Call Me Indiana Jones

Of 2,750 snake species worldwide, 450 occur in Africa.

-National Audubon Society, “Field Guide to African Wildlife.”

Call me Indiana Jones, but I do not like snakes. Spiders, other reptiles, and all other assortment of creepy crawlies that others hold in similar high regard to the snake heebie-jeebies, no problem. But snakes, not in the least.

Why'd it have to be snakes?

Why’d it have to be snakes?

The beginnings of this ophidiophobia started with an encounter I had when I was five or six years old with what, I thought at the time, was a dead snake that had been run over by a car. Flattened except for its head, I stepped closer to investigate the crime scene when the snake lifted its head, turned towards me, opened its mouth, and silently hissed a curse in my direction as our eyes locked. Ssssss, woe unto thee. Ssssss.

At least, that’s how I remember it. What I remember next was screaming my kid lungs out and high tailing it back to the safety of my house at speeds that would make even the Flash jealous.

Which is not to say that I’m completely paralyzed when it comes to snakes, or that I can’t even look at pictures or talk about them, much less encounter them first hand. Not true. I’d just prefer to avoid them; at all costs, where possible. And no, I really have no desire to hold or pet a snake as part of some ill-conceived experiment to prove to me that they’re really harmless, not to mention both cute and cuddly. Behind glass: okay. In hand or about to be trampled underfoot: thank you, but hell no!

I realize that most snakes feel exactly the same about me – which is great. I get it. Really, I do. I know that, statistically, I have a better chance of being injured or killed by a hippopotamus while in Africa, but facts, reality, common sense, etc., none of that does much good in allaying the primordial fears I have of those legless, lipless, eyelidless, cold-blooded myrmidons of creepiness. The fact that I’m traveling to a continent that is famed for its poisonous snakes (not to mention your average garden variety slithering serpentes) doesn’t do a whole lot to help boost my confidence.

So here, then, let me present to you the top six wildlife, and only wildlife, I do not want to encounter while in Africa, even if it’s from a safe distance. (Descriptions courtesy the Bradt Travel Guide to Zimbabwe. Additional descriptive emphasis mine.)

African Rock Python (Python sebae): At up to five meters in length, this is Africa’s largest snake. It is widespread throughout Zimbabwe, preferring savannah and scrub – often near water, where it can remain submerged for long periods. Pythons hunt mostly at night, taking anything from dassies and game birds to monkeys, small antelopes, and even crocodiles. They seize their prey in sharp teeth, then immediately wrap their coils around its body. Death comes by asphyxiation rather than crushing. Depending on the size of the meal, digestion can take weeks and pythons may often be found basking in the sun while this process continues.

Boomslang (Dispholidus typus): This snake grows up to 1.5 meters and has a potentially fatal, haemotoxic venom. The good news is that it’s quite a shy tree snake that preys on lizards, birds, frogs, and chameleons, and the position of its fangs – at the back of the mouth – means it cannot easily bite large animals (such as man). While its variable coloration of dull brown to bright green makes it potentially difficult to identify, it has proportionally the largest eyes of any African snake. The boomslang is widespread in Zimbabwe across a variety of habitats.

Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis): The black mamba is Africa’s largest and most feared venomous snake, occasionally exceeding four meters in length. It occurs throughout the country in savannah and bushveld, where it inhabits termite mounds, hollow logs, and rock crevices. Grey in color, its name comes from the black mouth lining, a sight you’d rather not be faced with. The black mamba, like most snakes, prefers to avoid people, but if cornered it will raise its gaping head, even to chest height, in an impressive threat display. Sudden movement may provoke a strike, so the best advice in this situation is to freeze then back off very slowly. The venom is a potent neurotoxin, causing death by respiratory failure, but human fatalities are rare.

Green Mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps): Slightly less venomous (though still potentially fatal to humans) than its black cousin, and just over half its length, this bright green snake is very shy and is found only in isolated forest areas of the Eastern Highlands. You are thus unlikely to see it.

Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica): Despite its name, this common snake is found all over Zimbabwe and in very similar habitats to the black mamba. Again, it prefers to retire from a threat, but if cornered it may rise up, spread its hood and spit its venom. It aims for the eyes and, over a range up to three meters, is frighteningly accurate. A bite is used to subdue prey and can occasionally prove fatal in humans. This species is one of the smaller cobras, reaching 1-1.2 meters in length, and is distinguished by the black banding on its throat.

Puff Adder (Bitis arietans): This large and extremely common snake grows to an average of one meter. Its head is flat and triangular and its plump body marked with a chevron pattern. You should learn to recognize this species, as it is responsible for the most serious snake bites in the region. Invariably described as lazy and aggressive, puff adders prefer camouflage to flight, so most humans tend to get bitten when they inadvertently tread on one.

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