Cape Town  -  Poisonous Snakes

Poisonous Snakes
found in the veld
in Cape Town


The habitat of our snakes "Fynbos"

Many holidaymakers come to Cape Town to enjoy our beautiful scenery and nature. Among these people you will find many avid hikers who spend their days out in the veld or climbing the mountains in and around Cape Town. Coming to Cape Town to enjoy our mountains and veld is a wonderful experience. There are however some precautions one should take when venturing out into the veld.

Other than the human element where criminals sometimes take advantage of hikers walking alone or in small groups and attack them there are other dangers in the veld as well. For peace of mind it is a good idea to enquire from locals as to the safety of the route you are about to follow and who you should contact should an accident occur. It's also a good idea to tell people where you are going especially if you are climbing in our mountains. In days gone by many dangerous animals used to roam the veld in and around Cape Town. Animals such as lions and elephants to name a few.

Today one will not find these dangerous animals on the loose but there are still a number of smaller animals that can endanger one's health or life if you should come across them in the veld.

  Puff adder

Puff adder blending in with its surroundings

The most common are the poisonous snakes which abound in the veld and on our mountains. Although there are a number of poisonous snakes the two you are most likely to encounter are the puff adder and the Cape cobra. We will deal with the puff adder first as it is the snake that is most likely to bite you if you come across it in the veld.

The puff adder is a large sluggish, thick bodied snake and likes to lie in the sun and bake. It is distinctly patterned with chevrons and its colour varies from light yellow to brown to grey or even orange-brown with dark bands occuring on the tail. It normally grows to about 90 centimetres in length although you will sometimes come across larger specimens in the veld. As it relies on camouflage for protection it is not likely to move off when it hears someone approaching, so it is necessary for hikers to take some precautions when walking in the veld.

Other than the usual protections such as stout boots, long pants when walking in long grass, looking where you step and put your hands is a must. Puff adders like lying in the sun and any pathway through the bush could become their sunbed. Before stepping on what you might think is a branch lying in your way look carefully at the branch as it could just be a puff adder waiting to bite you should you step on it.

Other precautions such as not stepping over a log but onto it and then looking where you put your foot before you get off could prevent a nasty surprise. When rock climbing always check your handholds before putting your hands into them as they just might be the spot a puff adder has chosen to take an afternoon nap. Luckily for victims of puff adder bites the venom, which is potently cytotoxic, or cell destroying is slow acting and takes up to 24 hours without treatment to cause a fatality That fact must not be relied on to save your life as a bite is extremely dangerous and needs to be treated as soon as possible.

Emergency treatment in the veld should begin immediately after a bite has happened. As moving about causes the venom to spread the leg or arm which has been bitten should be immobilised immediately and the victim should be instructed to lie still and relax. You as the first aider should also remain calm and start the required emergency aid to treat a snake bite. Do not under any circumstances try and cut the bite open or suck out the venom as this only increases the movement of blood through the bite and causes the venom to spread further.

All you need to do is wrap the leg or arm tightly from the bite upwards towards the torso of the victim using either a crepe bandage or strips of cloth torn from a piece of clothing or something you have in your pack. When binding the leg or arm it is not necessary to remove the victims clothing as doing so will mean moving the affected limb. Once the limb has been bandaged the limb must be further immobilised and this you do by adding a splint to restrict further movement of the limb. The patient should then be removed to a hospital as soon as possible for proper treatment. Some people in the veld carry snake bite antidotes with them but if you are not a medical practitioner do not use them as they sometimes cause the patient to go into shock and die.

Fortunately, however, with a puff adder bite, there is no reason to panic as one has enough time to do the required first aid and get the patient to hospital before the venom takes effect.


Cape Cobra

Unfortunately this is not the case with the Cape cobra the second venemous snake found in the veld in the Cape Peninsula. This snake's colours vary from plain yellow to yellow-brown flecks with dark patches, to a dark reddish brown and it can reach lengths of up to 1.6 metres. The juveniles are slightly different with a dark band around their throats which fades as the snake matures.

Cobras are not lazy like the puff adders but are also not shy of people often entering houses to avoid the heat of the day. However, if you have inadvertently cornered a cobra you could have a problem on your hands as it is likely to rear up and spread its hood and hiss at you.

Take this as an urgent warning that the snake is about to strike, and either stand dead still or try to back away very slowly without making any sudden movements. As the eyesight of the cobra is not very good it is likely to move off if you stand very still. Most bites occur when people try to attack the snake or to scare it off.

Cobras tend to be more aggressive during the mating season which is usually between September and October. A cobra bite is an extreme medical emergency as the Neurotoxic (nerve-destroying) venom injected by the snake can prove to be fatal if not treated almost immediately after a bite. Treatment for a cobra bite is the same as that for a puff adder but in this instance time is of the essence and the patient should be transported to a hospital as soon as possible. The venom will affect the patient's breathing shortly after the bite so it is necessary to assist the victim to breathe when this happens. From the time of the bite you should have approximately one hour before dangerous symptoms start manifesting themselves.

In all emergency situations and especially with snake bites the rule for the person who is applying the first aid is not to panic but to reassure the victim that everything necessary is being done to get him to a hospital as soon as possible. Get bystanders to phone for help while you attend to the first aid.

In Cape Town the emergency numbers areas follows:

Poison Unit, Red Cross Hospital : 021 689 5227
Groote Schuur Hospital, Casualty : 021 404 4141
Tygerberg Hospital, Poison Unit : 021 931 6129
Constantiaberg Mediclinic, Casualty : 021 799 2087/021 799 2122

Although there are dangerous snakes in the veld in and around Cape Town there is no reason why hiking cannot be enjoyed if you take the necessary precautions when in the veld.

See you all soon.

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Poisonous Snakes