Watch out for the deadly snakes and scorpions of southern Africa

To some scorpions and snakes are amongst the scariest creatures in the veld and very few people like the idea of encountering them. Whilst the majority of scorpions and snakes are harmless it is important to know how to prevent stings and bites and how to treat these, especially if they may be lethal.

 SNAKES 

Fatalities from bites are quite rare and the vast majority of snakes are not venomous, with less than 10% of bites requiring anti-venom. Venomous snakes will often avoid humans, and if they bite, they rarely inject their full venom load.

The most deadly snakes found in Southern Africa are the Black mamba, Puff adder, Boomslang, Cape cobra, Mozambique spitting cobra, Rinkhals (Ring-necked spitting cobra),  Gaboon Viper (Forest puff adder) and the Green mamba.

The Rinkhals (spitting cobra) is found in south Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
The Rinkhals (Ring-necked spitting cobra) is found in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
The Gaboon viper (Forest puff adder) is found in Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa (northern Kwazulu-Natal).
The Gaboon viper (Forest puff adder) is found in Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa (northern Kwazulu-Natal).
The Mozambique spitting cobra is found in South Africa (Natal and Mpumalanga) and northern Namibia.
The Mozambique spitting cobra is found in South Africa (Natal and Mpumalanga) and northern Namibia.
The Boomslang is found in South Africa, Swaziland, Southern Mozambique, Botswana and northern Namibia.
The Boomslang is found in South Africa, Swaziland, Southern Mozambique, Botswana and northern Namibia.
The Cape Cobra is found in the Namib Desert, Kalahari Desert and South Africa.
The Cape Cobra is found in the Namib Desert, Kalahari Desert and South Africa.
The Puff adder is widely spread throughout South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.
The Puff adder is widely spread throughout South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique.
The Black mamba is found in Mozambique, Swaziland, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa (Kwazulu-Natal) and Namibia.
The Black mamba is found in Mozambique, Swaziland, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa (Kwazulu-Natal) and Namibia.
The Green mamba is found in Mozambique, Malawi, Eastern Zimbabwe, Eastern Zambia and South Africa.
The Green mamba is found in Mozambique, Malawi, Eastern Zimbabwe, Eastern Zambia and South Africa.

It is best to try and avoid snakes and you should be very careful and remain on the lookout for them whenever you are in the bush. The more noise you make as you walk the more chance the snake has to move off. It is best to wear boots and long pants and also remember to shake out your boots in the morning before putting them on.

Fortunately most snakes will get out of your way and will only strike when they are surprised, have no escape or are threatened. If you see a snake, make a slow retreat, unless you know it may be a spitting cobra. If you remain completely still the cobra will most probably move away. Cover your eyes as these short sighted snakes will spit at the first thing that glints, very possibly your eyes. The adders are often considered amongst the most dangerous as they are slow to move away, especially when it is cold.

Different kinds of venom

Different species of snake have different types of venom, each with unique toxic effects:

Cobras and mambas have neurotoxic venom that attacks the central nervous system. It starts by affecting movement, breathing, swallowing, speech and sight and can cause death due to respiratory insufficiency.

The Boomslang has a haematoxic venom that prevents the blood from coagulating, leading to extensive blood loss into the tissues. However, Boomslang bites are very rare as these snakes are back fanged.

Puff adders have cytotoxic venom that attacks the body’s cells. The bite is extremely painful with much swelling and the victim experiences marked symptoms of shock.

The Mozambique Cobra has mixed neurotoxic and cytotoxic venom. It is considered one of the most dangerous snakes in Africa and it can spit its venom as well as bite.  The latter can cause severe local tissue destruction (similar to that of the puff adder) while venom in the victim’s eyes can cause impaired vision or blindness.

What to do about snake bites

Anybody bitten by a poisonous snake must get professional medical treatment as quickly as possible.  In the meanwhile wash the bite with plain water and tightly bandage the limb. Note that a bandage is not the same as a tourniquet which cuts off the blood flow and should never be used for this purpose.

Keep the victim as still as possible to minimise venom entering the system. If you are spat on, rinse the affected area as soon as possible with clean water or milk.

Photos can be taken of the snake for medical identification purposes but only if there is no risk of the photographer incurring harm.

 SCORPIONS 

The majority of scorpions are only mildly toxic to humans, although their sting is extremely painful and will require analgesic treatment.

Of the more than 1 000 known species of scorpion, only 25 have venom that is deadly to humans.  Four scorpion families have been identified in southern Africa and the potentially dangerous species all belong to the Buthidae family.  In this family the Parabuthus genus and especially P villosus, P transvaalicus and P granulates are potentially lethal. Children are especially vulnerable to these scorpion stings and have a mortality rate of close to 20%.

There is a general rule of thumb to distinguish dangerous scorpions from those that are mildly toxic to humans: the highly venomous have thick tails and thin pincers and the mildly venomous have thin tails and thick pincers.

Lethal scorpions have bigger tails and smaller pincers than harmless scorpions.
Lethal scorpions (left) have thicker tails and smaller pincers than harmless scorpions.

Prevention is better than cure

Scorpions prefer rocky areas and mostly come out at night, apparently more so when the wind blows.  Ways to prevent being stung:

  • Always wear closed shoes after dusk.
  • Outdoor lights attract insects and thus the scorpions that feed on them. Use yellow outdoor lighting as it is less attractive to insects.
  • Exercise caution when lifting rocks, and when collecting wood.
  • When you camp, try not to sleep directly on the ground.
  • Shake out your shoes before you put them on and your bedding before you go to bed at night.
  • Check for scorpion holes during daytime so that you know before nightfall if there might be any around. They are usually situated in open ground and are small and oval shaped.
  • Never handle scorpions with bare hands.
  • It is very easy to find scorpions at night using a torch with UV LEDs. Shine such a torch around your campsite at night and a compound in their exoskeleton refracts the UV light, causing them to fluoresce with a green glow and makes them easy to spot in the dark. Depending on the UV output of the torch you will be able to see them from a distance of one to ten meters. Scorpions do not seem to suffer any ill effects from the UV light and do not react to it at all.
Glowing scorpion
Scorpions glow in the dark under UV light.

 Sting Symptoms

Moderate to more serious poisoning through scorpion sting causes malaise, sweating, heart palpitations, rise in blood pressure, salivation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Hyper acute (typically allergic) reactions include blurring of consciousness, unconsciousness, convulsions, fall in blood pressure, shock and even death.

How to treat

Pain at the site of a scorpion sting can sometimes be limited with an ice cube, but strong painkillers might be needed. In the case of more marked symptoms, treatment must be given as for snake bites, and the patient must receive medical attention as quickly as possible.

Interesting links:

http://www.health24.com/Lifestyle/Man/Your-life/Scorpions-20120721

http://www.scienceinafrica.com/old/index.php?q=2003/may/scorpion.htm

http://www.cmej.org.za/index.php/cmej/article/view/2545/2580

8 thoughts on “Watch out for the deadly snakes and scorpions of southern Africa”

  1. Thank you for an excellent article! We are visiting the Kgalagadi shortly. It would be good to have emergency numbers on the treatment of certain snake bites, eg Mike Perry? We are told that some hospitals are not aware of the procedure in some cases.

  2. Respected sir i need some black scorpions (emperor scorpions) and also i need black taranatula spiders in bulk but in start i need a scarce pieces(50) pieces, my requirement for both black scorpions and taranatula spiders are as follows:
    1: there both weight must be 100+ gram per piece .if increase from it so very good but not less from 100 gram.
    2: they both must be healthy and venomious.
    3: they both must be arrived alive not dead.
    4: i need it in pakistan.

    we need it urgent and we will buy it in thousands of dollars.
    My email address is: Malikasim662@yahoo.com

    waiting for your kind reply
    thanks . .. .
    Waqas khan
    islamabad pakistan.

  3. Your article is very informative. My wife and I are moving in September to the northern region of Swaziland; north of Pigg’s Peak. While I was there in February 2014, I was surprised a large spitting Cobra when I inadvertently filled its hole, but no harm done.

  4. DIT is nou ‘n interessante en sinvolle stukkie inligting. Sou dit graag as ‘n app wou aflaai.

    1. Ons stel eersdaags ‘n app bekend wat die volledige inligting in ons databasis vir dorpe en verblyfplekke per land beskikbaar sal stel. ‘n Volgende ontwikkeling hiervan sal wees om hierdie soort van algemene inligting ook daarin op te neem. Maar dit sal ongelukkig eers ‘n latere ontwikkeling wees, Beth.

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