[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Dangerous Snakes of Africa
By Johan Marais (African Snakebite Institute)
With close on 20,000 snakebite deaths a year in Africa, one may well have good reason to worry about snakes, especially out on hunts.
Surprisingly few hunters get bitten by snakes, and when I do talks on snakes and snakebite for hunting groups, I always ask how many people present have ended up in a hospital after a snakebite during a hunt. Occasionally, one or two hands may go up, and I when ask whether the bite was from a Stiletto snake, the answer is usually yes.
The Stiletto snake is a small, brownish-black snake, usually around 30 – 40 cm, that spends most of its life underground, and feeds on snakes and lizards. It surfaces on warm nights, especially after rain, and for some reason is thought to be a Mole snake, even though it does not resemble one. This snake has very large fangs that fold back against the roof of the mouth when not in use, but when it strikes a fang is protruded and jabbed into the prey or victim. Because of these large fangs, this snake cannot be held safely in any way – if captured behind the head as snake handlers often do, the snake merely twists the head sideways and a fang will penetrate a finger or thumb. The venom of the Stiletto snake is potently cytotoxic, causing severe pain, swelling, blisters and tissue damage, which is mostly limited to the area of the bite. Although such bites often lead to amputation of a digit, in Southern Africa it is not considered fatal. As there is no antivenom, the bites are treated symptomatically and could take weeks to heal. A snake well worth avoiding.
The most abundant snake in most of Africa is the Puff Adder, a large, sluggish snake that rarely exceeds 1.25 m in length. Where most snakes are quick to move off, this snake relies on its excellent camouflage, and is easily stepped on. Hunters are at risk, and over much of its range, this snake is active in winter when mating takes place. Well over 80% of snakebite victims in Africa are bitten well below the knee, and wearing snake gaiters when hunting would provide excellent protection against snakebite.
Our biggest adder is the Gaboon Adder, and in parts of Africa it may exceed 1.5 m in length and weigh over 5 kg. It has the largest fangs of any snake in the world, and they may exceed 4 cm in length. It is a slow-moving and well-camouflaged snake that seldom features in snakebite accidents. Bites are often serious for two reasons – the potent cytotoxic venom of this snake and its massive venom yield (up to 600 mg of dried venom). It is widespread from Mtunzini in Zululand to Mozambique, eastern Zimbabwe and elsewhere further north, reaching Nigeria in West Africa.
No snake quite measures up to the Black Mamba, Africa’s longest venomous snake. Historically it reached 4.5 m in length, but in recent years we rarely see mambas over 3.8 m in length. This snake has a fearsome reputation, and there are endless pub stories of it chasing people, showing its aggression and even biting passing vehicles. It is actually a shy and nervous snake and is very quick to flee. Bites are rare, but invariably very serious. Having said that, if you corner a mamba or approach it closely, it will gape, show the black inside of the mouth and strike readily. Black Mamba venom is potently neurotoxic, causing numbness of the lips and tongue, nausea, excessive sweating, ptosis, progressive weakness, and it soon affects the chest muscles compromising breathing. In serious cases victims struggle to breathe within half an hour. The Green Mamba lives in dense bush and is seldom encountered.
Africa has a number of cobras, and several of them can spit in addition to biting. But cobras are quite shy and are quick to escape. The Cape Cobra is by far the most dangerous of the cobras and is found in the Cape provinces entering the Free State, Northwest Province, Botswana and Namibia. The venom of this snake is similar to that of the Black Mamba, and these two snakes account for the majority of fatal snakebites in South Africa – around 12 per year. If tampered with, the Cape Cobra will quickly form a hood and strike readily.
The Mozambique Spitting Cobra is a smallish cobra, seldom exceeding 1.5 m in length, and problematic. This snake is abundant, very active in the early evening, and accounts for the majority of serious snakebites in Southern Africa – even more so than the Puff Adder. It often enters houses, lodges and tents, and bites people while they are asleep. Hunters are at risk and should always zip up the mosquito mesh when camping. If there is a big enough gap under a front or back door for a finger to fit under, the gap is big enough for a cobra to enter. It was thought that these snakebites in beds were because of people accidentally rolling onto snakes seeking heat, but it is clear that they are sensing a mammal in the bed and mistaking it for a meal! Their venom rarely kills but is potently cytotoxic causing pain, swelling, blistering and tissue damage.
The two potentially deadly tree snakes, the Boomslang and Twig snake, rarely bite people, and most victims are snake handlers. These snakes spend most of their lives in trees and are extremely docile. If one is spotted in a tree, let it be and nobody will get bitten. Being back-fanged, it is often thought that these snakes can only bite onto a small digit – not quite true as they can open their mouths very wide. But, as mentioned, they rarely bite.
Pythons are often encountered and may reach 6 m in length. Although a large python can easily kill and eat an antelope the size of an adult impala, they rarely attack people and deaths are virtually unheard of. We know of three fatalities in Africa over the past 100 years. Pythons do have very large pin-sharp teeth and a bite from a large individual could result in lacerations that will require stitching up. The biggest danger is grabbing a python by the tail, and many a hunter has the scars and the story. Bear in mind that should you come across any snake in the wild and you are 4 or 5 metres away, you are perfectly safe and cannot get bitten. Move away from the snake – there are no snakes that chase after people.
Most of the 20,000-odd snakebite deaths in Africa are caused by a small snake called a Carpet Viper or Saw-scaled Viper. They inhabit the drier regions of North Africa, and the victims are largely peasant farmers that work the field barefoot. Carpet Vipers are locally abundant, live close to the ground and bite readily. Their venom is potently haemotoxic, causing uncontrolled bleeding and antivenom is needed in serious cases of envenomation. Most of North Africa lacks primary health care, and antivenom is not easily obtainable, hence the high mortality of victims.
More than 85% of all snakebite victims do not need antivenom, and over 99% of them that are hospitalised survive. Snakebite deaths are not common, and are usually caused by snakes with neurotoxic venom – like the Black Mamba and Cape Cobra.
Prevention is far better than cure, and hunters should take some basic precautions – sleep in insect-proof tents and wear snake gaiters at all times. Snakebites are not just inconvenient, but also very expensive – the average snakebite where the victim spends a few days in ICU cost in excess of R100 000,00. In some cases the medial bill may even exceed R1M.
With regards to first aid for snakebite, the most important measure is to get the patient to the nearest hospital. Forget about cutting and sucking out the venom, tourniquets and all the other instant cures. For more advice on first aid for snakebites, get yourself a book on the subject and avoid the Internet – it is full of good and bad advice and there is no filter.
Johan Marais is the CEO of the African Snakebite Institute. It offers courses on snake awareness, first aid for snakebite, advanced first aid for snakebite and venomous snake handling. Go to www.africansnakebiteinstitute or visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/AfricanSnakebiteInstituteOfficial/
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