It is sometimes argued that there is greater danger in driving a car than being killed by a snake. This argument is, however, a fallacy. It may be true for the reckless driver who hardly ever goes into the field, but the careful driver who carelessly walks around barefoot in the field may be at greater risk of being killed by a snake. Furthermore, if you are a keen naturalist who spends a lot of time in the field, the chances of being bitten sooner or later are not insignificant (especially if you try to track down snakes). I myself have had more ‘close shaves’ with dangerous snakes than with cars. And people who handle snakes are certainly at great risk (over 90 per cent of known bites have occurred in people handling snakes). However, as long as you take the necessary precautions, the risk of being bitten can be minimised.
It is important to know snakes and to be able to identify at least all the dangerous snakes you will expect to find in a particular area. Snakes known to have killed people in southern Africa are:
Learn to recognise dangerous snakes by studying photographs, and visiting museums and snake parks. Memorise their characteristic features so that you have a visual image of what to look for. If you don’t know what to look for, you may never see them, even if you are looking straight at them at close range. Once when I was still unfamiliar with snakes, I bent down to pick up a log, only to discover a Puff Adder curled up right in between my feet. Luckily it was early on a cold winter’s morning, so it was still frozen stiff.
Also learn as much as possible about the habits of snakes, so that you will know what to expect when you encounter them, and what to do to avoid being bitten.
However, even when you get to know snakes, you cannot rely on your ability to see them, since most snakes are very well camouflaged. I once followed the spoor of a Puff Adder up to a bush where it went in and did not come out the other side. In spite of the fact that I knew what I was looking for (although I was unfamiliar with the different Cape colour morph), by the time I found it I realised I had almost stepped on it and must have looked straight at it several times without recognising it. One’s mind tends to perceive the light colours on the snake as standing out and the dark colours as shadows receding into the background, so one doesn’t recognise, the shape of the snake’s body. Only when one recognises the characteristic chevron pattern as being that of a Puff Adder, does the snake itself come into focus.
Snakes prefer to flee, and only molestation will cause attack. Bites usually result from unwitting disturbance or physical contact such as when they are unexpectedly surprised or when, as in most adders which rely on immobility to escape attention, they are too closely approached or stepped on. Because they rely on their camouflage to remain undetected, Puff Adders account for the greatest number of serious snakebite cases.
Most bites occur on the feet and the lower half of the legs. Suitable footwear, preferably calf-length boots, and loose-fitting trousers, will therefore provide a large measure of protection. To tread warily is not enough. An alert attitude and watchfulness will help to avoid snakes. Look ahead and scan the path. Keep to paths and avoid long grass, rank undergrowth and riverine bush, or other situations where visibility is limited. Step onto logs or rocks, not over them, because a snake could be, lying on the other side. Pick up rocks and pieces of wood so that the underside faces away from you, leaving an avenue of escape for a snake. Never put an unprotected hand down a burrow or hole, as a snake may be using it as a lair.
Camps should be made on open ground. Food stores, which may attract rodents and therefore snakes, should be kept away from the sleeping area. Never walk around at night without adequate footwear and never without a good torch.
If you encounter a snake at close range, freeze. Snakes have poor vision and usually strike at moving objects. Any quick movement may precipitate an instinctive strike. Stand still and allow it to move away, or if it doesn’t, back away slowly. Never run when you encounter a snake.
If a cobra or Rinkhals rears up, immediately close and cover your eyes and look away, in case it is a spitting cobra (by the time you have had a ‘closer look’ to identify it as a spitting cobra, it may be too late). Slowly back off to a safe distance. Some species can ‘spit’ up to three metres, and since the poison is ejected in a spray, some of it will invariably get into your eyes if unprotected. Wearing glasses (or sunglasses) will help to protect your eyes.
Never tamper with seemingly dead snakes, since some snakes feign death.
When someone has been bitten by a snake, a calm and confident demeanour is essential for both first-aider and victim, as emotional upset can be damaging in many ways.
Some people are allergic to antivenoms, so ensure victim receives medical supervision. Since complications may arise, it is inadvisable for the first-aider to inject antivenoms in the field. The use of a tourniquet is dangerous.
When applied immediately, suction can extract some of the venom, but it is useless later. A mechanical suction syringe, such as ‘Aspivenin’, may be used, but strictly as a first-aid measure only. Suction can also be applied for scorpion and spider evenomation.
For first-aid treatment, carry at least four 100 mm-wide crêpe bandages on all outings. If no bandages are taken, you will have to tear up clothing to use instead. Immediately apply the crêpe bandage over the bite and continue to wind it up the limb until you reach the groin (or armpit). Apply it as tightly as you would for a sprained ankle (just short of full stretch). Keep the bitten limb as still as possible. Do not remove clothing, simply apply the bandage over it. Apply a splint to immobilise the limb. It is believed that venom is dispersed via the lymph glands, and the application of a broad crêpe bandage inhibits the spread of the venom. In case of a bite on the trunk, neck or head, apply firm pressure to the bitten area if possible. Carry the victim to the nearest vehicle, or bring the vehicle to the victim. If the victim has to walk, he or she should do so calmly and slowly. Get the victim to the hospital as soon as possible. In the case of a cobra or mamba bite, give artificial respiration if necessary. Keep the victim’s throat and air passage clear by swabbing with a handkerchief. If the snake can be killed without endangering anyone’s life, it should be taken along for identification.
The use of a crêpe bandage is also effective for scorpion and spider envenomation. A crêpe bandage should, however not be used for adder bites, since the cytotoxic venom causes tissue destruction. Simply treat the victim for shock and get him or her to a hospital as soon as possible. In the case of a Puff Adder bite it may take up to 48 hours for the patient to develop a serious condition, so you should have adequate time to reach a hospital. In the case of a Gaboon Adder bite, which may result in sudden death, a crêpe bandage is unlikely to be of any use in any case.
If the poison of a ‘spitting’ snake gets into the eyes, do not rub the eyes. Holding the eyelids open, flush eyes with water or any bland fluid. Consult a doctor as soon as possible.