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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.