The following true story is re-blogged with permission from Thea Litschka-Koen from the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation.
It’s early February, the weather is unbearably hot and humid. I am absolutely exhausted after a long day at Simunye Club; and call-outs to remove problematic snakes have been endless. It’s only 18:00, but I have already rescued 6 of Swaziland’s deadliest snakes. It has been an especially stressful day as my husband Clifton, who usually assists with the call-outs, is away with the children and will only be back in a few days.
When the thunder storm, which has been threatening all afternoon, finally arrives, it brings a slight respite from the oppressive heat.
With the drop in temperature, the phones should remain relatively quiet, and I should be able to have an uninterrupted nights sleep.
It’s past midnight when the bedside phone rings. It is still pouring with rain and I am very tempted not to answer. I turn around, put a pillow over my head, and try to ignore the shrill noise of the phone. Finally it stops only to be replaced by my mobile phone. My conscience gets the better of me and I reluctantly answer, as I drag myself out of bed for the inevitable trip to another homestead.
The lady on the other side of the phone is hysterical; she is crying and screaming so much that it is almost impossible to hear what she is saying. All I can hear, in between sobs, is someone shouting ‘the snake is coming in, the snake is coming in!’
After, what feels like an eternity, I finally get her to calm down enough to speak to me and I realise immediately that they are in serious trouble. There is a large snake, and by her brief description, most probably a Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), in their tiny home. In between sobs and screams she manages to tell me that the snake is in the doorway to her children’s room. In the room are her 6 month old baby daughter and her older sibling. I hear the older child screaming, ‘it is coming in, the snake is coming in. Help me! Help me!’
The mother cannot get to her two children and is frantic. Still in my P.J’s, I grab my snake tongs, a snake bag and rush to the car while coaxing the mother to give me directions to her house.
At this stage it is imperative to get every one to calm down, as the snake will only strike defensively if it senses threatening movement. If they all remain as calm as possible, I may just be able to get there in time to prevent a tragedy.
The rain is coming down in bucket-loads; I try to keep the vehicle on the narrow, now muddy dirt track through the sugar cane fields, steering with one hand while holding the telephone to my ear with the other. Lightning flashes light up the eerie, waving sugar cane and I send up a little prayer that the track is the right one that will take me to the compound. I keep talking encouragingly to the anxious mother while trying to keep the panic out of my own voice (I am petrified of lightning). I ask her to keep me updated on the movement of the snake and how her children are coping. She tells me her name is Sanele and that she alone with the children and can’t leave them to go and look for help.
I can’t find the house. I have taken so many turns in the tall sugar cane that I am not even sure that the houses I come across are where I’m supposed to be. I try to persuade her to go outside to see if she can see my car lights. She refuses to leave her children alone. The situation is becoming desperate. She begs me to hurry and tells me her one and only candle is almost burnt out. She is afraid it will go out before I get there and then she will no longer be able to see the snake. This gives me an idea! I tell her to put the candle on the windowsill. This should make it much easier to spot her home amongst all the other dark houses in the village.
Almost immediately, I see the candles’ faint glow. Tears of relief stream down my own face as I rush to gather my equipment. It has taken almost an hour to find them.
Sanele had very good reason to fear for her and her children’s lives that night. It was a Black Mamba, almost 3 meters in length, curled up and hiding behind a stack of books and boxes at the entrance of the door to the children’s bedroom. Words cannot describe the relief we all felt, and their gratitude when the snake was eventually safe inside my black snake-bag.
Black mambas, unfortunately, have a notorious reputation for being extremely aggressive, striking and killing indiscriminately and, although you wouldn’t want to be caught with one in a telephone booth, they do not have the ability to outrun a man on a horse nor do they chase their victims. I have never been chased or attacked despite catching hundreds over the last few years. More often than not, they try their best to get away and only turn to face one, lifting a third of their body off the ground, once they realise that there is no escape route. This snake is shy, nervous, alert and intelligent and always tries to avoid contact with humans.
Although this snake is not aggressive, its bite is deadly and commonly known as the ‘kiss of death’. When approached it lifts its head well off the ground, flattens its neck into a slight hood and hisses a hollow-sounding hiss. The inky-black lining is obvious when it gapes its mouth as a warning to keep one’s distance. If one is still brave or silly enough to move closer, it will lunge forward to bite; sometimes striking twice in quick succession. It very seldom delivers a dry bite wherein no venom is injected.
The venom is a very quick acting neurotoxin (a substance that damages, destroys, or impairs the functioning of the nervous system). The first symptoms are usually felt within 15 minutes. Sooner if it is a small child. A sure sign of a Black mamba bite is a tingling feeling around the lips. The bite itself is often relatively painless, with very little or no swelling. Muscles can start to twitch and gradually ptosis develops (eyelids cannot open completely). The victim will struggle to focus and will suffer from tunnel-vision. Breathing difficulties soon develop which ultimately leads to respiratory paralysis and death. It is a frightening way to die, fighting to breathe whilst one’s body slowly becomes totally paralysed – all the while, one’s brain remains totally unaffected. The victim is aware of everything and everyone around him but he cannot move, swallow, talk or breathe.
Although the bite from a Black mamba is extremely serious, it is not a death sentence. You can keep a victim alive by following simple first-aid techniques and getting to a hospital as soon as possible.
The Swaziland Antivenom Foundation relies on volunteers and donations to continue their work. If you would like to make a donation then please contact them here or on Facebook.
You also can read an interview that I did with Thea here.