Whenever I leave for Africa I am always asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Snakes. Alligators. Spiders. Lions.”
“Well,” I usually reply, “There are no alligators in Africa. Only crocodiles.”
“So crocodiles, whatever.”
I have a healthy respect for crocodiles. Once, in Tanzania, I saw a submerged crocodile lunge up amid four wildebeest faster than they, or I, could blink. I don’t know how, but he missed all of them as they leaped in four different directions. Let’s just say that I’ve never taken a bathing suit to Africa. Didn’t seem like a great idea on my first trip and less so on subsequent trips.
Spiders? No, spiders don’t bother me. I’m much bigger than they are and I always shake out my boots before pulling them on.
Lions? Well, lions will consider me prey if I act like prey. Look! It’s running away! Wahoo, breakfast! And it’s fat and slow! But there are only about 20,000 lions left in the wild, down from 200,000 in 1975. In 2001, Botswana allowed 50 lions to be hunted per year until 2007. By then many of the males were just two or three years old - requiring hair extensions woven into their manes before they were mounted on a hunter’s wall.
Snakes? There are a lot of snakes in Africa. Black mambas. Vipers. Cobras. Pythons. Boomslangs and puff adders. In the Okavango Delta I could encounter Egyptian cobras or a puff adder or an African python or a black mamba or perhaps even a shy boomslang. I could, but I haven’t. In all the times I’ve been to Africa, I’ve never seen a snake. Bad luck, I guess, because each of these snakes, in their own way, is fascinating and I really wouldn’t mind seeing one of them.
I suppose that’s because I have some knowledge of them, and with knowledge comes respect, rather than fear. For instance: the python, Africa’s largest snake, is nonvenomous and prefers small antelopes, hares, monkeys, fish and young crocodiles to people. As an adult, I’m pretty much too large to swallow, although in 2009 a python in South Africa did consume a ten-year-old child. But even large snakes can fall victim: an engorged and slow-moving python is susceptible to a pack of hyenas. As I told you earlier, hyenas eat anything.
As for the others: boomslangs are the shyest of snakes. It will bite people only when handled, yet its venom is the most toxic of all the African snakes. Egyptian cobras sleep during the day and forage at night on birds, bird eggs, rodents and other snakes. When cornered, a cobra will fake death, and when forced to strike, it will bite a victim’s lower leg. Puff adders (actually a species of viper) are active mostly at night, lying beside trails and waiting for birds, small mammals and rodents to wander by. Since adders frequently live in highly populated areas and have the habit of sitting quietly by footpaths, this snake is responsible for more fatalities than any other, although most of those deaths result from lack of treatment.
Now black mambas – black mambas give me the shivers. Because what you see right before they strike is the only part of a mamba that’s black – their wide-open mouth. And the reason you see that black mouth is because they usually bite the face or neck of its victims.
A mamba holds its coffin-shaped head very high, up to four feet off the ground. It glides rapidly, chasing small mammals and ground birds at speeds up to seven miles per hour, although in short bursts it races at fourteen m.p.h. A mamba is the fastest snake in the world. It’s also incredibly long and slender – one specimen caught in Zimbabwe was fifteen feet long but weighed only twenty-six pounds. Although humans are not in the mamba’s diet, it will attack without provocation. And without the immediate administration of antivenom, a mamba’s bite is 100% fatal. In 2006 a fully-grown matriarch of an elephant herd in Kenya was bitten by a black mamba and succumbed to the toxicity of its venom.
During the breeding season in September mambas become extremely aggressive. Males engage in ritualized wrestling matches, twining around each other, head to tail, often lifting one-third of their combined bodies off the ground, attempting to “pin” each other for the mating rights to nearby receptive females. These fights can last up to one hour. In defense of their territory or eggs, mambas have killed lions, hyenas and leopards with rapid, repeated strikes. Luckily, they only breed once a year.
Just thinking about black mambas makes me nervous. But I’m not really afraid of them, although Doug and Sandi have seen them around. I rely on a flashlight and lots of noise when moving around in the dark. That works to scare off more creatures than just snakes.