Africa 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.
It is important to remember that although all snakes must be treated with respect, the majority are not venomous. Snakes will typically try to avoid contact with humans rather than risk confrontation, and anti-venom is available for all of the species listed below. Don't let a fear of snakes stop you from exploring Africa's breathtaking wilderness. With a little care, there's nothing to prevent humans and snakes from co-existing in harmony. All snake species are important to the balance of the African ecosystem, fulfilling a valuable role as middle-order predators.
At the end of this article, we list the basic steps to take in the event of a snake bite.
Although the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is not the most venomous African snake species, it is 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. 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 percent 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.
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 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.
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.
The Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) has the longest fangs of any venomous snake, reaching a staggering two inches in length. It is one of the snakes with the highest venom yield, and the heaviest snake in the viper family. Adult Gaboon vipers typically measure over five feet in length, and may weigh as much as 25 pounds. They have a characteristically large, triangle-shaped head, and are found in forested areas throughout West and Central Africa, 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.
The Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) is one of Africa's largest cobra species, reaching lengths of around 6.5 feet. 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 in which Queen Cleopatra allegedly used to commit suicide would most likely have been an Egyptian cobra.
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 (1.5 feet). They are typically yellowish brown in color, 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.
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 five feet 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 and 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.
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 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.
Mozambique Spitting Cobra
The Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica) occurs throughout eastern and central Southern Africa, from KwaZulu-Natal to the Tanzania-Mozambique border. It is the most common savannah-dwelling cobra in its range. Reaching an average length of three feet, it varies in color from slate blue to olive or tawny brown on top. The pink or yellow-purple underside features distinctive black bars on the throat. The Mozambique spitting cobra preys on frogs, small mammals, birds, and even other snakes; and can spit venom with impressive accuracy up to 10 feet. It is nervous in temperament and quick to defend itself against perceived threats. As a result, it accounts for the majority of serious snakebite cases in Southern Africa, although fatalities are rare. The cytotoxic venom causes pain, swelling, and tissue damage. If anti-venom isn't administered quickly, victims may be disfigured for life.
Also called the ring-necked spitting cobra, the rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) is not a true cobra despite its flared hood. It gives birth to live young and has a distinct scale shape. This species is endemic to Southern Africa, and is found only in South Africa and eastern Zimbabwe. It prefers grassland and fynbos habitats and is common in wetland areas. The rinkhals preys predominantly on toads, but may also target other small amphibian and reptile species. It reaches an average length of four feet, and although colors can vary greatly, light-colored bands on the throat are diagnostic. Human attacks are rare, as the rinkhals will typically either flee or play dead (lying on its back with its mouth agape) when threatened. However, they can spit venom up to eight feet. Although very few fatalities have been attributed to this species, its cytotoxic venom causes extreme pain and tissue damage.
What to Do in the Event of a Snake Bite
If you or someone you know are bitten by a snake while on vacation in Africa, here's what you should do according to the African Snakebite Institute:
- Make plans to get the victim to hospital immediately. Call ahead to notify hospital staff about the victim's condition, the location of the bite, and any information regarding the species of the snake.
- While waiting for an ambulance or transporting the victim to hospital, keep them as calm and still as possible to slow the spread of venom. If you can, get them to lie down and elevate the bitten area slightly above heart level.
- If the bite is located on the hand, arm, foot, or lower leg, remove any tight jewelry, clothing, or shoes.
- If you suspect that the victim was bitten by a mamba or Cape cobra, try to apply a pressure bandage to the affected area. In order not to waste time getting to the hospital, this should be done in transit.
- If the victim is having difficulty breathing, or stops breathing completely, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
- Do not try to remove the venom by cutting or sucking the wound. Similarly, you should not apply electric shock therapy, tourniquets, ice, hot water, or any other medication. Anti-venom should only be administered by a professional in a hospital environment.