S is for summer... and for snakes

We’re now into summer and we’re not the only ones out there enjoying the trails – here in southern Africa there’re a few more “obstacles” to be hoppin’ over and around than just rocks…

Snakes are ectothermic (cold blooded). This doesn’t actually mean they have cold blood, but rather that they have no internal mechanism to control body temperature, so they have to depend on their immediate environment to warm themselves. That’s why we’re far more likely to come across snakes in summer than during the colder months.

In writing this blog, my intention is not to scare but simply to raise awareness around snakes so we can know what to do when we come across them out there when we’re in mid run.

Remember, it’s the same principle as applies to the ocean and sharks: snakes were out there long before we were, and the mountains, veldt and bush are more theirs than ours, so respect is key in our relationship with them. We’re in their territory, not them in ours.

This blog post is by no means anywhere near a comprehensive explanation on herpetology! That research would take me ages. Instead, it’s a quick overview of which snakes we need to be wary off when running or hiking in southern Africa. (Apologies to readers elsewhere in the world J )

There’re more than 150 species of snake in southern Africa. Only 16 are considered dangerous. Snakes have a bad reputation for being deadly. But the truth is they’re not really interested in us at all – in fact, they do their best to have as little to do with us as possible. Snakes only attack if they feel threatened.

Basically, there’re only four types of snake in South Africa that can be classified as dangerous to humans:


Description:  colour varies from green to brown to black. Boomslangs have a short stubby head and large eyes.
Size:  max length 2m
Where found:  throughout southern Africa in karoo scrub, fynbos, savannah and grassland. Not found in the central Highveld or Lesotho. Spends time in trees and shrubs.
Defence:  very shy but if provoked will puff up its neck and sometimes its entire body.
Venom:  haemotoxic (affects the body’s blood-clotting mechanism, causes severe bleeding internally and from the mucous membranes. The venom is slow acting and can take 24-48 hours to produce severe symptoms.

Description:  usually plain coloured, can be yellow, red, brown or black.
Size:  max length 1.6m
Where found:  fynbox, karoo scrub and arid savannah in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape, Free State, Namibia and Botswana.
Defence:  stands its ground and spreads a hood when threatened.
Venom:  neurotoxic (nerve-destroying), resulting in difficulty in breathing, then dizziness, loss of consciousness and, if untreated, suffocation through respiratory collapse.


Description:  dark brown or black with one or two white rings around the throat.  
Size:  max length 1.5m
Where found:  grassland, fynbos and savannah in most regions of South Africa apart from Northern Province.
Defence:  disappears quickly when disturbed, unless cornered, in which case it rears up and puffs its head.
Venom:  neurotoxic (nerve-destroying), which affects breathing. As with the Cape Cobra, if untreated can cause respiratory failure and death.


Description:  stubby body; colour varies from yellow to browny with distinct chevron markings along its entire body.
Size:  max length 1.4m
Where found:  occurs throughout the whole of southern Africa, but not on mountain tops, in desert sand or thick jungle.
Defence:  relies on excellent camouflage; it freezes when disturbed so is often difficult to see, and can easily be stepped on or stumbled over. Hisses or puffs when disturbed.
Venom:  a potent cytotoxic (cell-destroying) venom that attacks tissues and blood cells. The venom is slow-acting, and the victim can take as long as 24 hours to die.

Preventing snake bites

DO keep victim calm
DO immobilise victim and keep the wound below heart height if possible
DO apply a pressure bandage, taking the strapping from the site of the bite towards the body. Strap firmly but not so tight as to restrict circulation.
DO give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if victim is struggling to breathe
DO get victim to hospital ASAP.

DO NOT kill the snake
DO NOT apply a tourniquet or restrict circulation to the area
DO NOT suck the wound
DO NOT make any incisions in or near the wound
DO NOT inject snake bite serum unless the bite was from a Black Mamba or a Cape Cobra

One last point. If you happen to see a snake trying to cross a road, do try your best to usher it along (without endangering yourself) - the sooner it can cross, the sooner it can be out of danger from traffic. Take a couple of minutes to interrupt your run or your journey to stop the cars and give the snake the chance it needs to safely get to the other side. so many snakes end up as roadkill, and it's a tragedy.

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