Namibia – one of the most compelling stories in tourism todayJanuary 25, 2013
Book your dreamJanuary 31, 2013
Snakes have more right to be afraid of man, than man of snakes. But whereas a snake does not know enough to be afraid, a man’s fear is usually due to ignorance.
Did you know?
Of the approximately 90 species of snakes found in Namibia, only 11 are known to be able to deliver a lethal bite to a human.
These are the black mamba, Cape cobra, Angolan cobra, zebra snake (western-barred spitting cobra), black spitting cobra, Mozambique spitting cobra, boomslang, twig snake, puff adder, Namibian shield cobra and the shield-nosed snake.
An adult South African python will be able to kill a person by constriction.
Text and photographs Ron Swilling
Not every family is accustomed to having a prehistoric-looking leguan lovingly thrown over a shoulder or peeping out of a shirt pocket.
The Hebbards are just such a family and some of their fondest memories are of a leguan (monitor lizard) named Robbie that was dropped off at the snake park when it was still small.Thirteen years later they were devastated to lose Robbie. Now they have another Little Robbie that they take outside regularly for a sunbath, although the newcomer doesn’t quite fill the gap left by their long-time reptilian friend.
Long before the Hebbards became a family of strange pets, Stuart Hebbard grew up camping and collecting creatures in the bush, even starting a small snake park with a few friends in South Africa.
One of the first things Sarah, his wife of 44 years, remembers after meeting him is going for a walk in the veld and being told to walk quietly so as not to scare away the snakes. Terrified of the creatures, she stamped loudly and with determination on the ground as she walked.
“I was never a snake and gogga (bug) person,” she says.
However, things soon changed and she learnt, in Stuart’s company, that reptiles were not to be feared. “Snakes are more frightened than people are,” she now says confidently. When they started the snake park in 1994 – it was the first one in Namibia – she ran it for the initial nine years, and in the process came to the conclusion: “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
Since then she’s come a long way.
While showing me around, she comments when we reach a large rock python curled up in a snake spiral: “She’s such a sweetie; she just hangs around you,” to which Stuart replies, “and sometimes gives you a good squeeze.”
The Hebbards have taught their staff, and teach the thousands of schoolchildren who visit the snake park every year, that reptiles, like all other animals, need to be respected and have their place in the ecosystem
The Living Desert Snake Park has the largest collection of reptiles on view in Namibia.
The collection grew as the public donated snakes (as well as chameleons, leguans/rock monitors and scorpions) they’d been (illegally) keeping as pets. In most cases the reptiles weren’t from the area or had been found abandoned or injured. Others were given to the snake park to be cared for when they were confiscated by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
Three species that have landed up in the Hebbards’ care and are not indigenous to Southern Africa are albino Burmese pythons, a red-tailed boa and an albino western diamond-back rattlesnake.
The Snake Park houses a variety of indigenous snakes, venomous and otherwise, giving the visitor an opportunity to see local species. These include the small and harmless ones that appear and disappear like ribbons of water or flashes of light; the most venomous, including the boomslang, black mamba and Cape cobra; and the more sluggish puff adder and fearsome-looking zebra snake.
Housed in the old Otavi Bahnhof on Sam Nujoma Avenue, the Snake Park is ‘small but it’s big’, as Sarah describes it. Information sheets about every species are pasted onto the glass and notices give valuable information about reptiles in general, adding a bit of humour here and there. As one sign informs visitors: Attention! We have only three puff adders, please don’t stand on one.
Photographs of Stuart’s thumb in the days and weeks after he’d been bitten by a stiletto snake are on display near the culprit.
Stuart laughs when he remembers the incident, not to mention the pain he endured for the 12 weeks it took to heal.
He says that five years later it still hurts, showing me the groove in his finger. His snake book had warned him that if you handle this snake, you’ll probably be bitten. He disregarded the warning, and was carrying it around gently, letting it lie between his fingers. After ten minutes, true to protocol, it bit him.
Snakes will only bite from fear, so it’s best not to try and pick them up but rather to leave them to go their way, which they usually do if left to their own devices
But the Hebbards, regardless of the few bites, always try to impart respect for animals, even for the creatures that constitute the meals for their reptiles.
They have taught their staff, and teach the thousands of schoolchildren who visit the snake park every year, that reptiles, like all other animals, need to be respected and that they have their place in the ecosystem.
Snakes will only bite from fear, so it’s best not to try and pick them up but rather to leave them to go their way, which they usually do if left to their own devices.
If not, there are always those souls with more of an understanding of our scaly friends who will come and move them to another area. Once people understand that snakes aren’t naturally aggressive, their attitude starts to change. Stuart says it’s quite normal to see people arrive with a phobia and have a snake wrapped around their neck by the end of their visit.
Stuart has spent his life learning about the natural world and its creatures, discovering interesting facts about reptiles, birds, plants and insects. He’s tapped into this vast reservoir of knowledge in his guidebook A close-up view of the Namib and some of its fascinating reptiles. He’s also had ample experience of snakes only biting in defence when they get a fright or if they mistakenly think you – or your hand – is food.
Although many of the Hebbard’s snakes have come to realise they have nothing to fear when handled and usually don’t react, there have been exceptions.
Stuart recounts an amusing story of a situation when he was feeding the pythons.
Snakes generally have poor vision but a good sense of smell, and when they smell a tasty meal such as a rat, will grab it as it moves.
In this case, it happened to be Stuart’s hand that was holding the rat.
Usually when a snake has bitten you, it will release you immediately, unless it thinks it has a juicy morsel.
The two-metre python had Stuart by the thumb and was not letting go as it wound around his arm. It locked his arms together as Snake Park visitors watched in amazement. They quickly fled the shop when he climbed out of the cage – with the python wrapped around him – to try and find assistance. He eventually convinced a brave young man to unwind the last turn of the snake and managed to free himself.
The most popular day at the Snake Park is Saturday, when visitors come to watch the morning feed. During the week, staff members accommodate visitors wanting to pose with Dodo the python wrapped around their necks, or if she isn’t available, one of the Burmese pythons. With many stories and rich memories, the Snake Park team has a love for the interesting creatures not normally encountered.
So, rather than waiting for years to catch a glimpse of our slithering friends by chance, which may never happen, this is your opportunity to make their acquaintance.
Living Desert Snake Park
+264 (0)64 40 5100
+264 (0)81 240 3227
Namibia’s most venomous snakes (drop by drop)
These are the boomslang, Cape cobra, black mamba and Angolan cobra. Due to a shortage of human volunteers for conducting tests, it is not known for sure which of these is the most lethal.
So, although it is more opinion than proven fact, the most venomous snake may not necessarily be the most dangerous. A boomslang is normally reluctant to bite a human and its venom is slow-acting, affording you time to seek medical attention. A Cape cobra will usually inject a smaller amount of venom than a black mamba, and a mamba, due to its nervous disposition, is more inclined to bite than many other snakes and is therefore often considered to be our ‘most dangerous’ snake.
Venom vs poison
Snakes, honey bees, scorpions and spiders have venom. Poison is a substance that affects one through being ingested, such as arsenic, paraffin or cyanide.
It is a myth that:
- Bandages soaked in petrol, olive oil or whiskey and items like banana skins, ‘snake stones’, Condie’s crystals et cetera are a cure for snakebite, so there is no need to keep a small bottle of ‘unleaded’ in your first-aid kit. Snakes often deliver ‘dry bites’ where they do not deliver much venom, hence the belief that alternative treatments can cure snakebite.
- If you kill a snake, its mate will come looking for it, unless you burn the body.
- There is a treatment that will prevent a snake from biting you, or if bitten, will prevent the venom from affecting you (this is often referred to in Africa as ‘being cut’).
- Some African lizards, particularly geckos and chameleons, can deliver a deadly bite. There are no known venomous lizards in Africa.
Prevention is better than cure
The chances of being bitten by a dangerous snake in Namibia are very small, and the probability of dying from it, even smaller. Statistics show, however, that most snake bites are a result of people walking in the dark, often without suitable footwear or a torch, and people playing with or trying to kill or capture a snake.
To minimise the chances of being bitten by a snake or scorpion:
- Be alert. Look before you step, sit, place your hand on a branch, et cetera.
- Do not walk in the dark without a good torch and suitable footwear.
- When lifting up a rock or a piece of wood, be alert to what could be lurking underneath it or concealed under the bark.
- If in an area where an encounter is more probable, wear long-fitting trousers and stout shoes.
- Beware of ‘dead’ snakes; some are known to feign death.
- If you’re camping, keep your tent zipped up and the car doors/windows closed.
- Do not try to catch a snake.
- When you come across a snake, as with all wild animals, don’t move suddenly. The snake will usually move away as soon as it detects you. If there is a reasonable distance between the snake and yourself, move away slowly. (On the extremely rare occasion that a snake rushes at its perceived aggressor, in this case you, you should also rush – in the opposite direction!)
Down to basics
- The majority of Namibian venomous snakes are not immediately life-threatening. Most species are of little medical significance as they either rarely bite, or the bite can easily be treated, assuming the victim seeks medical help immediately.
- Snakes are natural components of Namibia’s ecosystems, playing an important ecological role.
- Snakes should not be killed indiscriminately. Many people are bitten while attempting to kill snakes.
- The greatest threat to Namibia’s snakes is habitat degradation, such as bush encroachment, desertification and deforestation.
- Wetland-dependent species found along the northern rivers are particularly threatened due to alteration/destruction of their habitat.
- Two snake species are protected in Namibia: the Southern African and the dwarf python.