There are between 130 and 160 different species of snakes in South Africa. Most of them are not dangerous to humans. However it is not a good idea to try and disturb them or pick them up as this is when snake bites most often occur. Read tips on what to do if you encounter a snake. These are considered to be the most dangerous snakes that occur in South Africa.
Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)
Perhaps the most feared snake in Africa is the Black Mamba. They are Africa's largest venomous snake and can grow to between 2.5 (8.2 feet) and 4.5 meters (14 feet), though 2 meters is more the average. It is one of the fastest snakes and can move at over 20km/hour. They are mostly active during the day.
The Black Mamba occurs in the North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Northern KwaZulu-Natal Provinces in South Africa. They are not found in desert areas and are only found down the coastline up to around Port St. Johns. They are mostly found on the ground and in grass and bushes, but are one of the most nimble of snakes and can be found in trees.
The Black mamba is often olive coloured to dark brown and has a coffin shaped head. It gets its name from the colour of the inside of its mouth which is black. It has hollow fixed fangs and can inject fast acting neurotoxins which paralyse. They inject powerful doses of venom and a man can be dead within 20 minutes of being bitten if the fangs hit a major vein or artery.
If bitten by a mamba phone for help and try to get a helicopter to air-lift the patient if you are in a remote area. Put on a pressure bandage and transport the victim to the hospital with the greatest possible speed. Many people have survived being bitten by Black Mambas. The biggest thing is to remain calm.
Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)
Although the Black Mamba is the most feared of snakes in Africa, it causes few deaths in Africa every year. The snake that actually causes the most deaths is the Puff Adder. This is due to the fact that they are so well camouflaged and people often stumble across them. They are slow moving snakes that do not move when approached.
They are thick, heavy bodied snakes that are seldom over 1 meter long. The head is large, flattened and triangular in shape. They vary in colour widely from blackish to brown and have a row of backward pointing dark brown pale edged chevrons along their backs. They are mostly active at dusk but may lie in a sunny spot during the day.
It is the most widespread snake in Africa. It is not found in the deserts, dense tropical forests and at altitudes above 2000 meters. It is found from the Southern Cape all the way to the Sahara desert. They are extremely well camouflaged and it is easy to stumble upon them when hiking and on bush walks.
They are so dangerous because they do not move out of human's way. They also have very long fangs and inject their venom deeply. Their venom is cytotoxic and haemotoxic. It causes severe pain and swelling in the bitten limb, haemorrhages and nausea. Death is often from secondary effects caused by the swelling such as kidney failure. One of the effects of the venom is that it causes the flesh near the bite to die and fall away.
If someone is bitten by a Puff Adder, call for medical help immediately. Apply a bandage starting at the bite site and working up the limb. Do not apply a tight bandage or tourniquet. A lightly applied bandage may help stop the spread of the poison. Keep the limb lower than the victim's heart. Do not remove the bandage until the anti-venom has started to take effect.
Cape Cobra (Naja nivea)
The Cape Cobra are variable in colour from reddish brown to olive brown, yellowish and black. They grow to an average of around 4 feet. They are considered to be dangerous because they are very nervous and aggressive snakes.
They are one of the most common snakes in the Southern regions of South Africa and are found throughout the Cape Provinces, Free State and South Western regions of the Eastern Cape. They prefer fynbos, bush, Karoo scrubland and dry savannah regions. They are mostly active during the day and hide in abandoned holes and under piles of bush when not feeding.
The Cape Cobra raises the forefront of its body off the ground, spreads its hood and makes a hissing sound. When in this defensive mode, it will readily strike. If you keep absolutely still, the snake will look for an escape route. If you make any movement however it will regain its defensive attitude and strike readily.
The Cape Cobra will often venture into human habitations and is easily encountered. Their bites are highly dangerous though the mortality rate is not known. They have powerful neurotoxins that cause paralysis and shuts down breathing. If bitten, apply a pressure bandage as you would and transport the person to hospital as fast as possible. Breathing may need to be supported. Death can occur within 1 to 10 hours of being bitten. If given anti-venom the bites are often not fatal.
Boomslang (Dispholidus typus)
Boomslangs are found all over South Africa and has one of the few snakes in its genus that is dangerous to humans. It has large fangs and potent venom. Boomslang's are usually between 1 and 1.8 meters or 6 feet long. They have very large eyes and a characteristic egg shaped head. They are highly variable in colour with males being light green to black with black or blue scale edges, and adult females brown or green. They have the ability to inflate their neck when they feel threatened.
It is found throughout most of the country except the Northern Cape and part of the Free State. It has a wide habitat range including lowland forest, savannah, grassland, fynbos and Karoo scrub. It is very rarely seen on the ground, being usually found in trees or small shrubs.
The Boomslang is a very shy snake that is not often seen and therefore bites are uncommon. The boomslangs venom is haemotoxic and victims die from internal and external bleeding. They victim can end up bleeding from all orifices. The venom is very slow acting and it can take up to 24 hours for symptoms to appear. If bitten by a Boomslang, bandage the area and get to the hospital and receive anti-venom.
Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus)
Rinkhals is a related member of the cobra family that have the ability to shoot venom from their fangs usually aiming for a person's face. They are generally brown to brown-black on the top with irregular spotting/banding in lighter browns or creams. They have a dark belly with two lighter stripes around the neck. They are generally about 1.2 meters long. They can spray their venom up to 2, 5 meters.
Rinkhals are normally active at night but will bask in the sun during the day. They prefer to live in wet grasslands and can be found at high altitudes. They occur in the Southern Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State and parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
Bites from the Rinkhals are rare as most predators and threats are put off by them spraying venom in their eyes. Local swelling occurs at the site of the bite. They usually spray their venom in a person's eyes and this can cause temporary or permanent blindness. If you get sprayed with venom in the eyes wash the poison out with lots of water and seek medical help. If you are bitten, bandage the affected area and seek medical help. The bites are rarely fatal.
Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica)
The Mozambique Spitting Cobra is found mostly in the northern areas of South Africa. It is a relatively small and thin snake that can spit its venom between 2 and 3 meters, usually aiming for the eyes. Mozambique Spitting Cobras are generally around 0.8 meters to 1.3 meters long. They have a blunt head and a medium sized eye. They range in colour from a shade of brown to a pinkish colour. They have a mix of black bars and blotches and spots on their throat and the forefront of their body.
If you encounter a Mozambican spitting cobra stay still and see if the snake is going for you. Then back away slowly. Freeze if the snake gets aggressive. Remember that they can spray their venom up to 3 meters with incredible accuracy.
If you do get their venom in your eyes rinse it out with lots of clean water as soon as possible. Keep washing it out for at least 20 minutes. Tilt the face and pour the water so the venom is washed out the side of the face. Seek medical attention as soon as possible as the venom can lead to blindness. If you are bitten by a Mozambique Spitting Cobra, bandage the site and seek medical help as soon as possible. Try and keep the patient calm.
Other potentially lethal snakes
The above snakes are the more commonly encountered snakes. Other poisonous snakes include the Forest Cobra (Naja melanoleuca) which is found in North East KwaZulu-Natal. It is South Africa's biggest cobra, growing to between 2 and 3 meters. It is a slender dark brown to black snake with a slender hood. It is found in forests can thickets near water. It is responsible for very few bites and anti-venom is available.
Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica) is the largest of the adders. It has the longest fangs and delivers a large dose of venom. They have a diamond pattern running down their backs. They are very docile snakes and will rarely attack unless stood on or harassed. They are only found in the forests and wetlands of northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Eastern Green Mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps) is similar to the Black Mamba. It is green in colour and has the same characteristic coffin shaped head. They are slenderer and shorter than a Black Mamba, rarely exceeding 2 meters in length. They have smooth scales unlike the Boomslang which has keeled scales. Their bite is also very poisonous and needs to be treated with anti-venom. They are found down the coast in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.