Snakes are traditionally the one creature that a great many people fear, and will kill without a second thought saying “The only good snake is a dead snake.”

You couldn’t be more wrong if you tried!

Snakes, like bats – which are also the victims of a groundless dislike in humans – have to eat. And, it seems, their favourite food is often other creatures that we also dislike. Snakes eat vast numbers of rats and mice, lizards, frogs and toads – and, strange to say – other snakes. Given that these “food-supply creatures” breed prolifically, we would be knee-deep in them pretty soon if it weren’t for the depredations of our friends the snakes.

What is of great interest to us at this time, is that modern technology is starting to unravel many secrets of how snakes hunt their prey. Did you know, for instance, that many snakes follow the heat trail left by a mouse or a rat, and are therefore able to hunt those animals at night. Sensitive infra-red detectors have only recently been able to pick up the very faint traces of heat left by a mouse’s feet as it scuttles along. Indeed, most such sensitive infra-red detectors have been developed for military applications – but the snakes have been following these minute traces for thousands of years.

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Snakes, like most wild creatures are generally very well behaved. The puff-adder gives an intruding human a direct warning of its presence by its rather spine-chilling hiss that gives it its name. Cobras rear up long before they strike. In fact, it is the human who is usually the intruder on the snake’s patch of territory. Sadly, most humans blunder along insensitively and this causes great alarm to snakes.

Native American Indian folklore records that they were never afraid of snakes and so did not exude an aura of fear as did the ‘pioneering’ white man who came blundering into their territories. Animals are quick to sense fear and so an unafraid Indian would pass the snake by, whereas a fearful stranger would have a frightening and sometimes fatal encounter.

For anyone who is keen on the outdoors and particularly those who are into hiking and being outdoors and on foot in the bush, or even just simple camping – a knowledge of snakes is pretty essential. There are some excellent field guides on the subject, and armed with a some knowledge you can then easily identify that snake under the fridge or tucked behind the loo in the bathroom – or curled up on your sleeping bag….

We are tempted to believe that snakes, like so many wild creatures, have a sense of humour, and this is why they so often appear in the most unlikely places – like toilet bowls, under fridges, behind doors – or as happened once to a colleague – stretched out along a row of spice bottles on his kitchen shelf… One is also made to wonder just who gets the bigger fright – the snake or the human. A colleague once told us of seeing a puff adder curled up on the low-tide beach sand just north of Sodwana Bay one night. That made our skin crawl, because like so many folk have done we have often walked barefoot along those same beaches at night and in the pitch dark…

Illustration 1: A puff adder curled up on the beach at night…

Many snakes that we encounter in our gardens are absolutely harmless. A common one is the cute little Natal green snake. This poor fellow is often mistaken for a mamba or boomslang and needlessly killed. It is a shy snake and lives on frogs. It is also easily identified in that the tips of its tongue are blue, and there are distinct black speckles on the body. There is the red-lipped herald snake – this fellow very rarely grows to any great size, is a slate grey colour with a distinctly reddish line along the upper jay. It is very mildly venomous and if bitten, a human might suffer a headache for a while. The vividly patterned night adder is also very mildly venomous and also signals its presence with a loud hissing noise. There is the brown house-snake too – a non-venomous constrictor and a great eater of rats, so a very good snake to have around. This snake is a sandy colour and has a distinct dark brown line running from the nose , across the eye to the neck. They also don’t grow to any great size.

So instead of running for the rake or the shotgun when you see a snake, take time to grab your Field Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa and go take a good look at it. You might well make an interesting friend out of it! And remember that a pair of binoculars enables you to get a close-up view of the visitor without you yourself getting close!

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