Snakes – Slitherers II

The Cape cobra’s young are independent from birth and just as poisonous as their mother. They cannot deliver the same volume of venom as mom’s maximum of over 200mg (of which only 20 are enough to kill a human – equal to the mamba’s), but still enough to make you very ill indeed. We have found a number of young in the garden, most of them very small and dead. How they died we do not know. Some were torn and battered as if stomped by large birds like the ravens, hadedas or guinea fowl. Most of the smaller babies, we believe, are eaten by the mongeese and other snakes. Another nemesis is a stork which we watched spear its long beak into the thick grass and come up with a wriggling snake of about 10cm. It tried to wrap itself around the beak but failed and became supper. We have seen several cobras about half a metre long, still young and shy. They all fled into undergrowth when they saw us. One made the mistake of choosing the wrong undergrowth, a small garden in the corner of the portico at our front door leaving only one way out, past us. This created a problem. We couldn’t abandon it there in case an unexpected visitor went too close and was bitten. Nor was I inclined to reach in and fumble around the mass of greenery to pluck it out. In our neighbourhood there is an emergency centre whose duty officer recommended a certain police sergeant as an expert on snakes. He duly arrived at our house and we showed him the problem. “Please find me a box,” he said, “A cardboard carton.” I brought a box long relieved of its contents of whisky. He produced a pocket knife and cut a small opening about 5cm square in a bottom corner, making a little door hinged on the edge of the box. He pushed the box close to the greenery with the door open. He borrowed a walking stick, stuck it into the mass of plants and wiggled it around among them, banging the end against the wooden wall behind. In less than a minute the cobra’s head emerged and it shot through the mini-door into the box. The sergeant pushed the door shut and sealed it with a piece of sticky tape. “Remember this,” he said, “When a snake is scared and wants to hide it will always head for the darkest place it can see, into a hole like this. But don’t try it with a big one.” “What are you going to do with it?” “Oh, we’ll take it up the mountain somewhere and let it go. Snakes do a lot of good.” One up for our much maligned policemen. It is several months since Queen Cobra last graced us with a royal presence. There is no doubt she is around though. The regular cacophony of dassie alarm calls when there is no visible danger is evidence enough There is a standing population of small snakes in our wilderness, some only 10cm or less, which live on snails, slugs and other insects. Most are not venomous and among those which are the venom is so weak it is harmless. One snake that scares people witless although it is also non-poisonous is the mole snake. That’s because it is so big – averaging over a metre in length with some more than two metres or more than six feet. Mole snake_DSC_0713 As its name implies it lives largely on moles and also on the bane of gardeners tired of seeing their bulb plants sliding underground as if growing in reverse, the mole rats. Our golden moles are insect eaters and don’t do more damage than leaving little, ridges of earth across flower beds and lawns. Mole rats, which grow as big as guinea pigs and sport fearsomely large incisor teeth, thrive on plant bulbs and roots and do much damage, including pushing up unsightly mounds of earth. Thus mole snakes are the gardener’s ally. Here in the Cape they are black and look alarmingly like a fat mamba, but there are no mambas here so they are tolerated, even welcomed. A bowling club in a Cape Town suburb once had a serious problem with mole rats constantly pushing up heaps of black earth all over their bowling greens. To a dedicated bowler damaging a green is a crime worse than matricide or treason. They called in the pest control experts who tried everything without success. The managed to remove some of the mole rats but before they could grow enough new grass to repair the damage, the rats were back, migrating from the neighbourhood. Someone then told the club committee all about mole snakes. They found a sympathetic reptile fundi who caught a medium-sized mole snake, opened up a mole rat mound to expose the hole beneath, and released the snake into it. It immediately vanished into the maze of rat tunnels under the bowling green, which is why mole snakes are seldom seen, being underground. The mole rat population began to diminish and the snake grew fat and large. Another mole snake was introduced. The number of rats dwindled fast until their green was restored almost to pristine condition and the club members could bowl along happily. Then . . . disaster! Molehills began to appear again. What on earth, or under it, could have gone wrong? They recalled the fundi who did his homework and announced that the mole snake had departed for richer fields, having denuded this one of its rat crop. He shrugged; that’s nature, the way it goes. Maybe two mole snakes was too many. So they started all over again, this time with a much larger mole snake. And as a precaution lest it, too, should decide to take off for richer fields, they found a non-poisonous, long-lasting paint and painted along the snake’s side “DO NOT HARM. PROPERTY OF THE XXXX BOWLING CLUB. REWARD FOR RETURN”. It worked. Their mole snake was brought home several times and the bowling returned to its usual bias. The only snake we definitely do not want on our territory despite is entrancing colouration is the puffadder. It is thought to cause more deaths in Africa than any other, not because of its aggression but because it is lazy. It does not get out of the way. Its custom is to ambush, to lie still and wait for prey. So people step on it, or too close to it. There is no way to prevent them from visiting us. The Cape Peninsula is home to many of them. When approached it does have the courtesy to give a slight warning – a short expulsion of air, like a cough, not the clear hiss of many other snakes – which is sometimes not heard. Then it strikes. The strike is lightning fast and backed by a muscular body which drives its long fangs deep. It doesn’t grow to great length, seldom more than a metre. It makes up for this with a thick, powerful middle twice the width of its head. It is superbly camouflaged therefore difficult to see when one goes for a stroll in the bush. Its colouring is a blend of yellow, brown and black chevrons and stripes and colour-edged scales from head to tail in almost geometric patterns. When lying coiled in wait for a victim its head is difficult to distinguish but for the small dark eyes. The entire body almost disappears among fallen leaves and the other detritus of a forest floor, or even a tangled garden. We have seen them here only a couple of times, fortunately, because they are not the kind one wants around when the grandkids visit. Recently our neighbour spotted one in the service road above our garden, crossing towards our house, and raised the alarm. We found the puffadder lying at the base of a large garden pot, coiled tight as a spring with the head aimed and ready to fire. As the photo shows, it was difficult to see all of it clearly, so effective is the camouflage. It was about 75cm long, quite large for them. Puffadder in garden Unlike the cobra’s venom, which attacks the nervous system, the puffadder’s attacks the blood and organs and causes serious swelling and necrosis. Its large fangs deliver a large dose. The effect is much slower than that of cobra venom so if treatment is given quickly the chance of death is small. Most deaths (one authority says 60 per cent of snakebite deaths in Southern Africa) occur because puffadder victims are far from help. Disinclined to put this one’s skills to the test, I phoned for help again and this time was given the name of an amateur herpetologist who lives nearby. He arrived with a long rod with a horizontal hook at one end and a long cardboard tube like those architects and engineers use to carry their plans around. After admiring our unwanted visitor he pushed the rod under it and lifted. The puffadder had other ideas and tried to slide away but he was ready for it. As fast as it moved he shifted the rod until the snake was draped on the hook, hanging in the air. Holding the tube in one hand, he moved the rod so the snake’s head hung over the open end then lowered it in and shook the rod. The thick body fell into the tube head first. He quickly clamped a cap over it. Another one destined for the mountain heights or the nearby game reserve. We have learned to live with them. It’s their world as much as ours.

Check in on Fridays as Wilf continues his wildlife tales and next week the Mongeese are the highlight of the show…….

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