So which creature am I likely to encounter during local excursions that can actually harm me? That is a question many of us have, and is something that prevents would-be nature lovers from getting out there. This article is written to debunk some common myths, create awareness of the dangerous animals, and what can be done should something go wrong.
Of the 42 snake species present in the Western Cape, there are only six that can cause you harm.
Starting with the least dangerous, the Mole snake is not venomous, but it packs a nasty bite with its 100+ small but strong teeth. Their colouring ranges from black to light brown and at 2m in length, mole snakes are typically the largest snake you are likely to encounter in the Western Cape.
The mole snake is diurnal (active during the day) and is sometimes confused with the Cape Cobra. Colouration is similar, but due to numerous variations, colour should never be used as a means of identification. Size is also similar (Cape Cobras can reach 1.8m in length), so how do you differentiate them? The cobra has a behavioral trait, called hooding, whereby it raises its head and upper body and extends the sides of its neck to serve as a warning to anybody that comes too close. But to complicate matters, cobras don’t always hood… the most reliable way to differentiate these two is by the shape and size of their heads. The mole snake has a small and narrow head, adapted to moving around mole holes swiftly, whereas the Cape Cobra has a broad triangle-shaped head, where the venom glands are located. The Cape Cobra is the most venomous cobra in Africa and a bite must be treated as a life-threatening emergency.
Next on the list is the Boomslang, recognised by its thin elongated shape. Colour varies from grey (juveniles of lengths less than 1 meter); males are black on top, with yellow, orange or green sides, and females are brown. The boomslang is a relatively docile, non-aggressive snake and normally hangs out in trees. The notion that they can’t inflict a dangerous bite because they are back-fanged is unfortunately a myth.
Whilst the bite of a Puff Adder is normally not fatal, it is extremely painful and a long stint in hospital awaits anybody bitten. The Puff Adder is the easiest one to identify because of its short (usually less than 1 meter) and stocky build, as well as it’s intriguing V-shaped patterns. The biggest problem with the Puff Adder is that unlike most other snakes, it does not flee from approaching danger; instead it lies still and relies on camouflage to avoid detection (other snakes tend to hiss and move away). If you come too close, or accidentally tread on it, it will strike. Arguably it has the fastest strike in the snake kingdom, so do not be fooled by its sluggish appearance. Furthermore, it can strike in any direction, so don’t think approaching it from behind prevents a strike.
Often confused with the Puff Adder is the Berg Adder, however it lacks the V-shaped patterns and is considerably smaller (usually 40-60cm). They are nervous snakes and will strike rapidly when threatened, but bites are rare and seldom fatal.
Finally, there is a small chance you will encounter a Rinkhals in the Western Cape. It is a smallish snake at 1.2m and behaves like a cobra in that it spreads its hood and hisses in defence. The colouration is dark grey or brown, with irregular light brown spotting. The underbelly is dark, with two bands of yellow close to the head. If the threat does not back off, the Rinkhals will spit its venom into their eyes with remarkable accuracy over distances of up to 2.5m. As a last recourse, the Rinkhals has been known to play dead, so do not approach this snake if it appears dead.
Snakes are born with full strength venom, which means you are not safe from a juvenile’s bite. In fact, because they have a lower quantity of venom, they tend to release the full amount in a bite. Adults have control over the quantity of venom they release, because it is a precious commodity that requires time to recharge. For this reason, snakes will sometimes “dry” bite, meaning they release no venom with their bite. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing…
So what can you do if you are bitten?
- It is important to identify what snake was responsible. Fortunately, the 6 dangerous snakes are reasonably easy to differentiate. If the snake could not be identified, the pain level can be indicative; a Puff Adder bite is instantly extremely painful, whereas a Cobra, Boomslang or Berg Adder bite is not unbearably painful.
- It is very important for the inflicted person to remain calm, because an elevated heart rate enables the venom to act faster.
- Do not attempt to cut the wound or suck the poison out, because it will only cause more damage.
The Cape Cobra is neurotoxic, which means the venom attacks the neural pathways and nerves. The venom is fast acting, with drowsiness setting in within minutes. Blurred vision is the next progression and eventually paralysis sets in, with compromised lung function and respiratory failure being the cause of death. In extreme cases death can occur as quickly as one hour, or as long as 10 hours, depending on the amount of venom ingested, location of the bite and overall health of the victim. Young children and older people are at a bigger risk. If you are bitten by a Cape Cobra you need to get to medical facilities as soon as possible. Ideally somebody should be in attendance if it is likely to take a long time to get to a hospital, so that CPR may be administered when breathing issues set in. If you have time, apply a firm, but not too tight, bandage above the bite mark, i.e. between the bite and the heart. Once you are under medical care, advise the doctor of the type of snake that bit you so that the correct treatment can be followed. Polyvalent (catering for a multiple of snake species antivenom) for Cape Cobra bites is available, but if the hospital is out of stock, ask them to contact a vet, as they usually have it at hand for dogs, who frequently fall victim to Cobra bites.
The Boomslang is hemotoxic, which prevents blood from clotting and destroys blood vessels, leading to internal bleeding. Boomslang bites are characterised by excessive bleeding from the bite, as well as from small cuts and mucus membranes. The good news is that the venom is slow acting, with symptoms only setting in after 24 hours. The bad news is that the only cure is a monovalent (catering for only a single species of snake antivenom), which is only stored in Gauteng. Therefore, it’s important to get to medical facilities as soon as possible so that the anti-venom can be brought in on time.
The Puff Adder is cytotoxic, which destroys cell tissue. The pain is immediate and escalates to the point where some victims die from the shock of the pain. Necrosis (rotting of the flesh) sets in after 48 hours. An anti-venom is available and should be administered as soon as possible to prevent the venom from spreading throughout the body. The bottom line is that you want to avoid a Puff Adder bite at all cost; when hiking in Fynbos, the leader must keep a constant look-out on the ground for any would be Puffies lying in the path. Also, take care where to place your feet when straddling an obstacle; always try to see if anything is lurking behind. It is a good idea to wear solid shoes, preferably leather hiking boots.
The Berg Adder, unlike most other adders, has predominantly neurotoxic venom, leading to increased heart rate, loss of balance and double vision. The localised pain is not severe, and a single dose of venom is not life threatening to a healthy adult. There is no anti-venom.
The Rinkhals is neurotoxic, so the symptoms are as those described for the Cape Cobra above. This snake is more likely to spit venom than inject it via its fangs. If venom comes in contact with the eyes, use any available liquid (preferably water) to immediately rinse out the poison. A polyvalent antivenom is available for Rinkhals bites.
The above paints a somewhat bleak picture but remember that snakes are not out to bite us; they will only do so as an absolute last resource, if it feels its life is threatened. Snakes perform an important ecological service by keeping rodent numbers down and should therefore not be killed. In any case, there are many more snakes that are harmless than dangerous.
Scorpions and spiders
There are some 160 species of scorpions in South Africa, and fortunately only two of them are potentially lethal, both from the Parabuthus genus (Transvaal Thicktail and Rough Thicktail), which occur all over South Africa. They grow up to 11cm in length and are characterised by having small pincers and a large, thick tail. Their colouration various from yellow to dark brown and black. Scorpions are nocturnal and hide under rocks and logs during the day, so try not to turn over rocks with your hands. Their sting delivers a neurotoxic venom, which attacks the nervous system (symptoms are similar to those of the Cape Cobra bite). A sting from a Thicktail scorpion is considered a medical emergency and the injured should be taken to medical facilities as soon as possible for administration of antivenom. Most scorpion stings from the other 158 non-lethal species are mildly painful with local inflammation. A tetanus shot is recommended to prevent infection.
As always, prevention is better than cure. Wear shoes at night. Be careful when collecting wood. Don’t sleep on the ground when camping. Don’t play with a scorpion. Shake out clothing and shoes before putting them on in the morning.
There are over 3 000 species of spiders in South Africa, but only 4 pose a danger to humans.
The most notorious of them is the Black Widow, also known as the Button Spider. It is a small spider, with a red hourglass shape on its shiny black abdomen. They occur throughout South Africa and in all probability you have them living in your garden. They like dark places, that are not frequented often, like garden sheds and underneath window sills. Their painful bite delivers neurotoxic venom, which affects the nervous system. Symptoms include weakness in limbs and cramps, sweaty skin, droopy eyelids, and in bad cases contortions. A bite from a Black Widow is a medical emergency and hospitalisation is required where antivenom can be administered.
The Sac Spider is responsible for most dangerous spider bites in South Africa. It is a small spider, with a yellow brownish body and a black head. The Sac Spider is aggressive and bites at the slightest disturbance. It delivers cytotoxic venom, which can lead to an open wound that may take several weeks to heal. There is no antivenom, but antibiotics are used to reduce secondary infection.
The Violin Spider is also a small yellow brownish spider, with a dark brown violin shape on its Cephalothorax (the main body from which the legs protrude, ahead of the abdomen). The venom is cytotoxic and in bad cases a blister develops after about 6 to 8 hours, with red rings around it. Urgent treatment is needed to prevent infection and septicaemia from setting in. Fortunately, Violin Spider bites are rare.
The Baboon Spider is large (up to 20cm), grey and black in colour, and hairy. Most of the 40 species in this Tarantula-related family are not venomous, but some have a neurotoxic venom, causing symptoms similar to those of the Black Widow. Bites are rare, but due to their large fangs the bite is painful.
Spiders, like snakes, perform a vital ecological service in nature; they feed on flies, mosquitoes and other such insects. Therefore, consider the implications before you decide to kill one.
Ironically, it’s not the predators you need to worry about in the Western Cape. Cape leopard and caracal are unlikely to be encountered, but even if you are fortunate to see one, they will quickly take flight.
Baboons are the mammal you need to respect; they have become habituated to humans and will take bold steps to separate you from any edibles near you. Keep food securely locked away, even when you are absent from your site for short periods. And never feed baboons and monkeys; you are ultimately signing their death warrant.
The same goes for any wild animals – nature is their pantry.