Snakes in Namibia

Francois Theart with zebra snake
Francois Theart with zebra snake
Stéphane Lagneau
Stéphane Lagneau
Snake venom in the eyes
Snake venom in the eyes

Five million people are bitten by snakes every year. Half of those bites are venomous, and as many as 200,000 people die as a result, with a further 400,000 disabled. So snakes are dangerous. TOSCO held a snake workshop in the NACSO boardroom on 20 June. With a metre long zebra snake for company, it was a lively affair.

TOSCO stands for Tourism Supporting Conservation and the NGO is a NACSO associate member. It works with as many as thirty tour operators, and supports desert lion conservation, lion rangers, research and responsible tourism.

Tour guide and TOSCO member Stéphane Lagneau co-presented with Francois Theart who arrived a little late – because he had just been on a call to remove a snake, which he coaxed into a transparent safety tube to show the workshop. Despite pooping on the boardroom carpet, the snake (a species of cobra) did no further damage. But they can. TOSCO founder Felix Vallat showed pictures of his eyes, which were badly swollen when a zebra spat venom at him.

Most people want to know about venom, explained Theart, who is currently writing a book about snakes found in Namibia. A zebra snake is highly unlikely to bite you in the bush – even if you tread on it. They tend to attack people at night, perhaps attracted by the scent of sweat, and mistaking people for food. Snakes have poor eyesight and little sense of the size of their potential prey. Theart explained that snakebites are a poor man’s problem, with people in rural areas being most affected.

Zebra venom is a powerful toxin, causing tissue damage. If you are hit: wash it off. Most adults will suffer some scarring. Children are more at risk. So, proper washing and medical attention is important. If you are bitten, there is no antidote.

All snakes have venom, which is produced in the same way that humans produce saliva. Some venoms, like that of the black mamba, are neurotoxic and attack the nervous system. Black mambas are common in Namibia and may bite if you disturb them. Most snakes have a mix of venoms, with one predominating. The boomslang is the most venomous snake in Africa, with a haemotoxic venom that causes bleeding. Fortunately they are very timid, and bites are rare.

If you are bitten, there are simple rules. First: don’t panic. The faster you move, the quicker the venom will circulate in your system. Call Stephane or Eugene on 081 325 5152 or 081 216 5057. Or send a text message “snakebite” to 081 127 5109 for medical help. If venom is spat onto your body, wash it off and seek medical help; and try to identify or describe the snake to the experts.

Snakes are quite a small risk to people. Out of the 81 species found in Namibia, only 11 represent a real threat to humans. But they, and other reptiles, are under threat from us. The many horned adder may be run over by quad bikes and 4x4s in the sands, and are under threat by poachers who sell them to people in Europe who value the many-coloured skins of these adders. Other reptiles go the same way. Two chameleons with microchips under their skins, which were part of a research project, were found in Belgium.

Snakes are a vital part of our eco-system. They tend to eat small mammals like rodents, so if you keep your terrace or ground around your house clean, they are unlikely to disturb you. TOSCO and SCAN, the Snake Conservation Association of Namibia, are actively helping communities to deal with snakes through education programmes and research. Francois Theart is studying all aspects of snakes for a PhD, and will be publishing his book, Snakes of Namibia, soon. Watch this space for more information.

ENVIRONMENT WATCH

"Are you going to Etosha?" I was asked when telling the lady at OK supermarket in Outjo that I didn't want a plastic bag. The Namibian government is going to have to do a lot more than banning plastic bags in national parks to prevent the toxic waste entering our eco-system. Just outside of town the picnic area was covered in plastic bags, bottles and food trays. Canada is banning single-use plastics, as has Rwanda, with Kenya following suit. While our plastic waste is burnt or buried (both poisonous), much plastic ends up in the ocean's "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", turning large parts of the ocean into dead zones.

The survival of the natural world is in the balance, says the new chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which in May published an alarming scientific assessment of the loss of biodiversity. Read this and find other articles about the loss of biodiversity on our Environment Watch page.

However, in our efforts to restore the planet's eco-systems, we also report on good news. For example, a small-scale irrigation system to grow crops in Namibia's arid Kunene Region will help farmers to adapt to climate change.

Steve Felton
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