Getting to grips with slithery snakes

A Western Cape boomslang.

Glencairn resident Steve Meighan, who is a licensed snake catcher, has put together a list of the three most common venomous snakes in the Western Cape, with photographs, a description of the snake, their role in the ecosystem and what anti-venom is needed if you are bitten.

Keep this handy, just in case.

Boomslang (dispholidus typus)

The colours on the south Western Cape boomslang differ from upcountry so that they can blend into the fynbos here. Males are black with a yellow to cream underbelly; females are brown on top with a creamy underbelly. They have a very distinctive head with a large round eye.

The boomslang has a very powerful haemotoxic venom. Symptoms can take a long time (up to 48-72 hours) to present and includes oozing from the bite wound, followed by severe headache, nausea and severe stomach cramps and abdominal pain. From there, swelling and haemorrhaging.

Monovalent boomslang anti-venom is required in case of severe envenomation and sometimes blood transfusions, but fortunately there are very few bites by these snakes as they are reluctant to strike, are very shy and have a flighty nature, keen eyesight and prefer to live in trees where they don’t easily come into contact with people.
Why they are valuable:

The boomslang is an important food source for many of our local birds of pray prey as well as other animals as well as they play a key role in controlling arboreal animal and bird populations. Their venom may also have key elements in finding medical benefits for people with blood disorders.

Cape cobra (Naja nivea)

Cape cobras are medium-sized cobras normally getting between 1.2m and 1.8m; occasionally they may grow longer than 2m, but this is not at all common.

They range in colour dramatically from bright yellow to pitch black and a lot of mottled colours in between.
They have a potential neurotoxic venom and are the most venomous cobras in Africa.

Symptoms of a Cape cobra bite are drooping eyelids, difficulty swallowing and breathing and flaccid paralysis. Symptoms show as quickly as 5 to 10 minutes, and the patient may not be able to breathe on their own, half and hour to one hour after the bite, and will require artificial respiration.

For a Cape cobra bite, polyvalent anti-venom is required and must be given in an emergency room by trained doctors. This is to prevent the patient going into anaphylactic shock.

Why they are valuable:

Cape cobras are paramount to our ecosystem and control rodent populations as well as other snakes.

Facts: They hunt mostly in the day and are very fast and extremely alert. They will stand up and spread a medium-sized hood if threatened and will also hiss announcing their presence. They cannot spit and do not chase people. No snakes do. If you come across a cobra, stand still and back away slowly in the same direction you came from. As you do that, the snake will see that you’re not a danger and move away as it knows its cover is blown. If you try to mess with it, then it will defend itself accordingly and you will be bitten.

Puff adder (bitis arietans)

Puff adders are heavy-bodied adders or vipers. In the south Western Cape, their colours are normally black and yellow, males being brighter than females.

Puff adders are the fastest striking venomous snake in the world although they appear slow and almost move like a caterpillar. Puff adders have a very potent cytotoxic venom that causes extreme pain, severe swelling, blisters and necrosis and left untreated, can result in death.

Puff adders spend most of their time conserving energy as it takes a lot for them to digest their food, which is why they lie still and depend on their amazing camouflage to stay hidden.

Puff adders do unfortunately bite more people in southern Africa than any other snakes because we have built farms, towns and villages in their natural habitat.

They are extremely good at adapting to the hardships they face because of this, as people and houses bring mice and rats, which makes these snakes excellent pest controllers.