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Snake and Snake Bite information for South Africa

Snake and Snake Bite information for South Africa

Information Courtessy of Seanthomas


Step 1. Examine the shape of the South African snake’s head. Look for horn-like scales above the eyes, triangular heads, very strong jaws that jut out, or a rattle–the snake is very dangerous and should be avoided immediately. These snakes include Mambas, Adders, Rinkhals, Cobras and a handful of others. Snakes with more rounded heads are usually harmless.

Step 2. Take note of the snake’s posture and body language. Snakes that have short blunt tails are usually poisonous. If the South African snake coils up towards you and lifts the neck, flattens the head or raises a hood, the snake is very dangerous and should be avoided. It could be a venomous snake. Even if it isn’t, it may cause damage if it strikes your skin. Usually, more harmful and poisonous South African snakes are the ones to react abruptly and irritated when stumbled upon or interrupted, since they are all over in the wild and tall grasses of the South African terrain.

Step 3. See how the snake moves. In South Africa, this varies because of the different types of terrain a snake might live in, such as water, grasses or rocks. Some slither side to side in a curvy wave, while others move directly in a straight line. Adders and pythons move in straight lines, while most other snakes move in wave-like progression, including all non-venomous snakes in South Africa.

Step 4. Try to see the teeth of the snake, if possibly. Snakes that can be considered harmless in South Africa have a solid row of teeth and sometimes there is no bottom row of teeth at all. Snakes that can be considered harmful and poisonous to humans are snakes that have solid rows of teeth, as well as a set of fangs towards the back of their upper teeth. Snakes that are extremely harmful to humans are the ones that have very long, sharp fangs in the front and no rows of teeth in their mouth. These types of teeth provide the maximum effect of damage.

Step 5. Don’t rely on color or markings to positively identify South African snakes. The common varietals of snakes in South Africa include the Puff Adder, the Horned and Many-Horned Adder (all of which have brown, black and tan spots), Black Mamba (gun metal gray with a white underbelly), Green Mamba (green body with white underbelly), Eastern Tiger snake (black and orange markings), Cobra (ranges in colors but usually a dark body with lighter colored underbelly), African Rock snake (dark brown body with lighter spot markings), Vine snake (ranges from brown to green shades) and the Rinkhal (scaly dark brown to black color). It is near impossible to identify a snake’s region by its color, so alternative methods such as the size of their head and scale appearance are needed to identify them as South African. In Africa, the only rule about a snake’s coloring to remember is that if the snake is any shade of brown, then it is dangerous and you should stay away.

A few points to remember:

  • Humans kill many more snakes than snakes kill humans.
  • You are statistically more likely to be struck by lightning or kicked to death by a donkey than to die of snakebite. More people die of human bites in South Africa than of snake bites.
  • Leave the snake alone – and it will leave you alone. Most bites occur when people attempt to kill snakes.
  • A snake bite does not necessarily mean an envenomated bite – injection of venom is under the snake’s control.
  • Should you be bitten – remain calm under all circumstances. Panic and shock are bigger killers than venom.

How to avoid being bitten by snakes

  • Look ahead and scan the path or area you are about to cross. A general awareness in the bush will do much to help you see a snake in good time.
  • Do not step over logs and larger rocks because a snake could be basking on the other side. Step onto such obstacles.
  • When making your way through long grass and thick bush, wear long trousers, boots or stout shoes.
  • Do not venture abroad at night without footwear and a good torch.
  • Never put an unprotected hand down a burrow or hole in the ground because a snake may be using this as a lair.
  • If you come across a snake, leave it alone because it will be far safer for you and those with you. Attempts to kill the snake are far more likely to result in injury to you and your companions. When the panic-stricken hurl rocks and shoot at snakes, the risk of an accident is increased. Stand still or back away slowly.
  • Do not tamper with seemingly dead snakes. Never handle an apparently dead snake with bare hands. Rinkals are experts at feigning death. They may even twist themselves upside down and lie with their mouth open and the tongue lolling out. Adders may remain quite immobile despite provocation and then strike very rapidly.
  • If your home borders on bush, do not leave piles of rubbish lying about. Pieces of corrugated iron, asbestos sheeting, piping, crates and cartons provide excellent cover for snakes and their prey. Keeping your property tidy will make snakes easier to see and discourage those traversing your grounds from staying either to seek shelter or prey. It is also easier and safer to kill a dangerous snake on open ground.
  • If you are starting to keep or already keep snakes for a hobby, do not believe that they will get to know you and become less dangerous as time goes on. They may well become tamer in the sense that they do not head for cover in the cage as you approach and individual snakes may allow you to handle them. To show that you can handle a dangerous snake like a harmless snake is foolish and exposes you to the risk of serious injury. No matter how tame you think a snake has become, remember that a quick movement made unconsciously near it will precipitate an instinctive strike.



  • DO NOT INJECT ANTIVENOM.Unless you are hours away from a physician or medical facility anti-venom should not be injected by the layperson. Anti-venom is refined from horse serum and a percentage of people are highly allergic to it. Anaphylactic shock WILL kill your patient – whereas the patient stands a good chance of surviving the bite without anti-venom. Anti-venom is best left to the professionals in a proper facility where life-support systems are available.It should normally be unnecessary for the layperson to use anti-venom anywhere within the Peninsula.
  • DO NOT CUT INTO THE BITEAll you will probably do is assist the venom to spread more rapidly.
  • DO NOT SUCK ON THE BITEIf you have cuts in your mouth there will be two patients where there was one. If you have a suction device it may be applied or you can attempt sucking through a dental dam – should you have one handy.
  • DO NOT APPLY ELECTRICAL SHOCK TO THE PATIENTA myth has grown up that application of shock or a stun gun is of assistance. This is a pure myth without any basis in fact whatsoever. You are more likely to kill than cure using this method.
  • DO NOT GIVE DRUGS OR INTOXICANTS TO THE PATIENTUnless advised by a medical practitioner. Application of these substances make diagnosis far more difficult once you arrive at the hospital.
  • DO NOT RUB TOPICAL SUBSTANCES INTO THE WOUNDYou may clean the wound with a little mild disinfectant and dress it lightly with something like Betadine ointment – but preferably leave it alone.
  • DO NOT APPLY A TOURNIQUETYou are likely to do far more damage with the tourniquet than without.
  • DO NOT APPLY ICE OR HEAT TO THE WOUNDNeither is of any use – but both may harm.

Shock – How to Recognise and Treat

Shock is a condition in which the circulatory system fails to circulate blood throughout the body properly. It is a progressive deteriorating condition that can be fatal. It is present to some degree in ALL physical trauma

Shock CAN kill.

The first indication that a person is going into shock is restlessness or irritability.
Some of the symptoms of shock are:

  • Heavy or difficult breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing or Pounding heartbeat
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Excessive sweating
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Excessive thirst
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Drowsiness or unconsciousness.

Although it is impossible to care for shock by first-aid alone, you can take measures that could be life-saving.

First-Aid Treatment for shock is:

  • Reassure the victim and keep him/her calm. Help them rest comfortably (pain can intensify the body’s stress, which accelerates shock).
  • Have the victim lie down. Keeping them comfortable is the key.
  • Keep your patient from becoming overheated or chilled. If a source of cold water is nearby, wet a cloth and wash their face regularly and lie them in the shade. If it is a cold day, wrap them in a blanket.
  • If you sense that the victim is slipping into unconsciousness, take measures to prevent this from happening.
  • Above all, keep the victim comfortable! Strike up a conversation with them and continue to reassure them.
  • Once shock sets in, the victim’s condition will continue to deteriorate, so getting help or getting the victim to help ASAP is the most important thing.

The first aid of choice, in snakebite, is the pressure bandage

The aim of the pressure bandage is to immobilise the limb and restrict the flow in the lymphatic system. This will slow the transport of the venom dramatically giving you the few hours extra to transport the patient to a well-equipped facility where medical practitioners can take over.

A word of advice – many medical men have never seen or treated snakebite. It is fairly rare. Telephone your nearest Poison Centre, University or Snake Park. They usually are able to give advice on physicians with experience of handling snake envenomation. You may ask the treating physician to consult with such a person.

Application of the pressure bandage:

Get the victim to lie down immediately. Relax and reassure them. Keep calm yourself – you will have enough time. Talk soothingly and be confident.

Using a crĂȘpe bandage (or torn up strips of material) bandage the bitten limb. Start at the bite site and work upwards. Do not remove clothes as the movement required will assist the venom to spread. Wrap the limb as tightly as you would for a sprain. Firm, but do not cut off the blood supply. Apply a splint to the limb to immobilise it. Avoid massaging or rubbing the bite area. Do not remove the pressure bandage until medical personnel are ready to start treatment.

Some things to do

  • Make a note of the time the bite occurred. This will help physicians to check on the progress of the venom.
  • Remove constricting jewelry. Rapid swelling may make such items as rings and bracelets into objects of great pain.
  • If possible phone ahead and clearly explain to the hospital that a possible snakebite case is on the way. If a positive identification of the snake can be made, make sure they know what to expect.
  • Be prepared to render artificial respiration in the case of a cobra bite. A dangerous sign of impending lung paralysis is when the victim cannot blow out a match held at arms length. The venom does not kill – the inability to breathe is what causes death.
  • Be prepared to keep the airways open and make sure the patient does not drown on his own saliva.
  • Keep the patient as immobile as possible and transport to a hospital. In the case of a Cape Cobra – you want to get there as fast as possible whilst in the case of the other dangerous snakes of the Peninsula, you have time to drive carefully to the nearest major medical facility.
  • Keep in mind that shock is probably present in all snakebite cases, whether from venomous or non-venomous species. Shock can kill even more rapidly than snake venom. Acquaint yourself with the symptoms of shock. Be prepared to deal with shock symptoms in ANY snakebite victim. Even those bitten by non-venomous species. People have died of such bites in the past.
  • Ensure that a tetanus shot is administered whether the snake was venomous or not.

(Which can be Fatal to Humans)

Common Name Scientific Name Where Found Type of Venom Immediate first Aid
Cape Cobra Naja Nivea ALL western South Africa Neurotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital immediately, support breathing
Coral Snake Aspidelaps lubricus NC, WC, N of EC Neurotoxic Venom(?) Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital
Black Spitting Cobra Naja nigricollis woodi NC, N or WC Cytotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital. Treat eyes as for Rinkhals.
Mozambique Spitting Cobra Naja mossambica NWP, NP, MPL, N of KZN Mildly Cytotoxic Venom – some Neurotoxic effects Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital Treat eyes as for Rinkhals.
Forest Cobra Naja melanoleuca N of KZN Neurotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport rapidly to hospital
Snouted Cobra Naja annulifera NWP, NP, GTG, MPL, N of KZN Neurotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport rapidly to hospital
Black Mamba Dendroaspis polylepis NWP, NP, MPL, N of KZN Virulently Neurotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital at fastest possible speed
Green Mamba Dendroaspis angusticeps KZN – N of EC Neurotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital
Rinkhals Hemachatus Haemachatus WC, EC, FS, KZN, NWP, GTG, S of KZN, Neurotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital
Puffadder Bitis Arietans ALL Cytotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital
Gaboon Adder Bitis gabonica N of KZN Cytotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital immediately
Boomslang Dispholidus Typus WC, EC, MPL, NP, GTG, FS, KZN, NWP Haemotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital
Twig Snake Thelotornis capensis MPL, NP, KZN Haemotoxic Venom Pressure bandage, immobilise limb, transport to hospital.

And those which inflict painful but not fatal bites.

Common Name Scientific Name Where Found Type of Venom
Berg Adder Bitis Atropos WC, EC, KZN, MPL. Montane. Neurotoxic
Horned Adder Bitis caudalis NC, NWP, NP, GTG Mildly cytotoxic
Many-horned Adder Bitis cornuta NC Virulently cytotoxic – yield is small
Desert Mountain Adder Bitis xeropaga NC Not known
Red Adder Bitis rubida WC Not known
Peringuey’s Adder Bitis peringueyi NC Not known – probably cytotoxic
Plain Mountain Adder Bitis inornata EC not known
Namaqua Dwarf Adder Bitis schneideri NC Mildly cytotoxic
Southern Adder Bitis armata WC Not known
Albany Adder Bitis albanica EC Not known
Common/Rhombic Night Adder Causus rhombeatus WC, EC, KZN, MPL, NP, GTG, NWP, FS Weakly cytotoxic
Snouted Night Adder Causus defilippii KZN, MPL Mildly cytotoxic
Many-Spotted Snake Amplorhinus multimaculatus WC, EC, KZN, MPL Mildly cytotoxic
Shield-nose Snake Aspidelaps scutatus NP Mildly neurotoxic
Spotted Harlequin Snake Homoroselaps lacteus WC, EC, FS, KZN, GTG, NP Cytotoxic?
Boulenger’s Garter Snake Elapsoidea boulengeri KZN, MPL, NP Cytotoxic?
Sundevall’s Garter Snake Elapsoidea sundevalli NP, GTG, MPL, KZN, FS Neurotoxic?
Olive Grass Snake Psammophis mossambicus KZN, MPL Mildly neurotoxic?
Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake Pelamis platurus All of East Coast. Virulently neurotoxic.
Bibron’s Burrowing Asp
Stiletto Snake
Atractaspis bibroni KZN, MPL, NP, NWP, GTG Mildly neuro- and cytotoxic
Duerden’s Burrowing Asp Atractaspis duerdeni NWP Weakly neuro- and cytotoxic

WC – Western Cape EC – Eastern Cape NC – Northern Cape FS – Free State
KZN – Kwa-Zulu Natal GTG – Gauteng NWP – North Western Province NP – Northern Province
MPL – Mapumalanga ALL – All of South Africa N – North S – South

Information Courtessy of Seanthomas

If you have been bitten seek medical treatment immediately:

Ambulance Number – 10 177

In case of difficaulty with an emergency service call: – 1022 (Only Ambulance, Fire Brigade and Police