Wildlife Underworld

Day 626 – 16 November, 2016

Snakes.  Something that no one ever seems to want to talk about or else shudder when they do is the plentitude of venomous and non-venomous snakes to be found in the harsh desert environment. Puff adders, Anchietas cobras, zebra spitting cobras, boomslang, and black mambas, to name a few of the venomous variety, are all indigenous to Namibia and we were lucky enough to get schooled in snake awareness by none other than the country of Namibia’s resident snake expert, Francois. Only 23 years of age and a native Namibian, he has been working with snakes for 10 years and has made it his mission to educate the public about the various species in order to reduce fear and save some lives. We learned how to identify a few of the farm’s most common visitors – specifically, puff adders and cobras.

Puff adders are nocturnal and are tan and gray in color with a chevron pattern in black along the length of body with a triangle-shaped head. They have the longest fangs and are the fastest striking snake in Africa, but at the same time, they tend to be very calm and relaxed and don’t strike unless imminently threatened. Their venom is cytotoxic in nature, causing severe swelling, pain, discoloration, blistering, compartment syndrome, gangrene, and in extreme cases, amputation is required.

Anchietas cobras can be either brown or banded with black and tan stripes. They are diurnal and territorial, living in abandoned termite mounds or burrows, inflicting a neurotoxic bite when so inspired causing descending paralysis from the eyes, lips and tongue down to the heart and cardiac arrest. And alternatively, the zebra spitting cobra is black and white striped with a black head and causes the majority of bites in Namibia. They can spit venom as far away as 3 meters and have been known to go into houses to find shade, but then, being nocturnal, bite people while they are sleeping, often on fingers or toes that may drape off the side of the bed. Francois, always the snake apologist, has a theory that these are cases of mistaken identity and those appendages could have been prey. This one also delivers a cytotoxic punch when just one week earlier, a girl of only six years old had three of her fingers amputated after a zebra bite.

About halfway through Francois’s presentation, he received a legitimate snake removal call (not to be confused with the dozen previous calls about snakes he received in the first half of the session. Taking his job very seriously, me and Mirijam and Joshua quickly grabbed our necessities and jumped in the backseat of his hatchback for a breakneck speed car race toward Windhoek. As we neared the GPS directions on his phone, Francois said he hoped we weren’t going to a shack. Common in the poorer neighborhoods, a shack is literally defined as a makeshift structure with no floor and some kind of impermanent walls and roof. Unfortunately, snakes can easily penetrate the various holes and gaps left in the shoddy construction so of course, our GPS directions led us directly to a shack. The whole neighborhood was standing around in the yard, afraid to go back inside. I must admit I much preferred to stand in the yard as well, but I guess N/a’an ku se volunteers are expendable as the three of us were asked to go inside and begin removing furniture. We had no idea what kind of snake we were looking for, which made it all the more frightening. I have grown used to having fingers and toes and the use of my cerebral functions so I wasn’t too keen on a snake bite today (or any day really).

Cardboard and carpet scraps had been haphazardly positioned on the floor. A broken bed frame lay askew in the corner and a yellowing mattress was propped on the wall. The walls and roof were made of tin that swayed a bit in the breeze. From what I could tell, the rest was random junk and broken furniture, like a cabinet door without a cabinet or a shelf without a bookcase. Cautiously, Mirijam, Joshua, and I formed an assembly line, trying to stay as close to the exit as possible, and began moving furniture through the open door. Francois crawled on the ground with a pen light and a snake pole, looking in holes and dark creepy places. He was convinced the snake would be gone already so just as we were about to give up, he spotted a small brown head down a deep crack in the ground.

The next few seconds happened so fast that I didn’t actually see anything, but from what I gathered, Francois and his colleague attempted to coax it out of the hole which then motivated the snake to retreat through a tunnel and another hole, back out through a crack in the siding, along the side of a neighbor’s physical house (not a shack), only to be caught by Francois’s colleague when he scaled a 6 ft fence in one swift Olympic jump. The neighborhood audience hooted and clapped and generally kicked up a raucous as these two snake mavericks proudly displayed the non-venomous brown house snake like a trophy.

Getting its name from the fact that it often turns up in someone’s house in search of mice, the Brown House Snake is not dangerous but is commonly vilified as if it were. Francois showed the snake to the neighbors, explained how to identify it, and encouraged people to hold it and take photos, all in an attempt to address the fear people have of snakes and perhaps save a few wrongful snake deaths in the future. He passed out his business card to almost everyone present and insisted they call him during day or night if they need a snake removed rather than immediately killing it and identifying it later.
After measuring it and taking note of the sex, where it was found and when, and a few other research details, we put the snake inside a large plastic bucket and drove to a nearby wildlife reserve. According to Francois, when a snake is relocated it has a very low survival rate because it loses touch with available prey and water sources. Therefore, depending on where the snake was found, he has a few different release sites that seem to have higher successful survival rates. At the reserve entrance, the guard recognized him like they were old pals and waved us through even though she covered her eyes when he wanted to show her our prize. We drove a few kilometers inside of the reserve and then released the little guy back into the bush. We’ll never know what might become of that snake, but I was already feeling more secure knowing Francois was living at the farm in case of any more dangerous encounters.

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