When walking in the bush you need to be aware of your surroundings. Do not step over fallen logs where you cannot see what is on the other side, rather step on the obstacle. Wear good thick boots and long trousers as these will provide some protection. If you are camping on your own it is a good idea to be familiar with the dangerous snakes of South Africa.
There are over 2 500 species of snakes found worldwide and around 138 found in Southern Africa. Of these, about 35 are venomous and 13 are dangerous to humans. The Black Mamba is considered to be the most dangerous snake in Africa, as its bite without the anti-venom is nearly always fatal. The Cape Cobra is the next most poisonous of the snakes in South Africa. However, Puff Adders are probably responsible for the most deaths in Africa as these are sluggish snakes that are disinclined to move out of the way when approached.
Most of the snakes encountered by campers and hikers are not poisonous and they play a vital role in the ecosystem. If you are in a nature reserve you should never kill a snake. It is important to know that they are more scared of you than you are of them. Most snakes will get out of your way and will only strike when they have no escape and are threatened.
What to do when you encounter a snake
When hiking in the bush it is important that you do not pick up, poke or provoke any snake that you come across, even if it appears to be dead- some snakes such as the Rinkhals play dead, and can strike if disturbed. If you discover a snake, do not approach it closely. If you step on a snake or are very close to a Puff adder then move away quickly.
If the snake is only about a meter away, freeze at first and see the snakes reaction – it will likely look for an escape route. If it is cornered, back away slowly. If you move slowly you are not perceived as a threat and the snake is less likely to strike.
Observe the snake. If the snake stays slithering on the ground it will likely move away and not strike. If the snake rears up like a cobra and flattens its neck to form a hood then it is aggressive and is likely to strike and you need to act with caution. Pythons and adders move forward in a straight line, other snakes move using side-to-side undulations.
Treatment of snake bites
The most important advice if you are bitten by a snake is to remain calm. Do not panic or rush as this speeds up your metabolism and spreads the poison faster. More damage is done by the shock than the actual bite. Identify the snake if possible. If you do not know what snake it is try and memorize what it looks like.
Relax and phone for medical help. Know that not many South African hospitals deal with snake bites regularly so inform them and ask them to phone the experts.
If you are bitten by a cytotoxic snake such as an adder
- Drink plenty of fluid unless you have trouble swallowing
- Apply a sterile dressing to the wound
- Never try and suck the venom out with your mouth
- Do not squeeze the bite
- Do not apply a tight bandage or tourniquet
If you are bitten by a neurotoxic snake such as a cobra or mamba
- Stay calm and breathe gently
- Immediately apply a crepe bandage firmly around the wound, as if for a muscle sprain. This will reduce the amount of venom entering the bloodstream but should not cut off circulation
- Do not apply a tourniquet
- Never try and suck the venom out
- Transport the person to hospital as soon as possible as these snakes have potent venom and anti-venom will be needed