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Crossing paths with a snake is always an exhilarating experience. All the more so when the snake involved, a highly venomous black mamba, is on the tail of a defenceless rat.

Wild Card member Dirk Unkelbach says he’s a great fan of South African National Parks and an avid reader of the fascinating stories Wild travellers so often share from their visits to South Africa’s wild destinations.

“While each visit produces its share of great experiences, it was during my last trip to the Kruger National Park that I was privileged to witness a gripping black mamba attack.

“This past March my friend Didier and I spent some three weeks in the Kruger, moving from Mopani Rest Camp and the Tropic of Capricorn all the way to the park’s far south. After all, I wanted to offer first-time visitor Didier the best impression of the different zones in the park.”

The duo spent their last week at Skukuza Rest Camp, little expecting that their campsite would become the stage for a never-to-be-forgotten wildlife moment.

“On that particular day, I had been out for a game drive while Didier stayed behind for some downtime. When I returned to camp around 17:20, Didier greeted me with a facial expression somewhere between wariness and fascination. He kept staring at a bush that separated our campsite from that of our neighbours.”

It turned out a black mamba of about 1,5m was trying to catch a rat, and soon the shade beneath a neighbour’s caravan became the battleground between rodent and snake.

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Pictures by Dirk Unkelbach

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Although the rodent tried everything and anything in its power to outwit the deadly mamba, it was to no avail. “The snake constantly circled its prey without ever coming too close. For the next hour, we were mesmerised by what seemed like a ballet routine between snake and rat.”

Deadly intent

The mamba finally struck. And with the rat coming under the increasing influence of the mamba’s venom, its escape tactics proved futile.

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“The mamba would approach its prey every couple of minutes or so to check on its victim’s state, only to disappear again into the undergrowth upon the slightest movement of a pedestrian or a car passing behind the next line of bushes. Every time the rodent showed any reaction to its touch, the mamba jerked back, as if surprised that the rat was still alive. It took almost an hour for the rat to finally lie motionless.”

In it goes

“The mamba slowly approached the rat’s head and started to carefully devour its prey. Given the fact that the circumference of the rat was probably three times that of the mamba, the snake unhinged its mandibles to swallow the rodent.”

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With a full belly and only the rat’s tail hanging from its mouth, the snake made its way back to the bush. “It quickly disappeared from our sight leaving us both amazed and moved by this gripping scene.”

Photo tip

Dirk advises: “In order to keep shutter speed at a decent rate, I used increasing ISO values – up to ISO 12,800 – as well as artificial lights, including car headlights and sting flashlights.”

Did you know?

  • A black mamba’s average length is between 2,4 and 3 metres.
  • Also known as the black-mouthed mamba, females lay 6-17 eggs in summer months.
  • The black mamba is known to share its home with other snake species such as the Mozambique spitting cobra.

When spotting a snake

William Mabasa, SANParks’ acting head of communications, says visitors should always report snake sightings in or around their accommodation. “Alert reception for them to call a ranger to come and remove it. Visitors must never tamper with snakes.”

Additional source: Snakes & Snakebite in Southern Africa. Johan Marais. Struik Nature. 2014. R210.