Know South Africa’s snakes
South Africa has some of the most dangerous snakes in the world, but that does not mean a bite would necessarily kill you – it just means that they do kill a few people every year. (As with most things, small children, the elderly and the immune-suppressed are more susceptible to serious complications due to snake bite.)
You need to familiarise yourself with the poisonous snakes – how they look, their habitat, their behaviour and how a bite could affect you. You need to be able to identify the snake when someone is bitten. Also, knowledge on their habitat will teach you what to avoid and their behaviour will let you identify when they are threatened and most likely to strike.
It is especially important to familiarise yourself with the snakes in your area – in the Western Cape, for instance, the harmless Brown House Snake is often confused with the dangerous Cape Cobra, the only difference that the latter shows a hood when threatened.
Dangerous snakes of South Africa
As a starting point, the most dangerous snakes in South Africa are:
- Adders/vipers (puff adder, Gaboon viper, night adder and berg adder)
- Mambas (black mamba, green mamba)
- Cobras (Cape cobra, Mozambique spitting cobra, snouted cobra, forest cobra)
- Rinkhals, boomslang and twig/vine snake
Most of these snakes have specific ranges, but some are found throughout the whole of Southern Africa.
Here are some pictures to help you identify the dangerous snakes of Africa:
West African Carpet Viper
Eastern Green Mamba
What about snake venom?
Most snakes have venom – they use it for protection and hunting. Snakes do not hunt humans, even though some might be more aggressive than others. They don’t even necessarily want to strike at you – venom is valuable and they would rather use it for prey. Venom is injected through fangs in the snake’s mouth. Different types of snakes have different types of venom, and some have a combination:
- Neurotoxic venom affects the central nervous system and can lead to death due to respiratory failure (Mambas, Cape Cobra, Snouted Cobra)
- Cytotoxic venom is cell and tissue destroying venom, and it leads to painful swelling (Puff Adder, Mozambique Spitting Cobra)
- Haemotoxic venom causes internal bleeding and haemorrhaging and, if left untreated, can lead to death (Boomslang venom is extremely slow acting and symptoms can occur up to 3 days after the bite).
Snakebites are treated with anti-venom, which needs to be administered by a medical professional. Two types are used in South Africa – Polyvalent (most viper, mamba and cobra bites) and Monovalent (Boomslang).
When someone is bitten by a snake:
Make sure that everyone is safe. Do not attempt to kill or capture the snake, it might strike again.
- Try to identify the snake – get a good description or take a picture with your cell phone if it is safe!
- Keep the victim calm. Stress and fear increases blood flow, spreading the venom more rapidly.
- In case of a Cape cobra or mamba bite, you might want to apply a wide pressure bandage above the bite site to slow the spread of venom to the heart and lungs. NEVER use this on viper or adder bites, since it causes swelling and the bandage will cause more damage.
- Call for help immediately or take the victim to the closest emergency room. You should know where your local anti-venom is being kept and take the victim to that hospital directly – do not waste valuable time for the anti-venom to come to you. Call the hospital en route to inform them of your arrival.
- Take someone who knows CPR with you – since the life-threatening symptoms of some bites can start as early as 30 minutes after the bite, CPR might have to be administered.
- Always keep the bitten limb below the heart – it slows blood flow and the spread of venom.
- Very important: Do not give the victim anything to eat or drink, especially alcohol! Alcohol will actually speed up the absorption of venom.
- Snake bites are very painful, but do not give any pain medication unless a doctor tells you so.
- The bitten limb may swell, so remove all constricting clothing, jewellery or shoes.
- Never cut into the bite site. Snake experts warn that doing this may cause further damage and increase the risk of infection.
- Never suction any venom. Research has shown that suction applied 3 minutes after a bite only removes about 1/1000th of the venom injected! Suction by mouth can be dangerous as venom may enter the mouth via a wound.
- Never apply a pressure bandage if you don’t know what snake it is and what the effect of the venom is. Some snake bites cause extreme swelling and applying a pressure bandage can do more harm than good.
- Never apply a tourniquet.
I asked leading snake expert Dr Brian Grieg-Fry what to do in the event of a snake bite and his first and only answer was: Always keep your cell phone charged and never go anywhere without it. Save the numbers of your nearest poison centre, hospital and doctors on your phone – you never know when you might need it.