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Sharing trails with snake tails

Sharing trails with snake tails

Sharing trails with snake tails

I was not born a trail runner, yes I can grow a beard and can plod for 80 kms but I am scared of heights, spiders and my biggest fear of all… SNAKES! I found the main reason I was scared of snakes was because I didn’t know enough about them. Sometimes we run in really remote areas or go off the path into areas that do not see a lot of human activity, this is where the fear of snakes really start to lurk in the back of my mind. The most obvious question that pops into my head when I’m in these situations are what happens if I come across a snake or worse get bitten? So to educate myself and help everyone I share the trail with, I thought that interviewing our local snake expert, Nick Evans, would put our minds a little more at ease and help us appreciate these beautiful reptiles more.

A bit about Nick and what he does:

“Growing up in Durban, I’ve spent my life working with snakes and learning about them in the wild and in snake parks that I’ve worked in. I now run a programme called KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, a chapter of the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization. The aim is to create awareness about these misunderstood animals, and to educate people about them.”

I asked Nick a few questions that us as trail runners often wonder about when we hear a rustle in the leaves as we run past or in my case jump and sprint past.

Q: How did you get into this, where does someone get the passion to catch and handle the world’s most dangerous snakes?

“I was always interested in wildlife, but my passion for snakes came about after watching Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, as a young boy. He was my inspiration and hero! So since then, I’ve been catching snakes and trying to save them.”

A younger me with a monitor lizard rescued from a garden

A younger Nick with a monitor lizard rescued from a garden.

 

Q: This question is more for me but, how many wild Black Mambas have you caught?

“Not that many actually, I’d say close to 15? I had only received my first call for one in March this year. After the first one, they have just kept coming! Before then, I had only caught them in snake parks, and I wasn’t able to do calls while working at Dangerous Creatures at Ushaka Marine World.”

Black Mamba removed from a car in Inchanga KZN

Nick in action catching a huge Black Mamba!

Q: What months are snakes most active?

“Snakes are most active from around September right through to March/April, the warmer months of the year. Although, because Durban has mild winters, snakes can be encountered all year round.”

Q: Besides running with my eyes closed or clapping while running are there any other ways to run in order to avoid contact with a snake?

“That’s an interesting tactic! Well, while running, there isn’t much to do to avoid snakes, except to maybe be vigilant and keep your eyes on the path. They’ll most likely sense you approaching, and will usually move off quickly. However snakes like the Puff Adder, and even the Night Adder, may keep still and rely on their camouflage. If you stand on it accidentally, there’s a chance it will bite, or not even move. I wouldn’t worry too much about snakes while running. Yes, there is a chance you’ll see them, but they’re not around every corner. The chances of being bitten by one are slim. You should be most wary/cautious of other humans, they’re really dangerous!”

Black Mamba

The original racing snake, the Black Mamba. The fastest land snake in the world!

Q: What is the best time of day to run to avoid snake encounters?

“Snakes can be encountered at anytime of day, so it’s hard to say. They like basking in the early morning and late afternoon sun. The midday heat is often a bit too much for them, and they may move into the shade to cool off. So probably midday, but then again, that’s the most uncomfortable time to run!”

Q: I know I would need a new heart and possibly new pants, but what should we do if we come in contact with any snake? Bear in mind as trail runners we can never go backwards and not finish our run!

“If you see a snake on a path, hopefully before you’re right on top of it, keep still and keep a safe distance (you don’t need to run 100 meters back, 2-3m is fine). Don’t panic, it won’t attack. Leave it alone, and it will leave you alone. It will probably move off quickly. If it’s a Puff Adder for example, and it’s just basking, try to cautiously move around it. They tend not to move if left alone.”

Puff Adder

Puff Adder, commonly found on our trails.

Q: What are the first things we should do if we get bitten and cannot identify the snake while on top of a mountain or far away from help, any numbers we should have saved to our phones?

“Like I said, the chances of being bitten are very slim. If it had to happen, as hard as it may sound, try to keep calm and don’t panic. Stop a fellow runner for help, it’s best to have another person to help you. Do not use a tourniquet. Pressure bandages are advisable, but you probably won’t be carrying one while running. If you’re miles out in the bush, far from a vehicle or road, the best thing to do would probably be to call 10111. If you’re that far out, you may need to be airlifted. Don’t run for help! No matter what snake has bitten you, you generally have a fair amount of time to get to hospital and be ok (a couple of hours or more). It all depends how much venom is injected, and how you react. Patients generally have ample time to get help.”

Q: Are South African hospitals stocked up with a wide range of antivenoms and do you know how often trail runners or hikers die from snake bites in SA?

“Not all hospitals are stocked up with antivenom. St.Augustines in Durban has, as do some hospitals in Gauteng and Cape Town. As mentioned, doctors will firstly treat your symptoms. The snake that bites the most people in South Africa is the Mozambique Spitting Cobra, as it is common in its range and is often found around houses where it searches for food. If you get medical attention within a few hours, you will be fine. Most snakebite deaths occur in rural areas where getting medical attention is difficult. I’m not sure how many trail runners or hikers die from snakebites each year, but I’d assume very few if any.”

My favourite joint with Black Mamba-Gaboon Adder

One of Nick’s favourite snakes, Gaboon Adder.

Q: If bitten and you cannot identify the snake what do we say to the hospital? If we can identify the snake but the hospital doesn’t stock the antivenom what would be my next step?

“A photo is not vital, but it will certainly help. If possible, get someone to take a pic of the snake from a safe distance, just to help the doctors know what bit you, but don’t try to catch it or kill it. Without a photo, doctors will treat you symptomatically and could work out what bit you judging by the symptoms. If antivenom is not stocked in the hospital, they can fly some in from another hospital if urgently required. Some people can be allergic to antivenom and it can worsen things, so doctors shouldn’t use it straight away (A confirmed Black Mamba bite is a different situation).”

Q: In Durban, as that’s where we are both based, what are the most common snakes we can come across on a trail run and how can we identify them?

“Well the most common snakes around Durban are the Spotted Bush Snake, Herald Snake, Brown House Snake, Night Adder and Mozambique Spitting Cobra. All of those are non-venomous except the Night Adder and Mozambique Spitting Cobra. Some are nocturnal, so you’re unlikely to see them on a run. The diurnal species you are more likely to see while running are Night Adders (more active in the day believe it or not), Mozambique Spitting Cobras, and maybe a Black Mamba, if you’re lucky! If you see a mamba, it’s usually the back end of it slithering into the bush! The harmless green snakes are often seen during the day, these are the Spotted Bush Snakes, Green Water Snakes and Natal Greens. Puff Adders are more common in areas like the Drakensberg and Zululand for example, but you may encounter them in areas such as Hillcrest, Assagay etc. They grow to be quite large and stocky snakes, with a distinctive head. More so than that of the less potent Night Adder. The best way to learn how to identify these snakes is by reading about them online or in books. Just remember, leave it alone and it will leave you alone. Don’t try and pick a snake up even if you think you know what it is, or even if it is dead.”

Mozam Spitter

Mozambique spitting cobra

Q: Any particular areas to be cautious around while running this summer? Eg. Rocks, shaded areas, logs, water, open trails.

“Be careful when stepping over logs or large rocks, often snakes lie near them as they provide shelter and a hiding place for a quick retreat if threatened. Also, tread cautiously if the path is quite overgrown and covered in long grass. Snakes, such as Night Adders and Mozambique Spitting Cobras, frequent riverine areas and may be found along water sources hunting frogs.”

Q: For someone as terrified as me how could you convince us that these beautiful reptiles aren’t out to get us?

“Snakes are not lying in wait on paths, hoping for a person to bite who comes running past. Snakes ONLY bite when they feel the need to defend themselves if escape is futile. Snakes are terrified of humans and want nothing to do with us, and rightly so! They would much rather flee and hide somewhere than bite. They are remarkable animals that play an important role in our environment, and are a key link in the food chain. Without them, we’d have serious rat problems, and too many frogs and lizards around, causing an imbalance in nature. Snakes are highly misunderstood animals that do not need to be feared, but respected.”

Spotted Bush Snake

A beautiful Spotted Bush Snake

Thank you Nick for letting me interview you, your knowledge on snakes has made it a lot easier to put my mind at ease knowing that snakes are not out there to get me! If you need to contact Nick or have any other questions please pop him an email on nickevanskzn@gmail.com or check out his facebook page https://www.facebook.com/KZNHerpConservation?fref=ts.

Michael Baker

If I could I would live in the mountains... I'm a sports enthusiast who is up for any challenge. Entering races and going to random places to run completes me. Young, passionate, bearded and with a decent set of legs there is no mountain to tall...

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About The Author

If I could I would live in the mountains... I'm a sports enthusiast who is up for any challenge. Entering races and going to random places to run completes me. Young, passionate, bearded and with a decent set of legs there is no mountain to tall...

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