The role of snakes in our environment…
By Ettienne Durado Swanepoel
Snakes are on this planet for a reason, just like all native wildlife.
We all know that snakes are not everybody’s favourite animal, and they are not always appreciated. Well, hopefully that is starting to change, with some help from this column.
When I say they are not appreciated, I mean a lot of people do not understand or acknowledge a snake’s role in the environment. Some people believe they are here to harm us, others have not a clue as to why snakes even exist.
Snakes are on this planet for a reason, just like all native wildlife. They are not here to scare us, or keep our numbers in check. No, remember, snakes want nothing to do with people, as we are terrifying to them.
So, why are snakes here then?
Snakes form a key link in the food chain. They act as predators, and as prey. They help maintain a healthy ecosystem and environment.
Rodents, like snakes, have a role to play in the environment, but they can’t be allowed to breed out of control. However, the common house rat, which is what most of us have around our properties, is an invasive species, not native to Africa. They have become a pest all around the world. These rats have a negative impact on our environment, as they all feed on birds and insects, and if you are a farmer, they will eat your crops, or your garden veggie patch. They also carry diseases.
So, nature has given us a free service provider in rat control – snakes. There are many species of snakes which feed on rodents. Brown House Snakes, (harmless), Black Mambas and Mozambique Spitting Cobras (not harmless!) love rats, and will really help you in keeping the rats away. Although I can understand you not wanting a mamba or cobra in the garden, but if left in the bush, they may eat the rats before they come to you.
What do I do?
What to do when you encounter a snake.
When you encounter a snake do not approach it, do not pick up, poke or provoke it at all. There are many snake species in South Africa that play dead, and can strike in defence when disturbed. A safe distance from any snake is 5 meters and will allow you enough time to move away if needed.
If a snake is less than 5 meters away, freeze at first and observe the snakes reaction – snakes are extremely scared of humans and it will likely look for an escape route. If the snake is closer than 5 meters, back away slowly. If you move slowly you are not perceived as a threat and the snake is less likely to strike.
Observe the snake and it’s behaviour closely. If the snake starts slithering away and is not in a strike or defensive pose you can safely move away to the 5 meters safety distance. Be very cautious when a snake is in a strike or defensive pose. Avoid any quick movement that might trigger the snake to strike.
Do handle all dead snakes with utmost caution, the venom of a dead snake is still as dangerous as of a live snake. It takes just a prick of a fang or a minute amount of venom to enter the body through a open wound or scuff marks to envenomate a person.
When at a safe 5 meter distance from a snake keep watching it and where it goes. Phone your local registered snake removal person. It is very important to know the whereabouts of the snake when the snake removal arrives. Very often snakes disappear and the snake catcher is not successful in capturing it again leaving the residents with the potentially dangerous snake still in the garden or home.
Keep all people and pets away from the snake for their own safety. To much activity around the snake
will provoke it and increase the level of danger for the snake removal person.
It is highly recommended that you contact a registered snake catcher to relocate any snake you may encounter. This is very important for the ongoing research with different snake species. Registered snake catchers log every snake capture on a national database that aids with updating of species location, and other critical information. This information is then used for public awareness and protection.
Keep it safe!
How do you keep your residence safe from snakes?
Keeping your garden maintained, free of building or garden rubble that provide shelter for rodents which attract snakes. Dense shrubs should be pruned back and trees and creepers against the property where windows can be reached should be avoided.
Aviaries, fish ponds and compost heaps that attract prey or provide hiding spots for snakes should be checked and cleaned regularly.
Snakes prey predominantly on rodents, lizards, birds and frogs.
Birds are usually a very good pre-alarm in the garden to warn about snakes that might be scanning the area for prey or a suitable hiding spot.
Nothing repels snakes!
There are numerous myths doing the rounds of snake repellents.
Extensive research has been done on this subject with no proof of any chemical, electronic or herbal product that repels snakes. All the chemical products only destroy the ecosystem and cause many animal species to suffer very painful deaths.
Venomous Snakes of the Western Cape
There are five Highly Venomous snakes that occur in the region.
Full Name: Cape Cobra (Naja nivea)
Other Names: Geelslang; Kaapse Kobra,Koperkapel, Bruinkapel
This snake varies in colour from near black to dark or light brown, beige, yellow or speckled while juveniles have a dark band on the throat. The Cape Cobra is easily confused with the Mole snake and the Black Spitting Cobra. It is by far our most dangerous cobra and with the Black Mamba it accounts for the majority of fatal snake bites in South Africa. The Cape Cobra may stand its ground if threatened and is quick to form a hood. It bites readily.
It occurs largely in the Cape provinces but extends into the Free State, Northwest, southern Botswana and Namibia just north of Windhoek.
Its venom is potently neurotoxic causing progressive weakness and may affect breathing within less than half an hour. Victims need urgent hospitalisation and in a severe bite antivenom is essential.
Full Name: Boomslang (Dispholidus typus)
Other Names: Tree Snake
The Boomslang is largely tree-living but may descend to the ground to bask. In trees it poses no threat to humans as it is extremely reluctant to bite and bites are rare. It is a popular fallacy that being back-fanged it can only bite onto a small digit – this is incorrect as it can open its mouth very wide.
Hatchlings and juveniles are grey with a massive emerald green eye but change to the adult colours around 1 m. Most males are bright green, sometimes with black between the scales but in the Cape Provinces they are usually black above with green, yellow or orange sides. Females are brown in colour.
Boomslang venom is haemotoxic and compromises the blood clotting mechanism, causing uncontrolled bleeding if not treated. The South African Vaccine Producers manufacture a monovalent antivenom for Boomslang bites that is very effective.
Full Name: Puff Adder (Bitis arietans arietans)
Other Names: Pofadder
The Puff Adder is widespread over much of South Africa and elsewhere further north into Africa. It is a heavy-bodied snake that relies on its excellent camouflage and is reluctant to move. Much of its life is spent in camouflage mode and recent
research has shown that when hiding, the Puff Adder will not hiss or strike when approached, as this would give away its presence.
It is an ambush hunter that will coil up into a striking position and await its prey. This can last several days or even weeks. Toads are lured closer with flicking of the tongue.
Puff Adder venom is potently cytotoxic, causing severe pain, swelling, blistering and in many cases severe tissue damage. Polyvalent antivenom is effective and should be administered sooner rather than later. Fatalities are quite rare.
Black Spitting Cobra
Full Name: Black Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricincta woodi)
Other Names: Swartspoegslang; Swartspoegkobra
The Black Spitting Cobra inhabits much of Namaqualand and occurs east from Cape Town northwards into much of Namaqualand extending east to Tswalo and Witsand and north into southern Namibia.
It is active during the day and favours dry river beds. It is a shy and elusive snake that is quick to escape if encountered. Bites are extremely rare.
Its venom, like that of all spitting cobras, is potently cytotoxic, causing severe pain, swelling and tissue damage. It also has the ability to spit its venom and does so effectively. It feeds on snakes, lizards and frogs.
Full Name: Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus)
Other Names: Ringnekspoegkobra
The Rinkhals is endemic to Southern Africa and found only in South Africa and eastern Zimbabwe. Though it resembles a cobra (spreads a hood) it is not a true cobra and gives birth to live young.
It is essentially a grassland inhabitant but is also found in fynbos in the Western Cape. It is fond of wetlands where it feeds on frogs. When threatened it is very quick to disappear down a hole but if cornered it will stand its ground, form a hood and is quick to spit, throwing the head forward when doing so. The Rinkhals is also quick to sham dead with the body turned upside down and the mouth hanging open.
The venom of this snake is largely cytotoxic causing pain, swelling and potentially tissue damage. Bites are extremely rare and fatalities unheard of. Polyvalent antivenom is effective against the venom of this snake.
Identifying snakes in South Africa
South African snakes are a complex group of animals, and no single rule applies to all of them.
There are many bogus tips and tricks advertised and shared on social media explaining different methods to determine if a snake is venomous or not. Most of these are misleading and do not apply to South African snakes. This type of information could get you bitten.
Some venomous and non-venomous species are very similar and could easily be misidentified by the laymen, resulting in serious consequences and even death.
The colouration of same species snakes differ from region to region and could be identified as the wrong species if one is not familiar with the colouration of the region.
Invest in a good Snake guide and get to know the venomous snakes in your area or download the ASI Snakes app on your mobile phone.
I would recommend “A complete guide to the Snakes of South Africa” by Johan Marais of African Snakebite Institute. Also available in Afrikaans.
Rhombic Egg-Eater (Dasypeltis scabra)
If threatened it may coil and uncoil, rubbing
its roughly-keeled scales to emit a hissing sound, and will strike quite viciously exposing the dark inner lining of the mouth, but it is completely harmless.
Rhombic Night Adder (Causus rhombeatus)
Night Adder venom is cytotoxic and most bites are not serious – causing pain and swelling. Having said that, the venom of this snake should never be underestimated, especially in children, as some victims require hospitalisation.
SNAKEBITE EMERGENCY & FIRST AID
Do’s and Don’ts
Move away from snake
Do not attempt to capture or kill the snake. This would only increase the chance of another bite. Take a photo of the snake from a safe distance if possible.
Keep victim calm as possible and reassured. Avoid excessive movement that will increase
the heart rate and the quicker spreading of venom.
Leave the wound area alone
Do not cut, suck or apply a tourniquet. Snake venom is absorbed by the lymphatic system, not through the blood system.
Remove all tight items around the affected area
All jewellery and tight clothing should be removed including shoes. Lay the patient on his/her side and reduce movement of the affected area Lay victim on his/her side and observe symptoms. If victim stops breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or use a Bag Valve Mask. Cobra and mamba bites could cause the victim to stop breathing before arriving at Trauma Unit or Hospital.
Rush patient to nearest hospital with a trauma unit (ICU)
Victims need to get to professional medical care as soon as possible.
Contact the medical care unit on the way to inform them in advance of victim.
Rinse venom from eyes
There are five spitting snakes in South Africa. If a victim gets venom in the eyes, keep his eyes under a running tap for at least 15-20 minutes holding the eyes open. Visit a doctor who will prescribe anti-inflammatory eye drops or do further tests.
African Snakebite Institute, Johan Marais (Information & Photos), Blouberg Snake Rescue, Willem van Zyl (Photos), Nick Evans (Information & Photos) and Durado Lourens Swanepoel, (Photos).
For medical advice on snakebites, call the
TYGERBERG POISEN CENTRE
086 155 5777
For in hand information on all South African Snakes The “ASI Snakes” app includes Snake Profiles, First Aid & Medical Info for Snakebite, a section to submit a photo for identification, Snake ID Quizzes, and a list of more than 500 snake removers country-wide.
Get the app here, it’s FREE: http://bit.ly/snakebiteapp
Education & Awareness is the key and saves lives!