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ZAF Press: The terrible thrill of snakes

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Posted by: W von Papineu at Wed Jan 5 10:07:56 2011  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papineu ]  

MAIL & GUARDIAN (Johannesburg, S Africa) 31 December 10 The terrible thrill of snakes (Sarah Britten)
“Ooh look, snake!” said my aunt. Philimon stopped the game viewing vehicle and reversed. We aimed the spotlight and stared. There it was, orange with black stripes, undulating across the sand like an exotic bracelet unhooked and stretched out. It was very pretty, as snakes go. When it sensed the light, it coiled up, positioning its head to strike. “That’s the snake that was in the shower!” my cousin’s girlfriend said. She was the one who had opened the shower door to find it there.
We marveled at the snake for a couple of minutes before rushing inside to find the snake book, so we could identify it. For a moment or two it seemed that the verdict would be one of the garter snakes, but on closer examination of the photos, it seemed to match the description of the Eastern Tiger Snake, Telescopius semiannulatus better. Venomous, but not dangerous to humans. “They will strike readily and often,” noted Bill Branch in the Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of South Africa.
“Daai slang, hy’s cheeky,” Philimon confirmed. Altogether an interesting and unusual encounter, then, though I don’t know if my cousin’s girlfriend feels the same way.
I grew up on thrilling, horrifying snake stories. My favourites were tales of mambas that fell out of trees into ladies’ laps. Then my mother would tell me, eyes big, about all the rinkhals that used to live in Bryanston back in the 50s and 60s. And of course there was the legend of my encounter with a puff adder at the age of three, when I’d nearly peed on one on the side of the road.
Since then there have been other puff adders, a few black mambas, a couple of boomslang. Last year I watched, appalled, as an olive grass snake robbed the nest of the Southern Black Tits I’d been watching for a week. For the most part, though, I’ve had very few encounters with snakes. I don’t go looking for them, but it’s rare to see them and we see monitor lizards and tortoises far more often than we do snakes. Given that this is the Lowveld at the height of summer, we’re lucky.
The snake encounter I remember best took place at a reassuringly safe distance. About five years ago, I was driving alone in the open Land Rover when I noticed movement in a thorn bush in front of me. It was a black mamba at least three metres long, draped over the branches like a grotesque piece of tinsel. Whip-fast, it uncoiled itself and vanished in a flash. Which was preferable, I suppose, to the behaviour Philimon and others in my family have encountered, where the mamba will raise itself to the height of your bonnet, balancing like a cobra, and challenge you. If you drive over it, you risk it ending up tangled around your axle, not a good idea. A couple of years ago, a man was bitten by a cobra that hitched a ride in his car back from the Kruger Park.
Black mambas are common here, and encountered more than any other species. They like living in people’s roofs and Philimon always has stories of some or other groot slang seen in a storeroom or settling in above somebody’s head.
I knew someone who was bitten by a black mamba he found in his house on a fruit farm near Hoedspruit. He had to be rushed to the hospital at the airforce base to receive antivenom, but he recovered fully. Mambas are dangerous because they are fast and aggressive and deliver large quantities of venom with one bite, but they don’t even crack the top 20 in the list of the world’s most venomous snakes. Most of the places are filled by Australian serpents, with the Taipan the deadliest of them all. I used to enjoy watching these snakes at the Taronga Zoo, staring at them through the glass, the horror of them safely contained.
Incidentally, there’s an Eastern Tiger Snake found in Australia, though it’s a completely different species. That one is dangerous to humans — until recently it held the record for the most fatalities in Oz — and yes, it’s in the top 10. Rather our tiger snake than theirs.
The terrible thrill of snakes


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