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Words and Photos by Johan Marais

Most of us are misinformed, to some extent, when it comes to snakes and how to deal with them. And, given that we love spending time outdoors, it’s quite likely that we’ll come across a slippery character sooner or later. Johan Marais, of the African Snakebite Institute, gives us some muchneeded insight on how dangerous they really are.

Snakes have always suffered from a bad press and are very poorly understood. Many people are terrified of them and can barely watch one on television, or even look at a photograph in a magazine. However, their reputation for being aggressive and deadly is unwarranted, and snakebites are relatively rare, unless you’re a barefoot farmer who works the land in a rural area.

Statistics for serious snakebites and snakebite deaths are hard to come by, but it’s estimated that in the region of 7 000 people are bitten by snakes annually in southern Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique. Snakebite fatalities vary from year to year, with approximately 10 – 50 people dying. We know that more than 98 percent of snakebite victims who are hospitalised within a few hours of the bite survive.

There are approximately 170 different types of snakes in southern Africa, of which only about 12 are considered deadly. Two of them, the Gaboon Adder and the Black-necked Spitting Cobra, have limited distribution within our range and seldom account for bites. Of the snakes that you may encounter, most may be harmless; but this varies from area to area. If, for instance, you are in parts of the Northern Cape, the majority of snakes that you may encounter might be potentially lethal, as the Cape Cobra and Puff Adder are common in those parts.

Despite what is often read and said, snakes aren’t aggressive, and will never attack unprovoked. The majority of snakes are quick to flee if given the chance; however, some, like the Puff Adder, rely on cryptic colouration to avoid detection and may remain motionless when approached. There’s no snake anywhere in world which actually chases people; if you’re about five metres or further from any snake, in any situation, you are perfectly safe. No snake will approach you from more than five metres away and attack.

Even in cases where people accidentally stand on snakes, or inadvertently threaten them in some way, a surprisingly large number of snakebite victims – probably in the region of 80 percent – recover quickly without the use of antivenom. The reason for this is quite simple: snakes don’t easily waste their venom, as it’s designed to kill prey quickly and then assist in its digestion.

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