Published: June 18th 2008May 6th 2008
I’m constantly on the lookout for snakes. Not because they frighten me (although, it’s undoubtedly a good idea to maintain a healthy respect for them), but because I want
to see them. The majority of snakes that I’ve encountered on and around Mpala have been dead ones, killed by locals out of fear, hate, and superstition (some tribes believe it adds seven days onto one’s life). Most Africans believe the only good snake is a dead snake - judging by experience, it sadly seems that most cultures around the world readily agree.
But me, I like snakes. I prefer seeing them alive, not dead. Unfortunately, I haven’t even seen a handful of live snakes in the last three-plus months. Which is why, when I found one of my transmitter-fitted Superb Starlings (thanks to telemetry) in a mixed flock of frantically scolding birds, I hoped to find one.
It is a relatively frequent occurrence to see a variety of birds hopping madly throughout a bush in a frenetic cacophony of alarms and scolds. It doesn’t take a professional naturalist to figure out that the birds are unhappy; such a distressed gathering usually indicates the presence of a predator, such as
Face-to-face with Africa's deadliest snake, Bitis arietans
a nest-raiding mongoose or a keen-eyed raptor. Sometimes, though, they’ve found a snake.
Needless to say, whenever I notice birds exhibiting this “mobbing” behavior, I immediately investigate, hoping to find something unusual creating such agitation. Often times, it’s a Black-tipped or Slender-tailed Mongoose, or perhaps an Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk or Pearl-spotted Owlet (once with a beheaded Slate-colored Boubou in its grasp). Of the dozen or so times I’ve come upon such mobs, not once has there been a snake at the foot of the bush.
!” cried Godfrey when he spotted the source of the commotion. Snake
I rushed excitedly over, following Godfrey’s gaze to some dense grass at the foot of a leafy green bush, careful to maintain a safe distance until I knew exactly where the snake was. This turned out to be one of the many instances I was quite grateful to have a bush-savvy, keen-eyed local at my side - I never would have found the snake had Godfrey not pointed it out to me, despite it close proximity to where I stood. Its camouflage was truly remarkable, and it was impossible to see where the snake began
A closer look at the earth-toned, keeled scales.
and follow it to its end.
Only when I found a long branch and was able to part the grass could I clearly see its head, and I immediately recognized it as one of Africa’s most notorious snakes: the Puff Adder. A species of viper, the Puff Adder is generally sluggish (except for its lightning-quick strike), preferring to rely on camouflage rather than flee upon detection of approaching feet. This trait, coupled with its potent venom, makes this snake the deadliest in Africa in terms of fatalities per year, a statistic that can also be attributed to its widespread distribution and abundance (in fact, possibly the most widespread and commonest snake in all of Africa).
This Puff Adder was particularly impressive. The average Puff Adder, which measures about a meter in length, would have been shamed by this individual, which could have easily eaten
a meterstick. Its massive arrow-shaped head stared back at us with piercing golden eyes, its scales an immaculate pattern of earthy tones to blend into the surrounding bush. The only bodily flaw I noticed were two ticks buried headfirst between the keeled scales, just above and behind those mysteriously captivating eyes.
"Clever Girl . . ."
This reminds me of the velociraptor scene from Jurassic Park (you know, just before that cocky Crocodile Dundee wannabe gets scoffed?)
was also a fine example of why they are called “Puff” Adders, swelling to a size close to that of my thigh (and I have rower’s thighs) as it noisily inhaled as much air as it could before squeezing it back out in a breathy menace. It actually was a bit intimidating, I have to admit, and I could feel the tingle of hairs rising on the back of my neck. Definitely a good defense mechanism, as if its daggerlike fangs and highly toxic venom weren’t enough.
We spent nearly an hour with the snake, admiring its serpentine beauty and respecting its deadly disposition. Though, perhaps I should say I
admired and respected it, for I had to tell Godfrey more than once that we weren’t
going to kill it as he picked up a large rock and looked at me hopefully. If I have one influence on Godfrey during my several months here, I hope it’s that I’ve persuaded him to live and let live
There are more photos below