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Black mamba! Meet the African species that one expert calls ‘death incarnate.’

Black mamba! Meet the African species that one expert calls ‘death incarnate.’

Douglas Lee

Meet the African species that one expert calls ‘death incarnate’

or much of my life I lived quite happily with the vaguely held notion that a mamba was a type of Latin American dance step. I learned of my error one evening beside a campfire in Africa, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, when my host announced that a black mamba had been seen in camp that day but not located since.

A mambo, I was informed, is indeed a cousin to the tango and the cha-cha. Africa’s black mamba, on the other hand, is a slender snake that grows to 4.3 meters (14 ft.) and packs a neurotoxic venom that almost always delivers speedy death. This is the sort of revelation that seizes a traveler’s attention, and it filled me with a keen interest in the natural history of the creature and its potential for intersecting with my bodily health.

We never did see the mamba, but it prompted me to start asking questions. I soon found that every bush person seems to have a story about the largest, quickest and most feared venomous snake of a continent loaded with reptiles of awesome powers. Throughout a range over most of sub- Saharan Africa, black mambas are the subjects of myths taken for truth and of true tales that are as strange as any myths.

On alert, as when hunting or threatened, mambas travel with a third of their bodies raised off the ground, so that a sudden confrontation can instantly put the snake head-high to a human. A bite to the face or torso or a direct hit into a vein or artery can bring death from paralysis within 20 minutes.

An aroused mamba often strikes repeatedly in blurred succession, reputedly fast enough to tag a bird in flight. Bush wisdom grants mambas an aggressive nature and great speed over the ground. Colonial lore tells of mambas overtaking men on horseback or dropping through chimneys to wipe out whole families. In fact they are among the nimblest of snakes, quicker than a person in thick bush and at times undeniably pugnacious.

My inquiries took me around southern Africa and introduced me to a loose and eccentric circle of herpetologists, field collectors, bush guides and native people who actually know the creature. All are admirers, for the black mamba–king of a tribe that includes the smaller and less aggressive but still lethal green, western green and Jamieson’s mambas–is an altogether extraordinary animal, a superb predator at the top of its food pyramid. A full-grown black mamba has little to fear except those age-old destroyers of serpents–people.

The first mamba I ever saw was moving through the treetops of a friend’s garden on the edge of the Okavango. A swarm of palm-sized songbirds informed us of the snake’s presence by their angry mobbing behavior. I’ve watched cowbirds and blue jays harass my cat in my Maryland backyard, but that was friendly joshing compared to the hazing that the diving, chittering swarm gave one of the largest predators in their arboreal world.

The homeowners shared the birds’ feeling. A shotgun was produced and down tumbled the mamba, fully 8 feet long, with dull dark olive skin–an adult is more dusky green or purple than black. A black-lined mouth curved upward in a humorless smile on a coffin-shaped head.

When the snake was unmistakably expired, we picked it up carefully, holding it with two hands as one would a live one. An inadvertent scratch of the fangs in death could be as fatal as a live bite.

The tail lashed around my arm in fading reflex. The dry skin was cool and the dead muscles squeezed mine with one last spasm of whipcord strength. The sensation gave me an involuntary shiver, of the sort people say means someone just walked over your grave.

he next black mambas that I found were safely behind plate glass at Jack Seale’s Snake and Animal Park outside Johannesburg, South Africa. A clipped moustache accents Jack’s roguish air. “It’s one of the gods of Africa,” he says. “It holds the power of life and death. An elephant can kill you. A lion or leopard can kill you. And a mamba can kill you. But with a mamba bite, since the dawn of time, it’s sure. It is death incarnate.”

In the late 1970s, Jack twice lived for weeks at his animal park in a small room with black mambas and other snakes. A paying public viewed him through a glass wall to raise funds toward purchasing a gorilla for the Hartebeesport Dam Snake and Animal Park. Jack never left the cubicle, but was not bitten. “I did it as a subtle hint that you’ve got a mind, that you don’t have to destroy a snake, and it doesn’t have to destroy you.

And what was the secret of Jack’s astounding, if lunatic, success?

“Never make a sudden move. In the animal world, if you move quickly, it’s to kill. If you move slowly, you’re not dangerous. I have a photograph of a mamba settled down over my eyes like a death mask. You can’t sneeze when it’s flicking its tongue up your nose.

“Everybody tells you that mambas are aggressive. Unless you enter its domain and threaten it, the mamba is the most docile, most gentle and unassuming snake you can get. If mambas were so bad, I couldn’t have entered that cage. They would have killed me.”

Actually, one almost did, though not when he lived among them. At the end of a normal day of snake keeping, a young assistant accidently bumped Jack while he was putting a newly captured 3.8 meter (12.4 ft.) black mamba into a cage. Distracted, Jack released the snake’s head before turning loose of the tail. The snake doubled back and struck him on the ankle. Jack knew then that he faced death, but he didn’t yet know that he was about to make medical history.

“Your brain doesn’t react quickly,” he recalls. “You realize, geez, it’s bitten you. I ripped it off my ankle, and the venom was actually shooting out of my body, and I looked down and said Oh my God.'”

Black mamba neurotoxic venom is one of nature’s most efficient poisons, acting on the nervous system. It paralyzes with a speed designed to drop a mouse scuttling for its cranny, and the amounts delivered in a bite can be gargantuan: 100 to 400 milligrams, when 10 to 15 milligrams are fatal for a human being if not quickly counteracted with massive doses of antivenin. Jack injected himself intravenously with two 10-milligram vials of antivenin he had at hand, along with cortisone and adrenalin to counteract his known allergy to antivenin. The allergic reaction, which Jack shared with an estimated 10 percent of the human population, can lead to fatal shock if not properly and immediately treated.

Driven to the hospital by the distraught assistant who had precipitated the incident–and who was convinced that he had inadvertently killed his boss–Jack had to be carried in. Though the assistant was frantic, Jack himself no longer cared whether he lived or died. “It’s a pure neurotoxin, and it gives you a buzz. It’s the nicest feeling. First you get a sense of lightness. Then you start getting tingling sensations, like pins and needles. Then you get a very warm feeling over your body, like when you haven’t eaten all day, and you have a beer. Your tongue gets kind of funny, and it’s a lovely feeling.”

Jack’s sense of well-being notwithstanding, only immediate application of a heart-and-lung machine kept him alive. In previous years, Jack had lectured on a theory he developed while observing experiments with mamba venom and rabbits. He believed that because the toxin exclusively affects nerve function without harming tissues or blood, humans could survive with mechanical life support, kidney dialysis and blood transfusions until the body’s chemistry reestablishes itself. It so happened that a doctor in the emergency room had heard him lecture, and he promptly put Jack on his self-prescribed path to survival.

For a week Jack lay without moving, unable even to blink. His wife spent hours playing music and talking to his inert form. No medical precedent existed for his case.

“I heard everything,” Jack says. “One doctor kept saying, Pull the plug, give the poor bugger a break.’ I heard them say I was going to be a vegetable. I thought, Not me, my boy.’ I hung on the words of everyone, kept myself sane by picking up on patterns, the time of day, who was coming in and out.”

A week after admittance, Jack managed to twitch a finger. A few hours later he was out of bed and walking around, and he left the hospital the next day under his own steam. He knows of no lasting damage to his body.

Similar treatment is now standard for mamba victims who are past the point of responding to antivenin. Jack’s ordeal ultimately has saved many lives. Historically, he points out, victims in a comalike state were often taken for dead while actually experiencing something like suspended animation– effects similar to curare’s or those of the blowfish poison given to voodoo’s zombies. “It’s part of the folklore and fear of mambas. Sometimes the bodies didn’t rot for five or six days–because they weren’t dead! And sometimes they got up and walked away!” Such a reaction may occur when a striking snake delivers only a minimal dose of venom.

In a global perspective of reptilian reputations, black mambas stand atop their continental hierarchy, in a company with Asia’s king cobra (at 17 feet, the world’s longest venomous snake), Australia’s taipan and South America’s bushmaster. Yet mambas deal only a fraction of Africa’s estimated 200,000 annual snake bites. Surprisingly, the phlegmatic puff adder–well camouflaged and little inclined to avoid approaching footfalls–is thought to kill more people than any other African snake. Drop for drop, the Cape cobra’s venom even outpunches the mamba’s, as does that of southern Africa’s boomslang.

The snake doubled back and struck him on the ankle. Jack knew than that he faced death, but he didn’t yet know that he was about to make medical history

But the black mamba, as a total package, has no peer in its realm. “Without question it’s the most dangerous venomous snake in Africa,” says Don Broadley, a herpetologist recognized by his peers as the leading expert on mambas. “It’s highly strung, twitchy.”

Usually intent on escape, mambas nonetheless will attack in defense of home territory. They can be especially dangerous if cut off from a den hole. Don has spent a career doing just that, on purpose, first to clear them from Rhodesia’s railroad right-of-ways and later to collect specimens as curator of Zimbabwe’s Natural History Museum at Bulawayo. He has captured hundreds for zoos, breeding and study. Only once did a mamba outfox him. The biggest one he ever saw ran up his catching stick to stare him in the eyes for a long minute before escaping. “If I’d made a false move, I wouldn’t be here,” Don says.

Their volatility is their greatest danger, particularly when cornered or surprised. East Africa’s famed snake expert C.J.P. Ionides cites a reliable account from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) of 11 people dying in a fracas between shepherds and a single black mamba. One mamba that Ionides captured had killed seven villagers at the same spot. She lived out her remaining years peaceably at the London Zoo.

In the cool hush of the Zimbabwe Natural History Museum’s specimen room, Don hands me a skull of Dendroaspis polylepis: narrow, delicate, with two fangs ready to replace the working pair in a snout that articulates upward to point the fangs forward like stilettos. New fangs are produced on demand over a lifetime of perhaps 25 years in the wild.

No other snake matches mambas in lethal design. They possess the most forward-pointing fangs of any snake, placing them at the evolutionary vanguard of the family Elapidae, the fixed-front-fanged snakes. These include cobras, coral snakes, kraits, shieldnose snakes, sea snakes and dozens of Australian species–every one of them venomous and potentially dangerous.

Next door he introduces me to the living thing, or things: Danielle and Angelique, a black and a green mamba, thought to be females, who watch over the museum’s computers from a floor-to-ceiling glass cage. “Never had a burglary,” he remarks.

Each is just being fed a last mouse of the season before falling dormant throughout the southern winter. Each strikes quickly at the freshly killed prey, then unhinges her jaws.

Bred in captivity, Angelique is 1.8 meters (6 ft.) of brilliant, iridescent emerald. Dusky Danielle, almost a meter (3 ft.) longer, was found as a hatchling still with her egg tooth but already 61 centimeters (2 ft.) long–black mambas can exceed 2 meters (about 7 ft.) in their first two years. Hatched in clutches of up to 25 eggs laid in a stump or underground, they possess fangs and lethal doses of venom upon emerging from the shell.

Don points to their sleek builds–streamlined for speed–and javelin- shaped heads as useful adaptations for lives lived in branches and holes. Green mambas, western greens and Jamieson’s inhabit tropical and subtropical forests, are almost wholly arboreal, and hunt primarily birds.

As much at home on the ground as aloft, black mambas are found over a much wider range, from Senegal and Sudan to South Africa. They den in termite mounds and rock crannies as well as in trees. Highly adaptable denizens of savanna, woodland, rocky slopes, forest and swamp, black mambas hunt birds but extend their appetites to mammals as large as hyraxes, the size of young rabbits. Don has never known a mamba to dine on anything other than warm-blooded prey.

During the many months that I lived around the Okavango Delta, I became known as something of a mamba man. The tight-knit bush community was interested in my interest, and almost every day after the spring rains began and the Kalahari blossomed with greenery, rodents and snakes, people brought stories of mambas and cobras. But I had yet to see a black mamba in the wild that was not quickly executed or hysterically pursued.

Yet the snakes were all around me. Black mambas show a surprising tolerance of people if not harassed. Homes, gardens and farms are magnets for birds and rodents, and hence for mambas, too. Human habitations beside rivers and lakes stand on prime travel routes for mambas, so it is no wonder that human encounters with the snakes are not infrequent.

Mambas were found warming themselves around truck engines, looped around toilets, disappearing into houses. A neighbor’s cat survived a hatchling’s bite to its paw and killed the snake. Four mambas were found nesting in a schoolteacher’s house, reptilian neighbors to his children. I even heard of mambas striking at cars, and of buses halting until a mamba left the road in front of them.

Finally, late one afternoon, I heard a parade-ground bellow from friend and safari operator David Dugmore: “Douglas! Black mambaaa!”

Several of us crashed through brush to find David peering at a thornbush. A dark snake wound around the branches, constantly moving. Its nape was flared, cobralike, an unmistakable warning. Had it broken cover toward us, there would have been a great scattering of wilderness guides. Instead the snake coiled deeper into shadow, trying unsuccessfully to hide 2.5 meters (8 ft.) of itself in the thin bush.

Casting this way and that, it paused to regard us with a long, level look, both conveying appraisal and warning. Then it flowed with breathtaking speed down and across a path, tail zipping by in an eye blink. Tall golden grasses swallowed it up, leaving just the sunny grove, the afternoon bird songs and an empty place in the air where it had been. The serpent’s unseen presence lent the honeyed sunlight a special shimmer, charged the landscape with the power and mystery that dwell in the African bush.

Freelancer Doug Lee first visited the Okavango Delta in 1988 and has lived intermittently in southern Africa ever since. His permanent residence is on the Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore.

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Wildlife Federation

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