Lawnwood’s Slithering Serpents
November 27, 2015

by Brittany Arendse

With the warm summer months finally here, we will be enjoying the outdoors much more frequently. This includes beautifully scenic hikes in and around Nature’s Valley, fabulous beach time under the warm, baking sun and loads more activities that lift our spirits and keep us young. On these warm days, many animals also come out of hibernation to enjoy the warmth with us. This means the arrival of the dreaded snake.

Over decades and decades of encountering snakes, many cultures have villainised and shunned these sometimes deadly but oftentimes misunderstood slithering serpents. Like many other creatures snakes are not overly aggressive and generally do not attack if not provoked or cornered. People often get bitten when trying to catch snakes; whether this is to remove them from your home or pure curiosity – this should not be attempted if you are not a trained snake handler and/or you have minimal knowledge of snakes. It is also a myth that you need to catch a snake once already bitten. Physicians can normally analyse residual venom on your skin to establish the type of snake/venom or administer a polyvalent antivenom that is effective against various snake venoms.

Recent snake encounters around Nature’s Valley, some of them reports by hikers and (sadly) many others roadkill, have piqued my interest and led me to the door of our local snake sanctuary. Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary offer hour long guided tours with the most knowledgeable guides I’ve ever come across. You start off peering into a pit, with supposedly about 20 individuals of six species. I could see about 8 individuals of three species, not very impressive, I know. The point of this exercise is that oftentimes we don’t notice them but they are there, it is, therefore, better to know what you’re looking at and how serious a bite could potentially be. At Lawnwood their main focus is to educate you on just that; they teach about the importance of, firstly, shape and pattern and, secondly, colour and habit. The first half of the tour is centred on local South African species, which you are most like to encounter. To name a few: Puff Adder, Night Adder, Mole Snake, Brown and Olive House Snake and so forth.

At first glance, I bet you only saw two snakes

Many of us know that the Puff Adder has a triangular head, and is short and fat with a V-shaped pattern along its length but did you know that they can complete a strike in 0.25 of a second? This along with its lazy, slow-moving habit allows for scary situations in the field. It is, however, a myth that they can strike backwards. All snakes have a spine running along their backs; it makes it impossible for them to strike exactly backwards. Mole Snakes: bullet-shaped head and completely black (but this is dependent on climate as the darker variant occurs more to the south of its distribution range). This species is not venomous but rather, a constrictor, which wraps around its prey and prevents breathing, and eventually causes death, by squeezing down on the body. These were but a few of the facts and information they provide you with, a lot of which I did not know or had misconceptions about.

Puff Adder (left) and Mole Snake (right).

As you are guided through the species and their defining characters you are also moved further up into Africa, the subtropics and the Americas, getting a feel, literally, for the snakes as you go. Snakeskin is unexpectedly smooth and also odourless for something that looks so scaly and never baths! 

Handling some snakessssss. Starting at the top left corner and moving clockwise: Brown House Snake (Southern Africa – constrictor), Burmese Pythons (Southern and Southeast Asia – constrictor) and Corn Snake (North America – constrictor)

There are also other reptiles at Lawnwood, the naughtiest African Monitor Lizard, who stuck out his tongue at me but I was told he does that with everyone. Also three tongue-less crocodiles – but apparently all crocs are tongue-less – another fun fact I now know.

The African Rock Monitor or Leguaan (male) occurs in Karoo and Savannah areas and can grow up to 1.7 m long. So a mini Godzilla!

Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary is a fantastic place to visit if you are curious about snakes and their habit or if you want to take the kiddies for an adventurous afternoon. There are also various places to relax and enjoy a picnic lunch as the pot-bellied pig grunts and moans and drags itself towards the shade. I’ll leave you with this thought: although snakes can sometimes be scary and dangerous, the balance of nature would be greatly upset with nothing to control populations of rats and mice – which to me is an even scarier thought. Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary is a must this holiday and gets a stamp of trust from The Trust.

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