I live on the southern border of the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. It is therefore unsurprising to find all manner of wildlife roaming about the neighbourhood.
I have had a resident tortoise living in my pavement garden eating the many thistles and other weeds that sprang up daily. I even witnessed her attacking and demolishing a granadilla. It was a great source of delight every time I spotted her – until a speeding idiot ran her over while she was crossing the road. Fortunately it was an instant death, so I didn’t have to deal with a half-dead animal.
Our perimeter security cameras have picked up Cape Grysbok passing in the night, and baboons are often seen, both inside and outside the perimeter fence. A wide variety of birds are attracted to the fynbos gardens. I love the brilliant iridescent green of the malachite sunbird and I even once spotted a paradise flycatcher. The most vocal are the red-eyed doves with their plaintive calls of “oh dear, my eyes are red”.
Snakes are common, mostly seen in spring when they “wake up” from winter torpor and thoughts turn to making whoopee. Puff adders are fairly common and I pride myself on devising an easy method of catching them safely (for both me and the snake) before releasing them in the reserve. I would not be happy to suddenly come across a ‘puffie’ while gardening.
Recently a neighbour posted an amusing video of a large boomslang in a tree in her garden. When it suddenly fell out of the tree right at her feet, there was, not surprisingly, some consternation. By the time the resident snake catcher arrived, the snake had melted away into the undergrowth.
Photo credits: Johan Marais
As the name implies, the Boomslang (meaning ‘tree snake’ in Afrikaans) (Dispholidus typhus) spends most of its time chilling out in trees in a variety of environments, from coastal thickets to savannahs. A characteristic feature of these snakes is their strikingly big eyes that take up a large proportion of their heads.
These snakes exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning that the males and females display obvious morphological differences. The females are typically brown, whereas the males can display a variety of bright colors, from greens and yellows to pink-ish reds. In the Western Cape, male boomslang are not the brilliant green of more northerly specimens, but are generally brown on top and white or yellow underneath. Juvenile snakes are particularly beautiful with their emerald-green eyes. But don’t let that fool you – they pack a lethal punch.
Baby boomslang – Photo credit: Johan Marais
For many years, it was believed that this species was harmless because no deaths from boomslang bites had ever been reported. But back in 1957, whilst examining a young boomslang, world-renowned herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt was bitten on the thumb. Given that nobody knew these snakes were deadly, Schmidt thought nothing of it and carried on as normal. In just one day, he died of respiratory arrest and cerebral haemorrhage; an event that quickly spurred researchers to examine this snake’s venom, which unsurprisingly turned out to be highly toxic.
Boomslang are rear-fanged, meaning that they’re equipped with large teeth at the back of their mouths. Consequently, to inject their prey with venom, the snakes have to open their mouths very wide, around 170 degrees. Add to this their extreme shyness, and it is not surprising that boomslang bites on humans are very uncommon.
But in the unlikely event that someone is bitten by a boomslang, this is what the venom can do to you. If you are under 12, stop reading now.
The venom is haemotoxic, meaning that it destroys red blood cells, disrupts the clotting process and causes tissue and organs to break down. What this unfortunately means is that there is massive internal bleeding, causing the victim to bleed from the gums, nose and other orifices. Sometimes, the body of the victim will turn blue because of the widespread internal bleeding. The process can sometimes be extremely slow, taking 5 days for the victim to die. Because of the delay in the onset of the symptoms of the venom, bite victims might delay seeking help as they don’t at first feel any effects.
Thankfully, there is a very effective antivenom available, so if you’re bitten by one of these guys, don’t hang about but hurry off to the nearest hospital that stocks antivenom and all will be well.