The black mamba, one of Africa’s most feared and respected snakes, inevitably evokes reactions of fear, respect or awe - often merely by being mentioned.
It has been coined super-fast, super-intelligent, and shrewd and magical abilities have even been attributed to it, which has added to the myth and mystery of the black mamba.
One such myth sees the mamba bite its tail to make a loop, enabling it to roll down a hill. As it comes to the bottom, it straightens like an arrow and attacks at exceptional speed.
Another false perception maintains that the black mamba has superior intelligence enabling it to plan an attack on humans, where it ‘ambushes’ a car by waiting in the road, then coils itself around the wheel to bite the driver when he reaches his destination.
Popular accounts say that the snake can balance itself on the tip of its tail, however, this is not true. Donald Strydom, reptile expert and owner of Khamai Reptile Park near Hoedspruit, says many locals believe a whirlwind is caused by the speed and power of the black mamba as it moves on its path of seek and revenge. Others believe a huge crested black mamba, which moves like the wind, roams and guards the Mariepskop Mountains.
The fictions abound, yet they are sprung in many ways from the facts about this graceful, alert and often unpredictable, but mostly deadly poisonous snake.
The black mamba is named for the colour of the inside of its mouth, which is black. This is clearly displayed when it is threatened. The snake has a matt, brownish-gray body with a light belly. Its preferred habitat includes termite mounds, hollow tree trunks, granite hillocks and moist savannah and lowland forests.
“They are not likely to go into human dwellings, although this may happen more frequently in the Hoedspruit area due to the recent number of property developments that are ‘disturbing’ the bush,” says Donald. He sees this as a temporary phenomenon that will recede to ‘normal’ once the developments are complete. “It is not a social animal and not territorial,” says Donald. It may stay within a certain area, but will not defend that area.
Nor does it defend its young. The female lays between 10 to 25 eggs and never returns to the hatchlings, which are about 51cm long when born. They are independent immediately. There is no visible difference between a male and female black mamba.
An adult snake reaches an average length of 2.5m. The longest black mamba (and current record length), measuring 4.4m, was found in Zambabwe. Unlike popular perception, Donald says the snake is not aggressive and will do anything in its power to head away from humans rather than attack.
If this is not possible and it feels threatened it will raise its front and head off the ground and flatten its hood to deter the perceived threat. If still threatened it will bite in several quick strikes. The biggest danger for man is when he attempts to kill the black mamba. “It will defend itself to the maximum,” says Donald.
Black mamba venom is highly toxic. Two drops of venom can kill a person and a mamba can have up to 20 drops in its fangs. The venom contains both neurotoxins and cardio toxins. The first affects the nervous system, while the latter attacks the heart.
The bite initial symptoms include slight swelling where bitten and or pain or a light burning sensation, the loss of control of the tongue and jaw and slurred speech, tunnel and blurred vision, drowsiness, paralysis of all muscle groups and mental confusion.
The bite is life-threatening if these symptoms appear within an hour of the bite. The respiratory system is especially affected. Not all bites are fatal. Depending on where the snake bit and how much venom was injected, one could survive the bite – even without antivenin used.
However, it is critical that a person receives professional medical care a soon a possible, as a bite where the venom got directly into the bloodstream, would be fatal. The sooner a person is treated after the bite, the better his chances on survival. A Black Mamba antidote is administered where necessary, but some people may be allergic.
In some cases, under proper professional medical care, it is better to allow the human body to heal itself. See Danie Pienaar’s account of his encounter with a Black Mamba. Marius Golden, local entrepreneur, working with Donald, developed a snake first-aid kit. Included items such as a respirator, tourniquet, and bandages. Khamai also offers courses covering general information on snakes, specie identification and first aid.
November to March April is snake season, especially after the first summer rains. Black Mambas are deadly and one of the world’ most venomous snakes. “Yet”, says Donald, “if they were as vicious as people believe, people would not dare being out on the bush. This does not mean one should not be careful. It remains one of the world’s most dangerous snakes and should not be underestimated”, he added. Although not wanting to add snakes to the Reptile Park, Donald’s team at Khamai Reptile Park will assist with the capture and release of snakes in the greater Hoedspruit area.