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Struik Nature

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Busting Myths about Snakebite Deaths: Johan Marais Launches Snakes and Snakebite in Southern Africa

Johan Marais

On a high summer afternoon, high above the ground, a select group of lucky winners in the Struik Nature Club competition joined Johan Marais, South Africa’s most famous snake expert. The amble through the Kirstenbosch National Gardens to the “Boomslang” was a fabulous hour spent learning about snakes as well as an experience of the remarkable new aerial walkway that offers guests a staggering view of the peninsula.

Marais launched his book, Snakes and Snakebite in Southern Africa, at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Society Bookshop on 17 December 2014. The book is also available in Afrikaans as Slange and Slangbyt in Suider-Afrika.

Johan MaraisSnakes and Snakebite in Southern AfricaSlange and Slangbyt in Suider-AfrikaThose who attended the event got a taste of the contents of the book, as well as the delicious snake-shaped snacks! The author, an internationally respected herpetologist, shared fascinating information about the remarkable species of southern African snakes. In particular he highlighted the regrettable amount of misinformation that has been perpetuated for many years – and still continues to this day.

He emphasised that nobody really knows how many people are bitten in the region; but despite the bad rap that snakes have, the fear that many people have of them is irrational, as remarkably few people actually die of snakebites.

“Statistics for serious snakebites and snakebite deaths are hard to come by but about 7 000 people are bitten by snakes annually in the region,” he said. “Snakebite fatalities vary from year to year, with approximately 10 to 50 succumbing to death.” Marais said that more than 98 percent of snakebite victims who receive medical treatment survive their ordeal.

By contrast, in north Africa some 20 000 snakebite deaths occur annually, where the saw-scaled viper or carpet viper has a potent haemotoxic venom. The lack of antivenom and medical facilities are major factors, resulting in many fatalities.

In Southern Africa the Mozambique spitting cobra accounts for the majority of serious snakebites, followed by the puff adder and the stiletto snake. These species account for most serious snakebites, but the mortality rate is extremely low as the venoms are cytotoxic. “While these cause severe pain, local swelling and tissue damage, the majority of victims are treated successfully although some may lose limbs,” Marais said. “Stiletto snakes in southern Africa have not caused any known human deaths, but those further north into Africa have done.”

The Cape cobra has the most potent venom and, along with the black mamba, accounts for the most human fatalities. Information on snakebite deaths are hard to come by but totals around 12 to 24 or more deaths a year in Southern Africa. These snakes have predominantly neurotoxic venom that quickly affects breathing.

Struik Nature ClubThe black mamba is also the longest venomous snake in Africa. It used to reach 4.5 metres but now a specimen of 3.8 metres is rare. Because of its size it has a lot of venom, it bites readily and repeatedly. The venom absorbs rapidly and can paralyse the lungs within 20 minutes if the bite is serious.

“Although often described as aggressive, the black mamba is really shy. It is quick to escape if it has the option, but will not hesitate to strike if it cannot get away. Another problem is that because of its length it may bite quite high up in the chest region and such a bite would be far more severe than a bite on an extremity,” he said.

A severe untreated black mamba bite may kill a human in anything from four to 16 hours. In severe cases death could take place within an hour, but that is unusual.

As most South Africans love the outdoors, this book with its fascinating information should be a standard on all bookshelves. Simple icons, distribution maps and a fantastic array of colour photographs will help eager hikers and campers, to identify commonly encountered snakes easily.

A downloadable app gives instant information on any smartphone which is available – even if the user is offline. The vital first-aid information could save a life. In the absence of any snake-related drama – which, happily, is most likely if one takes the basic precautions of wearing closed shoes and long pants while hiking – this book is a terrific resource that will intrigue readers for hours.

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) live tweeted from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:



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