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Summer is here and with the gorgeous warm weather we tend to spend more time in the great outdoors. But snakes also prefer the sunnier season as they are dependent on external sources of body heat. What should you do when you cross paths with one of the approximately 170 snake species in southern Africa? By Arnold Ras

Johan Marais, herpetologist, author and founder of the African Snakebite Institute, says you should never attempt to catch or kill a snake. And while most of us have a profound fear of snakes, it’s crucial to remember that these slithery reptiles are just as important as any other wildlife species.

Wild asked Johan a few questions, because, when you know better, you do better:

Why is summer seen as snake season?

Snakes are around throughout the year, but we don’t notice them as much in the cooler months because they are less active. They are ectotherms and like all other reptiles, slow down as temperatures drop. Once the temperature drops well below 18˚C, they also find it difficult to metabolise food.

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Although a black mamba is quite an intimidating snake, it seldom permits close approach (within 40m). Pictures by Johan Marais

What should you do when you come across a snake?

People should never attempt to catch or kill a snake – that is exactly how many people end up getting bitten. Keep a safe distance from any snake – 5m or more – or just move away. If you encounter a snake within one of the camps while you’re on holiday, maintain the same safe distance and contact management. Snakes do not jump into cars if you drive over them – that’s a myth.

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Cape cobras are nervous snakes that will avoid confrontation where possible. This cobra species does not have the ability to spit its venom.

Snakes never chase people – that is a popular myth.
–  Johan Marais

A lot of people are terrified of snakes. Why should snakes not be harmed?

Snakes are part of nature and play an important role in controlling several species including problematic ones like rodents. They are no less important than any other form of wildlife.

Any advice to hikers?

Always wear boots and long trousers when hiking. The majority of snakebites happen in the hot summer months, in the early evening and over 80% of victims are bitten below the knee.

If you come across a snake, slowly move away from it and never attempt to catch any snake. Snakes never chase people – that is a popular myth. Remember, snakebites are rare.

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Puff adders are mainly active at night and because they often bask on tarred roads, many are killed by vehicles.

Some snakes are exceptionally venomous. What’s the protocol when someone gets bitten?

The most important thing to do in any snakebite is to get the victim to the nearest hospital with a trauma unit. Keep the person calm – a raised heart rate will circulate the venom faster. Never apply a tourniquet as this can cause complications. If the person stops breathing, you should administer artificial respiration. A good idea is to get a book on snakes and snakebite and familiarise yourself with the latest first aid procedures.

Different snakes react differently to the presence of humans…

Most snakes flee before you get close enough to get bitten. Adders are exceptions as they rely on camouflage and seldom move off.

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Stiletto snakes emerge on warm and wet summer nights, especially after heavy rains.

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The Mozambique spitting cobra is a good climber and prefers a habitat close to a permanent water source.

Email your snake pictures to [email protected] and let’s raise awareness for South Africa’s several snake species.

Wild’s snake safety tips

  • When you go hiking in the wilds, keep to the paths. Don’t be tempted to go off track through grassy areas – they provide good hiding spaces for snakes.
  • Don’t step over a log or rock if you can’t see what’s on the other side. Rather step onto it and check that the path is clear.
  • Hike in pairs so that there is help at hand if one person should be bitten by a snake.
  • In wilderness areas, don’t pick up logs for firewood. Aside from the fact that nothing in conservation areas may be removed or utilised, fallen trees can be hiding snakes.
  • If you discover a snake in your garden, contact your local conservation agency or the SPCA. They will be able to put you in touch with an authorised snake handler  so that it can be removed and safely released in a wilderness area.
  • Snakes are beautiful and fascinating, but do keep at least 5m away. When curled up snakes can strike further than you might think.

Captions taken from Snakes & Snakebite in Southern Africa by Johan Marais. 2014. Struik Nature.

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