9 November 2020
Hello everyone and welcome back to another blog!
It is my hope that by the end of this article I will have persuaded or changed a few minds on the way snakes are perceived. Even if you strongly believe that you will never be fond of these strange-looking reptiles, perhaps you will learn a few interesting facts about them as you read on.
If some of you prefer to give this article a pass, I totally understand! Keep an eye out for my next blog!
Did you know that the earliest fossils of snake’s date back to around 80 million years ago? Crazy right!?
Reptiles in general are commonly looked upon as repulsive creatures. This is mostly due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of them.
Most of what we know about snakes is nothing more than fallacies passed on through the generations as old wives’ tales, and scary stories told around the campfire.
Not all snakes are venomous, in fact, only 16 of the 151 species of snakes found in South Africa are regarded as dangerous and potentially fatal to man.
Now, before you start panicking, very few people ever have the privilege of having a face to face encounter with a snake in its natural habitat. Usually snakes slip away before you even notice them.
The only time a snake will ever try to bite you is if you are threatening it, if you accidentally step on it or if you handle the snake incorrectly.
Apparently, you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning whilst walking in the bush than being bitten by a snake! Which I totally agree with. Snakes are an extremely rare sighting on any safari, and you should consider yourself incredibly lucky if you see one.
Back in 2014 when I was in college studying Game Ranging, Wildlife Management and Lodge Management I went a step further and did an extra course in the capture, handling, and relocation of venomous snakes.
This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life! On the day of the assessment, we were indoors, studying and completing the theoretical exam for the duration of the morning. Then, whilst we all had lunch our assessors prepped for our practical training which we were to begin straight after lunch.
Now I must be honest. When you are mentally preparing yourself to handle a Puff Adder, Snouted Cobra, Boomslang and Black Mamba, you don’t have a huge appetite!
The snakes that we were going to train with were caught in the morning whilst we were busy with the theoretical part of our training. This was done to make sure that we were trained on how to handle snakes that were not used to being handled daily, like those you would find in a Reptile Park, for example.
Standing in a semi-circle around our assessor, Chris Hobkirk, owner of Lowveld Venom Suppliers, we all listened intently to all the safety precautions again.
- Stay calm
- No loud noises
- Approach the snake from behind
- Handle the snake correctly, firmly, but gently
- NEVER run, snakes respond to movement
Remember, never try to confront, or handle any snake if you are not a trained professional!
The first snake up was a gorgeous Puff Adder (Bitis arietans), a little over 1 metre long. Our practical assessment required us to safely pick up the snake and place it in a container in which it could be safely transported to an area of the bush, far away from people.
For this we used a snake hook. Which is basically a long, thin metal rod with an L-shape at the end that you can use to lift and move a snake. This is one of the best tools to use when moving a Puff Adder as they are very heavy snakes and lifting them with a snake hook is a quick and painless method to get them into a container or snake tube.
When working with a Puff Adder you always need to be sure to keep a sufficient distance between you and the snake as it can strike up to twice its body length – and in any direction, I might add!
With a Cytotoxic or cell-destroying venom which attacks tissue and blood cells they will inject venom into their prey with hinged-front fangs, this is not a snake you want to be bitten by.
When my turn came to handle the Puff Adder, I found it surprisingly easy and noticed that my calm and slow approach to the snake resulted in the Puff Adder not being bothered at all by me lifting it up with the snake hook and gently placing it in the container.
A sigh of relief that everything went so smoothly!
Next up was a stunning Snouted Cobra (Naja annulifera), about 1 and a half meters long. With this snake we were required to use snake tongs, this is arguably the safest piece of equipment any snake handler could have in their bag. These tongs are available in a variety of different lengths – one meter long being the most popular.
The snake tongs enable the user to handle most species of snakes gently and safely. Grabbing the snake one third of its body length from its head with the snake tongs prevents the snake from being able to turn around and bite you if it feels agitated.
Working with a Cobra in general is remarkably interesting as they will display their hood when agitated and ready to strike. You will notice in the photograph that the Snouted Cobra that I was handling was not agitated at all and therefore never raised its hood whilst I was handling it.
In one of the photos of me handling the Snouted Cobra, I am merely holding the end of its tail at arm’s length. Dangerous? Well, yes if you are not trained to do it correctly. Cobras are not strong enough to lift themselves and strike you if they are being held the way I was holding it. Should they begin to lift slightly, a gentle shake leaves them hanging again.
Snouted Cobras have a Neurotoxic Venom that they inject into their prey with fixed front fangs, this affects the nervous system. Neurotoxic venom is absorbed rapidly and paralyses the nerves, especially the ones used for breathing.
After safely putting the Snouted Cobra in a secure container, it was time to handle a beautiful female Boomslang! (Dispholidus typus) She was just over a meter and a half long and was perfectly content at being handled, as long as you held her nice and high where she felt safe.
Boomslang in general are an incredibly relaxed species of snake. Bites from a Boomslang are a rare occurrence as they prefer to quickly move off undetected if they spot someone nearby.
A common misconception of Boomslang is that they can only bite a person on their finger or toe as they can’t open their mouths very wide. This is 100% not true! Boomslang can easily open their mouths up to 180 degrees! This is an adaptation for catching birds in flight.
Boomslang have a Haemotoxic Venom which they ‘pump’ into their prey with a chewing motion through their fangs which are located at the back of their mouth.
Haemotoxic venom causes severe internal bleeding and is the slowest acting venom type.
Due to their elusive nature, Boomslang are a rare sight to see out in the African Bush.
After handling the Boomslang, our basic training was complete. We did however have an option to do an advanced course in handling a Black Mamba.
This was naturally intimidating as a Black Mamba has a fearsome reputation. The Black Mamba which was caught for our training was a record size of 3,8 meters long! They can grow up to around 4,5 meters, however that is rare to see.
Despite their fearsome reputation there were a few of us willing to learn how to safely handle the snake.
We were pleasantly surprised that the Black Mamba did not live up to its bad reputation and was just as simple to handle as the previous ones we had dealt with. As with any snake, it just wanted to slither away to safety.
This does not mean that as a snake handler you may be careless in any way, Black Mambas have an extremely potent Neurotoxic Venom which they inject into their prey with fixed front fangs.
To elaborate a little more on venom… What exactly is it? In simple words, it is merely highly modified saliva produced by highly modified saliva glands.
- Venom must be injected into the circulatory system to cause harm.
- Poison must be ingested / swallowed to cause harm.
There is many a case where snakes are incorrectly referred to as poisonous where they are in fact venomous.
Should you ever be bitten by a venomous snake, which is highly unlikely, there are fortunately effective anti-venoms that can be administered if necessary.
- Polyvalent Antivenom – Treats Neurotoxic and Cytotoxic bites
- Monovalent Antivenom – Treats Haemotoxic bites
I have a great list of Dos and Dont’s that I can share with you in the unlikely case of ever being bitten by a highly venomous snake – Credits to Chris Hobkirk of course for providing it to me in the study material.
I think it is best we start with, DO NOT!
- Do not try to cut into the bite site.
- Do not try to suck out the venom. This is an old wives tale.
- Do not rub anything onto the bite site. No matter what it is!
- Do not apply a tourniquet. Only a handful of snake bites require this method as an absolute last resort.
- Do not inject anything into the bite site. Not even anti-venom!
- Do not apply ice to the bite site.
- Killing the snake will not help cure your snake bite, it will only put you in harm’s way for another bite should you try to kill it.
- Do not try killing the snake to take it to the hospital. The doctors will know what to do based on your symptoms.
- Do not use traditional healers, their methods are ineffective.
- Do not administer anti-venom unless you are qualified to do so.
What you should DO is:
- Back away from the snake to prevent another bite.
- Try and take note of distinctive markings and colour of the snake without going to look for it.
- Keep the patient calm and discourage any movement as failing to do so will result in the venom distributing faster throughout the body.
- Try to elevate the bitten limb / area if possible.
- Expose the area of the bite by cutting away any tight clothing.
- Remove all jewellery.
- Carefully wipe any excess venom off the skin.
- Cover the bite site with a sterile dressing (Remember no ointment!)
- Make sure the patient is in a position to breathe easily.
- Keep the patient warm and try to keep them on their side in case of vomiting.
- In the case of a Neurotoxic bite (NOT BLACK MAMBA) you can apply a crepe bandage around the entire limb with the exception of the digits (fingers / toes). This will trap the venom in that particular site and prevent it from spreading.
- In the case of a bite from a Black Mamba or a Cape Cobra where the venom moves quickly away from the bite site via your circulatory system, an arterial tourniquet may prove life-saving. If medical help is far away, the tourniquet needs to be released for a few seconds every thirty minutes. Keep in mind that when the tourniquet is removed the rapid onset of the venom effects may lead to respiratory arrest.
Hopefully none of you will ever need to practice these points. The chances are highly unlikely, but at least you will be prepared.
Thank you again for reading another one of my blogs! And a huge shout out to everyone who has been leaving me lovely comments! I am flattered! Thank you!
Remember to observe snakes at a distance, and download the ASI (African Snakebite Institute) App, it has a list of all snakes that would occur in your specific area and has a list of on call snake handlers to come out and remove snakes from your home should you ever need the assistance.
Stay safe everyone and I look forward to sharing another blog with you soon!