DURBAN was hot and humid last week- just the sort of weather snakes love.
This was evident as I had the best haul of my career.
I ended the week on capturing six Black Mambas, one Green Mamba, one Mozambique Spitting Cobra, and three Boomslang. As I said, my best haul in a week’s time.
Before anyone panics, no, the Green Mamba was not in the Highway area.
This infamous snake does not occur in the Highway area. This Green Mamba was removed from a security guard’s office at the Winkelspruit water treatment plant. It was curled up on an open window, escaping the midday heat. Nice for the snake, not so nice for the guard, who wasn’t too keen on sharing his office space with the venomous serpent.
Green Mambas in the Amanzimtoti area are not an uncommon sight. They occur all along the south and north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, in the forested areas.
Of the six Black Mambas I captured, only two were in the Highway area.
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The first was in Downley Road, off Devon Terrace.
It was a youngster, around 1.2m long. It had slithered up onto someone’s back verandah, by a sink. After seeing the homeowner and the domestic worker, it took cover underneath a bin bag.
The homeowner described it as being over a metre long, quite thick, grey in colour with a matt appearance. That’s a pretty accurate description of a mamba. However, 1m-1.5m Black Mambas are a somewhat rare sight.
I am mostly called for specimens over the 2m mark. So I was a bit reluctant to believe the homeowner, trying not to get my hopes up, and I assumed it would be a big Herald or House Snake- both of which are harmless. Well, when I lifted up the bin bag, I was proven wrong. The caller was spot on with his description and ID.The second was in a home in Westville North, in Crieff Road.
An elderly lady, who had care workers visiting her, had discovered a large black snake in her courtyard. The courtyard had in fact been converted into a room, adjoining the house. The description sounded good for a Black Mamba, and so I prioritised this call over the others that had come in at the same time.
As I discovered, it was indeed a Black Mamba. It was hiding behind a large plastic container. How it got in, I’m not sure, but snakes don’t have much difficulty getting into homes. It was around 2.2m long, and a rather feisty specimen! I had grabbed its tail, as it tried fleeing out from the other side of the box as to where I was knelt. With the tail on one side and the head on the other, it was pretty much trapped. It couldn’t get at me because of the plastic container obstructing its way. It did strike back at me, when I reached towards it with the tongs, but it wasn’t a full on charge or anything. Just a cheeky swipe. After that I pinned it down and had it safely secured.
Contrary to what some may think, I very rarely get struck at by mambas. Despite their fearsome reputation, I have not had one charge or attack me. I’ve had a couple strike at me, but out of ten times, I’d say that only happens once or twice. This misunderstood animal only wants to get away from people, not attack us. They always look for escape routes, that’s their focus. It is only when they’re extremely desperate do they lash out.
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Not only was this a fun week for me in terms of mambas, but it was useful to my research work. Together with UKZN PMB, we’re looking at the gene pool of the Black Mambas in Durban, and so I get a small DNA sample off each and every mamba I catch.
Six in a week is pretty good. I also measure, weigh and check the sex of the mambas (which is done by probing them- which probably is uncomfortable). I release mambas in the nearest valley as to where they were caught. In certain valleys, I microchip mambas. They’re the same microchips used in dogs and cats, manufactured by Virbac, who have donated chips for this research project. These chips allow us to see if the mambas we catch have been caught before. From this we can see how far they’ve moved and how much they’ve grown. This can also help in disproving the myth that mambas always return to the same house as they were caught. Research so far has certainly proven that this is not the case.
The Mozambique Spitting Cobra was in the backyard of a home in Northcliffe Road, Westville.
The gardener had kept the snake identification poster that was included in the Highway Mail last year. By looking at this poster, he was able to identify the snake as a Mozambique Spitting Cobra, a large one at that. I had my doubts, but when I arrived and found the snake hiding behind the water tank, I realised this man wasn’t over-exaggerating. It was a beast of a cobra, nearing 1.5m long. A beauty. I was so suitably impressed with both he and the domestic worker, who both reacted to the situation so well. They seemed proud of themselves too, and were grateful for the poster. It was a rewarding experience for me personally.
The call of the week was perhaps a call of a lifetime.
In Peacevale, on Friday afternoon, two Boomslang had been spotted in a small tree in a lady’s garden.
It’s very rare to see two snakes together, as they are generally solitary animals. But this was no coincidence. The caller sent me a video. It was two males fighting. I didn’t know this species indulged in such behaviour. In some species, such as Mambas and Puff Adders, males will fight for mating rights. They generally do not fight until the death, but rather until one surrenders. It generally means that there is a female closeby. It’s common behaviour in mambas, not that its commonly seen. But as I said, I had no idea male Boomslang fought. These two were so hell-bent on fighting, that even if one dropped out the tree, it would climb back up immediately. I couldn’t attend to the call at the time, as I was chasing mambas, but the snakes returned the next day. I could not believe it.
I arrived to find the two large snakes totally entwined in each other, throwing each other from side to side, as they glided around the tree. That took some skill!
It took me a while, but I eventually managed to capture one, after they had both fallen. The second one shot straight to the top of the tree, out of my reach. As it reached the top, it bumped into another one! Yes, a third Boomslang, in the very same tree! I was dumbfounded, totally speechless. The two immediately started wrestling intensely. It was unbelievable.
I chased them for a bit, when suddenly, they both fell from the tree. One dropped to the floor, the other clung onto a low-lying branch. The one that hit the floor went through the fence and into long grass before I could even react. I managed to capture the other one, though, in the tree.
Not content with two out of three, I ran outside the property into the long grass where it had vanished. I wasn’t keen on it returning, because a few days prior to this, the homeowner’s dog had killed one. I didn’t want a repeat of that situation.
I couldn’t find it, and I walked back around to where I had left my things, at the base of the tree. When I returned, the homeowner guaranteed me that it would return. She saw how they kept coming back for more on the previous day. Sure enough, pretty much just after she said that, I saw the very same snake climbing up the fence, headed into the tree. I grabbed it before it could get in there.
Three Boomslang in one tree? Incredible! Absolutely incredible! I was left in awe.
The Boomslang, drop for drop, supposedly has the most toxic venom of any South African snake. Fortunately, their haemotoxic is extremely slow acting, and symptoms may only appear more than 12 hours after a bite. It is also a very shy and inoffensive snake, which hunts lizards, nestling birds and rodents. This combat behaviour seems very unusual for this time of year.
I’d imagine they mate in spring. I did see a fresh skin at the top of the tree, which could well have been left by the female (whom we never found). The males would have picked the scent of her up from that, hence the gathering. Females leave a scent trail in the mating season. Despite what I would have thought, perhaps this is the mating season for this species.
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