Dangerous African Snakes Briefing and my Top 10 Tips to Reduce the Risk

My family has lived on and off for years in East Africa, North Africa and presently live in Southern Africa.  We’ve road tripped tens of thousands of kilometers and camped with our kids extensively throughout a dozen countries.  Snakes have been everywhere we’ve been, and I’ve always wanted to know more and hopefully reduce our family’s risks.  I recently had a chance to attend a briefing on the dangerous snakes in Pretoria and Johannesburg region.  Along with video of the training, I provide my top tips to hopefully reduce the risk. You can likely reduce your risks! Here’s how.

Every Country has its own Dangerous Animals and Creatures

In Canada, there are animals one needs to respect in terms of the risks and which ones depends on where in Canada one is or where one is going, and the even the season.  Black bears?  Coyotes?  Grizzly Bears?  Moose?  Wolves?  Mountain Lions(Cougars)?  Rattle Snakes?  Polar Bears?  Skunks?  And lots more…  We have a lot of potentially dangerous animals. 

The thing is one doesn’t need to be paranoid of them.  One needs to respect their presence and habitat, and understand how to lower the risk, hopefully.  Any wild animal on the planet, even if somewhat predictable, plays by its own rules.  Never forget that.

So Many African Animals Cause Fear or Concern, Why Focus on Snakes?

How does that apply to the entirety of the African continent?  Well, Africa has its own animal risks.  Yes!  I know, “Duh!” you say, everyone knows of lions, hyenas, hippos, cape buffalo and so on.  The thing is that the famous African wildlife is not usually omni present anymore the way birds can be.  The whole continent used to have just about every quintessential animal roaming wild before Europeans and others started fencing off the land causing a loss of natural habitat and mass hunting plummeted the numbers.  Unless one is in a game reserve, national park or in the countries that still have some more wide-open landscapes like parts of Botswana and Kenya, areas with those quintessential African animals are becoming fewer and fewer.  But!  From my perspective, one of the animals that is still omni present is snakes!  And nothing stirs up emotions, mythology, and probably misinformation like snakes.

Through all these years of living in Africa, I would say that snakes have probably been my biggest concern when it comes to risk.  Yes, we’ve free camped in parts of Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana, and we’ve had lions and elephants pass meters from our tent.  Good gosh, I can tell that it’s quite an experience to be in a 2-person tent and have a lion roar just meters from your tent during the annual wildebeest and zebra migration across the Masai Mara.  The thing is that with experience and knowledge, one can camp fairly safely in those settings, but one needs to be careful and respecting of the risks.

Whereas elephants, crocodiles, and so on can be in some pretty defined areas, snakes can be in any and every rural and even urban setting.  Fun! 

The Dangerous African Snake Hazard and Risk

A “hazard” is something that can cause harm in some way, like a knife, or a car, or a staircase, and so on.  A “risk” is the chance of something happening and how serious it might be.  Is there a snake hazard in Africa, yes.  What is the risk?  Well, that will depend on dozens of factors.

At Better Preparedness, if you or I identify something as a relevant “risk” I encourage you to be proactive about it.  Learn about that risk.  Consider taking action to lower the risk.  Understand and plan for if you encounter that risk.  You might be able to greatly reduce the risk in the first place, sway the outcome should you still encounter a form of that risk, and hopefully suffer reduced consequences should that risk transpire.

All this to say, if you identify a risk, do something about it!

Throughout all these years in Africa, one risk I’ve been a bit concerned about is snakes.  I’ve wanted to know more.  I’ve asked various questions over the years and tried to know more.  I’ve seen some roadkilled snakes, and very very rarely, I’ve seen various types of snakes.  The thing is I’ve always felt I know hardly anything about snakes, even after all these years.

Dangerous African Snakes Briefing?  I’m in!

A few months ago, I heard that there was going to be a dangerous snake briefing at a local game reserve.  The presenter was Mike Perry from African Reptiles and Venom (http://africanreptiles-venom.co.za/).  I’m in! 

While they offer all kinds of services and training, let’s be clear, what I attended was not a formal or comprehensive training course.  It was a briefing, but it was still a great opportunity for me.  But wait, dangerous snakes?  How safe will that be?  I’m so glad to have attended and learned a lot more about them. 

The presenter has worked all his adult years with dangerous snakes and his company provides various types of training regarding snake risks.  Many work environments, such as the countless mining operations across the continent, are also the same ideal habitat for snakes of all types. 

What are Some of the Snake Varieties around Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa?

Here are some of the pleasant-sounding names of snakes in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa: Puff adders, Mozambique spitting cobras, stiletto snake, night adder, snouted cobra, boomslang, and many more!  Something that shocked me is the number of venom-spitting cobras out there.  Oh, the rinkhal spits venom, too!  Watch the Better Preparedness episode to see many of these snakes up close and striking and spraying venom.

Should we do the Usual Human Thing and Wipe out all Snakes?

Let’s be clear, not all snakes are considered dangerous or lethal, and snakes are not inherently bad!  That’s the thing with snakes, education is so important and there are so many varieties of snakes.  Same goes for sharks.

Furthermore, snakes are an important part of any ecosystem and we can’t just carry out the age-old human practice of wiping out animal species because we fear them or don’t know enough about them.  That’s what happened with wolves across North America and Europe.  “We” feared them, so wolves were almost completely wiped out.  And our ecosystems suffered greatly and continue to suffer. 

Snakes (and even wolves!) help control a lot of pest species like rats, mice and rabbits, and usually the presence of snakes is because there are those species of what we often consider pests.  Wiping out snakes often leads to uncontrolled populations of those “pest” species.

What did I learn?

This is a tough question to answer.  I learned a lot of things.  I saw a lot of things.  I asked a number of questions.  I saw up-close some of the most dangerous snakes on the planet!  Some of these, wait, many of these snake types are in the areas my family and I visit on a daily or weekly basis for walking, biking, trail running, camping, picnicking, and so on.  Some of these can even potentially visit our garden!  That’s a pleasant thought, eh?

The tricky thing is how to convey what I learned.  I’m not a snake expert and I would advise that you not really take snake advice from a non-expert.  Snake advice is incredibly specific to each region, each country, each continent, and so on.  South Africa, for example, is such a huge country that there are huge differences in terms of snake varieties, where they are located, their numbers, their danger levels, and so on.  Taking a similar training in neighbouring Mozambique, Botswana or Namibia would look at some same but also different snake varieties.  Taking a course further away in Kenya in East Africa, Morocco in North Africa, or Nigeria in West Africa would probably feature completely different types of snakes and risks. 

Sadly, attending this session has not removed snakes from all of the locations I frequent each week.  Darn.

What did I retain?

First and foremost, it was useful to demystify some of my impressions or thoughts on snakes.  I got to see them slither on the ground.  The handler carefully demonstrated some of the snakes spraying dangerous venom.  Some of the snake varieties play dead to lure other creatures into coming closer.  I’d never seen a cobra spread its neck before, that’s spooky.  I got to see the fangs up close when participants were invited to come close. 

Some of what I retained may apply to your location and your variety of snakes but it might not and I highly recommend you find some training or briefing specific to your varieties of snakes.  Hopefully I also recall this correctly.

  1. Snakes are out there and will continue to be out there, too, but it was a good reminder of the risk, when the risk is highest, and how to decrease the risk.
  2. Hopefully this goes without saying but snakes rarely try to eat humans and they don’t usually go hunting for humans…  A majority of the snake bites result from us going into their habitat and locations, and from a snake feeling threatened or being walked on by mistake.  Not surprising when we think about it, no? 
  3. So it’s a reminder to be vigilant and see where one is walking, especially in grassy, rocky or boulder terrain, and stream/river embankments, and in low light conditions.
  4. 50% of occur between about 17h00 and 22h00 (5pm to 10pm) as that’s when their prey is out.
  5. 80% of bites occur below the knee, but I should add that I learned that the rinkhals and spraying cobras can spray extremely damaging venom once to twice their body length and that can hit victims in the eyes causing massive damage.
  6. In darkness and in campsites at night, you need a light to see the ground when walking around or going for a quick pee in the bushes, outhouses or the latrines.  Snakes are out because their prey is.
  7. There are some recommended first aid actions in case of this or that type of snake bite but you really should not be learning that from me, sorry.  I’m not qualified and who knows how close I could be to being correct for your snakes.  I’d like to share some of that but you need to get that from the experts.  Take a 1st aid course!  Prevention is better than cure!  If you or someone you are with is bitten by a snake, seek medical attention swiftly!  While some bites can just result in discomfort, some could result in a loss of limb or life.  Write down the time of your bite and any description you have of the snake but do not try to get close to the snake to take a photo or something. 
  8. Snake gaiters, yes they exist, provide a high degree of protection from the knee to the ankles but realistically, few of us will own or wear them.  It is important to have more footwear that can provide a degree of protection from snake bites and remember the rest of your lower leg! If you have a large presence of snakes, consider something like these gaiters: https://amzn.to/2DV2P04 or these snake safety boots: https://amzn.to/2PWcSqy and if you need to grab a snake, consider a quality grabber tool: https://amzn.to/2VVOnz7 and extendable hook: https://amzn.to/2LuyQ5r If in doubt, call in experts, though!
  9. When we go camping or stay in accommodation in the wilderness, we need to remember to zip-up or close the door when not actively entering or exiting.  This can help prevent snakes from getting in without our knowledge and then later causing harm, especially when we are sleeping.
  10. Take snake training in your area and ask 1st Aid trainers about snake bite response.

Buy the Book or Guide on Offer

This is not me providing advertising for this or that guide or book, but if there is one produced by professionals in your region and that is easy to understand for us non-snake people, buy it and try to learn more and share with your family members.  Remember, you learning about things like snakes is not a one-off and the end of it.  It’s a bit by bit thing, and hopefully not a bite by bite, sorry couldn’t resist that pun.  You also need those around you to learn, understand and apply that knowledge.

In the case of this briefing, they offered a 50-page booklet with photos and location maps for many of the snake varieties across Southern Africa.  To me, most snakes look alike but I now have a better idea of the varieties.  I’ve read it and reread to try to understand snakes better and it’s good to have kids read the material and understand more. 

Talk with your Family and Activity Partners

It’s great if you learn something from a briefing/training but you need to discuss things with your family and activity partners.  I will admit that I underestimated how much snakes are active in the late afternoon and evening.  Watch the video episode and talk with family members about what a snake encounter could look like, how you want them to react in that situation, and what to do in case of a bite.

When you Take Other Trainings, Ask about the Snakes and Other Risks

From an emergency management perspective, I’d recommend that when you take certain other courses like First Aid or Advanced First Aid, or other courses, ask the presenter about local concerns such as the snakes of the region.  If the presenter does not know of a local risk such as the local snakes and other dangerous creatures, umm, they’re not doing their job.  Appropriate first aid could be very important towards a successful outcome in the event of a very dangerous snake!

What Are Still my Big Concerns Regarding Snakes in Africa?

To a degree, not locking ourselves inside our home is de facto accepting that snakes are out there and we are still out there with them.  Besides, it’s not healthy to lock oneself indoors, either.  The briefing material and reading has been very useful but it’s also hard to eliminate the snake bite risk.  It’s what’s called the “residual risk”, the risk still present after we do what is feasible. 

We need to continue to do what we can to prevent dangerous snake encounters and to remember the more dangerous settings, times of day, and how to react if we hopefully see the snake when not in striking distance.

Keep safe!

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