no formal identification of his species was provided by Kipling.
So what was Karait – possibly an inaccurately-described known living species (i.e. a veritable bungle in The Jungle Book), or an entirely fictitious one that Kipling had specifically invented for his RTT story, or conceivably even a real species but one that was either now long-extinct or had still to be formally described and named by science? There was only one way to deal with these and other options on offer. So after watching a cartoon version of it and then re-reading the original story a few months ago, I conducted some investigations into Kipling's minute but highly mystifying Karait, and here is what I found out.
Adult specimen of the common Indian krait Bungarus caeruleus (© Jayendra Chiplunkar/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Naturally, the name 'Karait' instantly calls to mind the very similar name 'krait', applied both colloquially and scientifically to a number of species of venomous elapid snake native to India and elsewhere in Asia, and belonging to the genus Bungarus – which is why as a child I had simply assumed from his name that Karait had indeed merely been a krait. However, my fascination with Kipling's diminutive yet deadly dust serpent increased during subsequent years, in tandem with my burgeoning ophidian knowledge, when I realised that what little morphological and behavioural information concerning Karait had been given by Kipling did not accord with any krait species (either in its adult or in its juvenile form) that was known to exist anywhere within or even beyond the Indian Subcontinent.
The most familiar krait species, and also the most abundant, widely distributed one in India, is the common Indian krait B. caeruleus. When adult, however, it can attain a total length of up to 5.75 ft (3 ft on average, but still very much longer than Kipling's Karait), and its body is handsomely marked with a characteristic banded pattern of light and dark stripes (often black and white, but famously black and gold in the closely-related banded krait B. fasciatus, also native to India and up to 7 ft long). Moreover, when it is a juvenile and therefore much smaller (hence much more comparable in size to Karait than the adult is), its stripes are even more distinct than they are in the adult snake and its background colouration is bluish, not brown.
The banded krait Bungarus fasciatus as depicted in Joseph Ewart's book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)
Most other krait species also exhibit striping, albeit of different degrees of vividness. Needless to say, however, any mention of such markings in Kipling's description of Karait is conspicuous only by its absence, which would be highly unusual for Kipling if he had indeed intended Karait to be a krait, because his knowledge and descriptions of other Indian fauna was always very skilled. True, a few krait species do not possess stripes, but these still tend to have a very bold background body colour, such as shiny brown, glossy black, or even deep blue with a bright red head in one species (B. flaviceps from southeast Asia), so once again they differ substantially from the nondescript appearance ascribed by Kipling to Karait.
It is odd, therefore, that Wikipedia's entry for the genus Bungarus refers to Kipling's Karait as "a small sand-colored krait", apparently unaware of the fundamental morphological flaws in such an identification that I have enumerated above. Similarly unaware, it would seem, is the Kipling Society, because on its official website its brief entry for Karait states: "karait (or krait) A small highly poisonous snake, known to Kipling and common in India". Common in India it may be (and, indeed, is), but small it certainly is not.
Red-headed krait Bungarus flaviceps (© Touchthestove/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)
No less damaging to a krait identity claim for Karait than incompatible morphology is the notable reluctance of these snakes to bite or strike out at a potential aggressor, preferring to coil up and hide their head within their coils, exposing and lifting up their tail tip instead. This behaviour does not correspond at all with the much more active, antagonistic striking behaviour of Karait, plus their predominantly nocturnal lifestyle means that kraits rarely encounter humans during the daytime anyway, which is when Karait encountered Teddy. Consequently, as the only link between the kraits and Karait is a shared colloquial name, it would seem most parsimonious to assume that Kipling simply selected the name Karait for its sound or familiarity, rather than to indicate any taxonomic affinity between his story's snake and the genuine kraits.
The website Litcharts offers a very different ophidian identity from a krait for Karait – nothing less, in fact, than an infant cobra. In its list of minor characters that appear in Kipling's story 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', it describes Karait as:
The young cobra hatchling, implied to be a child of Nag and Nagaina, whom Rikki-tikki battles in the garden early in the story. His small size in fact makes him more dangerous than the older snakes, as he is quicker and harder to catch, but Rikki-tikki defeats him nonetheless.
This entry's claim baffles me, because nowhere in Kipling's coverage of Karait and his unsuccessful attack upon RTT can I spot any implication that Karait was a young cobra hatchling, other than perhaps the term 'snakeling', which may imply a young snake. Equally, however, it may imply a small adult snake. In any case, even the smallest Indian cobra hatchlings, which still measure a respectable 10 in long, possess their species' characteristic hood – yet which, just like the stripes of kraits, is again conspicuous only by its absence in Kipling's description of Karait. Furthermore, by specifically stating that Karait's bite "is as dangerous as the cobra's", surely Kipling is actually delineating Karait from the cobra, rather than assimilating it with the latter snake? Certainly, that is how this statement reads to me.
A young Indian cobra Naja naja exhibiting its species' characteristic hood (© Muhammad Sharif Khan/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)
A third snake identity, and one that I feel has much greater plausibility than either of the previous two discussed here, is a species of saw-scaled viper, belonging to the genus Echis, which includes among its number the Indian saw-scaled viper E. carinatus, the best-known representative. Just like Karait, these snakes are small, predominantly brown with only faint patterning sometimes, extremely venomous, notoriously irascible, and often found in dry, dusty, arid terrain, where they are very inconspicuous, frequently burying themselves in sand or dirt until only their head is visible, thereby enabling them to ambush unsuspecting approaching prey. Is it just a coincidence, therefore, that Kipling specifically states that Karait "lies for choice on the dusty earth"?
Moreover, these snakes readily strike out aggressively if threatened, just as Karait did, and so potent is their venom (as was Karait's) that saw-scaled vipers are one of the most significant snake-bite threats throughout their zoogeographical range, killing many people every year. Yet some such species are no more than 1 ft long even as adults. Clearly, therefore, this type of snake corresponds very closely with Karait across a wide range of different characteristics – morphological, behavioural, and ecological. Also worthy of note here is the hump-nosed viper Hypnale hypnale, which is native to India, greyish-brown in colour with a double row of large black spots, and no more than around 2 ft long (averages 12-15 in). However, it generally frequents dense jungles and hilly coffee plantations, rather than the more arid, dusty terrain favoured by Echis, and spends the day hidden in thick bushes and leaf litter.
Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus (© Saleem Hameed/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)
The fourth identity to be considered here is fundamentally different from the others inasmuch as it is based not upon factual similarities but rather upon fallacious ones. Superstitious, non-scientific traditional native lore in many regions of the world often ascribes all manner of fanciful, often highly venomous attributes to various animal species that in reality are entirely harmless. For instance, there is an Indian lizard known locally as the bis-cobra that for untold ages has been deemed by fearful villagers in rural areas to be totally lethal in every way, yet as confirmed by scientific examination of specimens it is in reality completely innocuous (click here to read my ShukerNature blog article concerning this unfairly-maligned saurian). Various geckos and chameleons are viewed with comparable yet wholly unwarranted native dread too. Certain equally inoffensive species of worm-like limbless amphibian known as caecilians, various worm-like limbless reptiles called amphisbaenians, and some reclusive fossorial snakes like sand boas and blind (thread) snakes have also suffered persecution due to similarly erroneous layman beliefs.
While investigating the possible taxonomic identity of Karait, I communicated with Mark O'Shea, the internationally-renowned snake researcher and handler from the West Midlands Safari Park, based not very far from where I live, and Mark echoed my own thoughts regarding this identity option, stating: "People fear what they think are dangerous even if they aren't, i.e. blue-tongued skink or large geckos". Could it be, therefore, that Karait belongs to one such species, i.e. a very small and thoroughly harmless dust-dwelling serpent (or serpentine herp of some other kind) that has been wrongly deemed to be venomous? But why would Kipling continue to perpetrate such a fallacy? Surely as a keen amateur naturalist he would have preferred to expose it in his story as being nonsensical folklore with no foundation in fact?
Brahminy blind snake Indotyphlops braminus (© Jjargoud/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Also well worth considering is that Karait may have been a total invention on Kipling's part, created perhaps to add an unexpected, additional element of danger into a plot that already contained the ever-present threat posed by the malevolent pair of cobras Nag and Nagaina (whose evil plan was to kill RTT and the humans, and then move into their house). There is, after all, a notable literary precedent for the incorporation of a deadly but zoologically non-existent Indian serpent into a work of fiction – none other than the lethal Indian swamp adder or 'speckled band' that confronted the master detective Sherlock Holmes in a famous short story penned by Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' was first published in 1892 (by London's Strand Magazine), i.e. just a couple of years before Kipling's Jungle Books were published (click here to see my comprehensive investigation of Conan Doyle's sinister swamp adder on ShukerNature). Who knows, might it even have directly inspired Kipling to dream up a fictitious death-dealing serpent of his own?
Rather less likely, but by no means impossible, is that Karait represented either a valid species that did exist back in Kipling's time but has since become extinct without ever having been formally named and described, or one that still exists but is so elusive that it has yet to be officially discovered and recognised by science. With no supportive evidence known to me for either of these two options, however, they must remain for now entirely speculative.
Artistic representation of the possible morphology of Conan Doyle's fictitious Indian swamp adder (© Tim Morris)
At this stage in my investigation, therefore, the identity for Karait that I personally deemed to be most tenable was that of a saw-scaled viper, but I always greatly value receiving the thoughts, opinions, and possible additional information offered by other interested parties too. Consequently, on 25 March 2019 I posted the following concise summary of the Karait case on my Facebook timeline and also in various snake-relevant FB groups:
Watching the 1974 Chuck Jones cartoon version of Rudyard Kipling's mongoose-starring story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi recently, I was reminded of a mystery that always puzzled me when reading it as a child. To which species did the extremely venomous but tiny dust-inhabiting, "dusty brown snakeling" Karait belong? As a child, I'd simply assumed that it was a species of krait, on account of the similarity in names and the occurrence of kraits in India. but when I learnt more about such snakes I discovered that young Indian kraits Bungarus caeruleus are actually vividly striped and bluish in colour, not unmarked and dusty brown. And even young kraits seem bigger than Karait was. I've since read various alternative suggestions, e.g. that Karait was actually a saw-scaled viper, or even an infant cobra. Or could he have been a wholly fictional species, as apparently the Indian swamp adder that confronted Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes was? There may even be the possibility that it is a real yet totally harmless small species, like one of the Gerrhopilidae blind snakes of India, but which is erroneously deemed in local folklore to be very venomous. There are many such cases on record, from caecilians to an Indian lizard dubbed the bis-cobra, which I have previously documented. Do any of my herpetological friends or those of Indian heritage have any ideas as to Karait's likely identity? If so, I'd love to read your thoughts! Here is Kipling's all-too-brief description of Karait's morphology: [I then quoted the first major paragraph of the excerpt from Kipling's book that opens this present ShukerNature article.]
The common Indian krait as depicted in Joseph Ewart's book The Poisonous Snakes of India (1878) (public domain)
I then sat back to await any postings that may be forthcoming. In the event, I received quite a number of comments (including a greatly welcomed, detailed evaluation by American biologist Dr Christopher Mallery that closely echoed my own thought processes regarding the case), which revealed that the overriding opinion concerning Karait's likely identity was the same as mine – a saw-scaled viper.
However, there was one nagging problem with this identity that I could neither resolve nor overlook. If Karait had truly been based upon a saw-scaled viper, why did Kipling, who was so knowledgeable concerning Indian fauna, give to it a name that is applied locally to the krait? This made no sense at all – until, that is, Robert Twombley, a longstanding Facebook friend who is passionately interested in both herpetology and cryptozoology, and is also the creator of the reptile/amphibian-specific cryptozoological group Ethnoherpetology, posted a brief but remarkable revelation there on 29 March 2019 that was entirely new to me, but which in my opinion provides the long sought-after missing piece of the perplexing Karait jigsaw puzzle. Here is what he wrote:
Bungarus caeruleus (Schneider, 1801) and Bungarus fasciatus (Schneider, 1801), were once placed in the same genus Pseudoboa (Schneider, 1801) same with Echis carinatus (Schneider, 1801).
In other words, back in 1801 the Indian (as well as the banded) krait and the Indian saw-scaled viper had been taxonomically lumped together by German naturalist Johann G.T. Schneider within the very same genus, Pseudoboa (which he had officially coined in his 1801 treatise Historiae Amphibiorum Naturalis et Literariae Fasciculus Secundus Continens Crocodilos, Scincos, Chamaesauras, Boas, Pseudoboas, Elaps, Angues, Amphisbaenas et Caecilias), and were therefore viewed scientifically as closely-related, similar serpents. (It was only in later years that they were eventually shown to be quite distinct, both anatomically and genetically, so were duly split not only into separate genera but also into separate taxonomic families – Elapidae for the kraits as well as the cobras, and Viperidae for the vipers.) So it is not unreasonable to assume that back then the colloquial name 'karait' had been more inclusive too, all of which could in turn explain why Kipling had applied the latter name to a snake that was quite evidently not a krait but a saw-scaled viper.
My sincere thanks to Robert Twombley, Dr Christopher Mallery, Mark O'Shea, and all of the other correspondents who so kindly responded to my FB enquiry with their greatly-valued thoughts and views.