The African continent is home to many different snake species, some of which are amongst the world's most dangerous. These range from legendary species like the black mamba, to little-known snakes like the West African carpet viper. In this article, we look at a few of Africa's most feared snake species, before exploring different kinds of snake venom and the unique ways that each affects the human body.
It is important to remember that although snakes must be treated with respect, the majority of snake species are not venomous. Even those that are will typically try to avoid contact with humans rather than risk confrontation. All snake species are important to the balance of the African ecosystem, fulfilling a valuable role as middle-order predators. Without them, rodent populations would soar out of control. Instead of fearing them, we should endeavor to understand and conserve them.
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Although the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is not the most venomous African snake species, it is nevertheless the most feared. There are several reasons for this - including its aggressive nature when cornered and its large size. It is the largest of the continent's venomous snake species, with an average length of approximately 8.2 feet/ 2.5 meters. Black mambas are the fastest of all indigenous African snakes, and often strike more than once. Their venom is composed of neurotoxins and cardiotoxins, and can cause a human to collapse after just 45 minutes. Without anti-venom treatment, it is almost 100% certain that the victim will die, usually within seven to 15 hours. Despite their name, black mambas are not black but brown or olive-skinned. They are found throughout a wide range of habitats in sub-Saharan Africa and usually spend their time on the ground rather than in trees.
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The puff adder (Bitis arietans) is considered to be Africa's deadliest snake because it is responsible for the most human fatalities. This is due to a variety of factors, including the snake's wide distribution, its prevalence in populated areas and its relatively aggressive nature. Puff adders reach an average length of around 3.3 feet/ 1.0 meters and have a solid build accentuated by a wide girth and a blunt snout. They are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and their color patterns vary depending on where they live. Puff adders rely on their exceptional camouflage for protection and remain still rather than fleeing from approaching danger. Because of this, people are often bitten after accidentally stepping on them. Of all viper species, the puff adder's venom is amongst the most venomous, however most fatalities occur as a result of poor treatment. Even in untreated cases, the mortality rate can be as low as 15%.
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Restricted to sub-Saharan Africa, the boomslang (Dispholidus typus) is known as one of the most venomous snakes on the continent. Its venom is haemotoxic, which means that it disables the body's natural blood-clotting mechanism and triggers uncontrollable external and internal bleeding. The venom is slow-acting, with symptoms taking several hours to present themselves. Because of this, victims sometimes assume that they don't need treatment, which can increase the severity of the eventual damage. Despite the potency of the boomslang's bite, human fatalities are rare. This is because boomslangs are typically timid, and flee from humans rather than attacking them. They are tree-dwelling snakes (their name means "tree snake" in Afrikaans). Coloration varies, but males are typically light green with black or blue scale edges, while females are often brown. Boomslangs have exceptionally large eyes and reach an average length of around 5.2 feet/ 1.6 meters.
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The Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) has the longest fangs of any venomous snake, reaching a staggering 2 inches/ 5 centimeters in length. It is also the snake with the highest venom yield, and the heaviest snake in the viper family. Adult Gaboon vipers typically measure around 5 feet/ 1.5 meters in length, and may weigh as much as 25 lbs/ 11.3 kg. They have a characteristically large, triangle-shaped head, and are found in forested areas throughout West, Central and parts of East Africa. Gaboon vipers are largely nocturnal, and typically use ambush methods to hunt their prey. They are capable of delivering a huge dose of venom, although the venom itself is not particularly toxic in comparison with that of other dangerous snake species. A single bite can be lethal, however, and anti-venom should be administered immediately. Gaboon vipers are sluggish, slow-moving snakes that rarely bite unless provoked or stepped on.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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The Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) is one of Africa's largest cobra species, reaching lengths of around 6.5 feet/ 2 meters. It is found throughout most of North Africa above the Sahara, and in parts of West and East Africa. Coloration can vary greatly, from brown to copper-red to almost entirely black. The Egyptian cobra has glands located behind its eyes which produce a deadly neurotoxic venom that it releases through its large fangs. The venom affects the nervous system, ultimately causing death due to respiratory failure. Egyptian cobras are typically docile unless they feel threatened, in which case they will assume an upright posture and spread their characteristic cobra hood as a warning before striking. Unlike some other African cobra species, the Egyptian cobra does not spit venom. It is thought that the asp Queen Cleopatra allegedly used to commit suicide would most likely have been an Egyptian cobra.
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West African Carpet Viper
Also known as the ocellated carpet viper (Echis ocellatus), the West African carpet viper is endemic to the countries of West Africa. Incredibly for a snake with a relatively small range, it is (along with the puff adder) often cited as being responsible for the highest number of snakebite-related fatalities in Africa. The West African carpet viper is a small snake, with an average total length of approximately 20 inches/ 50 centimeters. They are typically yellowish brown in colour, with distinctive eye-like spots along the length of their bodies. These spots are designed to confuse potential predators. Like the boomslang, their venom is haemotoxic, causing spontaneous internal bleeding and the collapse of the circulatory system sometimes days after the bite has occurred. The West African carpet viper has a distinctive threat display, which involves rubbing its coils together to create a loud sizzling sound.
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The Cape cobra (Naja nivea) is found across Southern Africa, favoring dry areas including desert and arid savannah regions. They are moderately-sized, growing to around 5 feet/ 1.5 meters in length. Although they are alternatively known as the yellow cobra, Cape cobras can come in a variety of colors, including golden, brown and even black. It is a diurnal species, meaning that it is usually active in the day, and feeds on a wide variety of animals ranging from rodents to reptiles to other snakes. In particular, they are known for raiding weaver bird colonies. It strikes readily when threatened, and is particularly dangerous thanks to its tendency to enter human settlements. Although the mortality rate for untreated bites is uncertain, it is thought to be high with death occurring between one and 10 hours later as a result of respiratory failure.
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Eastern Green Mamba
The eastern green mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps) is a venomous snake related to the highly dangerous black mamba. It is found predominantly in the coastal forests of southern and East Africa, and spends most of its life in the trees. It is a large snake, averaging around 6.5 feet/ 2 meters in length. As its name suggests, eastern green mambas are jewel-green in color, although juveniles are typically a darker blue-green. They are spectacularly camouflaged and despite being active during the daytime, are rarely seen. They have an exceptionally nervous nature and typically avoid humans, usually striking only under severe provocation. Eastern green mambas are capable of delivering multiple bites, injecting high quantities of venom. If untreated, mortality rates are high. Symptoms include swelling, dizziness, nausea and ultimately, death as a result of respiratory paralysis.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Know Your Snake Venom
Not all snake venom is the same, and each kind works in a different way. Generally, snake venom is grouped into the following four categories:
- Neurotoxic venom: attacks the central nervous system, affecting movement, breathing, swallowing, speech and sight.
- Hemotoxic venom: affects the body's ability to coagulate, leading to extensive blood loss caused by external and internal bleeding.
- Cytotoxic venom: attacks the body cells or tissues, causing intense pain, excessive swelling and marked symptoms of shock.
- Myotoxic venom: causes muscle necrosis, eventually resulting in death through kidney and heart failure.
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Living Alongside Snakes
Despite this intimidating list of side effects, it's worth bearing in mind that anti-venom is available for each of the species listed above. Don't let a fear of snakes stop you from exploring Africa's breathtaking wilderness areas. With a little care and a healthy dose of respect, there's nothing to prevent humans and snakes from co-existing in harmony.
If you are unfortunate enough to get bitten, try to remember the snake's basic characteristics so that you can help hospital staff to identify it. In this way, they'll be able to give you the correct treatment straight away. Even if you feel fine, make sure to seek professional medical attention immediately. Some symptoms can take hours to manifest, by which time it may be too late to get help.
Updated by Jessica Macdonald