Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How not to catch a Black Spitting Cobra

I am going to do a series of posts about a wonderful snake called the Black Spitting Cobra Naja nigricollis woodi. It's a snake we got to know on NamibRand Nature Reserve and it sort of seemed to get itself in trouble.

Black Spitting Cobras are a fairly rare variety of Cobra. They are a sub-species of a larger group. I am not sure how the taxonomy of the whole group will break down eventually. I think there may be some changes. For us, however, it was our main Spitting Cobra.

I have grown up with snakes and snake related issues. We had numerous snake related medical trips when I was young, and after I learned to drive, and my parents put me on the medical trips, I had some serious snake victims to deal with by myself. So I am certainly not ignorant of the dangers of snakes. I have seen some serious damage done by Puff Adders Bitis arietans. I'm sure you've seen the pics. I'm not going to go into detail.

But through it all you start to learn about snakes. Through familiarity comes a sense of admiration. I am a bit of a softy, preferring to handle small snakes with no venom. I have never had to handle something as vicious as a Black Mamba Dendroaspis polylepis or as big as an African Rock Python Python sebae. But these spitting cobras came in without us looking for them (at least, not at such close quarters.) So I had to learn, and that is what these posts are all about.

At Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge (now Sossusvlei Desert Lodge) we did start to occasionally get Black Spitting Cobras through the area. What would we do...simple...we would catch and release them. How nice. So simple!

In the early years we managed to get the couple that run the Living Deserts snake park in Swakopmund to come out and do a reptile educational for us at the lodge. They were such nice, easy going people and really went out of their way to cater to us. They brought a few snakes along, including a Snouted Cobra Naja annulifera, I think (It's some time back now.)

While they were there, we discussed the best way to go about the educational experience. They decided that they could spend all day with the guides, but they also suggested spending some time with any staff who may encounter snakes. Almost everyone showed up for the sessions they gave for the general staff. It was fantastic. They showed us how to catch snakes in a safe way. The main technique for those who hadn't handled snakes before, involved turning large containers upside down and and using long things like brooms to encourage the snake to go under the container. Then to slide something under it, trapping the snake in the container.

Great theories sometimes work. They do. Perhaps most of the time. But now, what if the ground isn't so flat? The snake gets out while you try to push the flat thing under the container. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out that their can be some challenges. But those of us who had now acquired this knowledge were not thinking about that.

The opportunity didn't take long to arrive. One of the guides was sitting at his desk reading the one day, when he saw a snake come into the room with him. He tried to see where it would go, but soon it went behind a fridge in the kitchen area of the guides house. It was a small area, and wisely he decided to move out and call for some help.

Now the trouble wasn't that nobody wanted to catch the snake. The trouble, after the educational, with a snake that get's handled regularly, and on flat ground, was that everyone thought they were an expert and we had a couple dozen people show up (including me, of course) to catch the snake.

I'll start by saying that nobody got hurt. The snake may have got hurt, certainly disturbed by it all. But it lived to do, well whatever snakes do, another day. Most people in Africa would simply just kill it.

So, the snake was behind the fridge. Brave though everyone was, this small space that it had got itelf in was a problem. Nobody wanted to be in that little space with it.

So, someone switched off the fridge, and using the cable, we pulled the fridge to the door. We managed to pull it around, so that we could see that the snake was now wound up in the inside of the workings of the fridge. And nobody was going to stick their hands in there to get it out.

We had no tools other than broom sticks and the like. So eventually we yanked the whole fridge out. It fell on it's side and the stressed Cobra started to run around. It was a mad bustle of various 'want to be' experts running around trying to catch the snake.

The snake remained really calm in the beginning, but eventually, after going under the big container for the fifth or so time, it had had enough, and started to spit at us.

It seemed, however, to give up on the aggression just as quick, and almost seemed to decide to go in the container for us, just to get it over with. So we caught it, took it far away, and released it again. When we turned over the container, it just slid away. We all know what it was thinking...
"you amateurs"


  1. Kugellager - John from ColoradoApril 24, 2010

    Thank goodness that Kristin (my wife) didn't know that spitting cobras were in that area when we stayed at SML/SDL during our honeymoon or she would have never let me go out collecting the scorpions in the dark to photograph them.

  2. In reality we saw very few Cobras of any kind. In comparison to almost anywhere else in the African bush, we really had far fewer snakes. We just saw them more because it was desert...they had less place to hide.

    But we didn't have things like Black Mamba, Mozambican Spitting Cobra, Puff Adders (well, not really). If you have to face one African Cobra, I think the black spitter is one of the calmest and least dangerous

  3. I hope you had a good time at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. In our just about seven years there we poured a lot into the place.