Mar 18, 2014

Rinkhals and all

A few weeks ago I had the rare privilege of spending time with an exceptional South African snake. I was spoilt because it was the first time I’d seen a Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) and it really was a beauty!  

The Rinkhals is a venomous snake from the mamba and cobra family and does closely resemble a cobra, spreading a hood and rearing up lifting as much as half the body off the ground. It is however not a true cobra as, apart from some skeletal differences, it has keeled dorsal scales (this means that they are rough to the touch – but don’t try it!) and gives birth to live young (normally 20-30, but up to 60). True cobras lay eggs (oviparous), not being viviparous like the Rinkhals.

Our specimen was caught by doctor of herpetology Chris Kelly, in a built up residential area in Grahamstown. This is not uncommon habitat for the snake and despite its biggest threat being urban development it is still found on small-holdings in and around Johannesburg. The snake prefers grassland, moist savanna, lowland forest and fynbos where toads are plentiful, but it is also partial to lizards, rodents, birds and other snakes. They’ll also take eggs which they swallow whole.

At over a meter and a half this Rinkhals was on the large side, far exceeding the average 1 meter length for the species. Size is a testament to age and there is no doubt that she (it was probably a female) was mature in years and well experienced. This might explain her aggressiveness when caught but when we released her about 8 kms out of town she was very calm, rearing up and standing her ground, spitting only once.

Rinkhals spit their venom in two jets, one from each fang in the front of the mouth. It is effective over 2-3 meters but is sprayed generally in the direction of their attacker, and only from an upright or reared position. Although a dangerous neurotoxic venom that mostly affects breathing and respiration, human fatalities from bites or spitting are rare. Flushing the eyes with large amounts of fluid is the best treatment for spits and an antibiotic ointment can be used to treat potential secondary infections. If treated, and unless infection occurs, normal sight should return after three or four days.

After our photoshoot together, the snake was carefully carried off to some nearby brush by a river and released unharmed. It is typical for this species to disappear quickly when disturbed but will face an attacker if cornered. It is also well known for shamming death, which it does particularly well, twisting the top part of their bodies upside down or sideways, even holding their tongue out the side of a partially opened mouth! Be nervous of a shamming snake though, as they will bite suddenly and readily if handled or approached to close.

So the old dame, wrinkles and all, went on her hopefully happy way. And so did we, grateful for the experience and grateful that she had no doubt, evaded the many threats and dangers of life as a snake, especially all the many mindless plonkers who would have preferred to see her dead.