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 is actually more venomous than a Black mamba. They 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)
Is one of the true spitting cobras that have the ability to shoot the venom from its 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.