Death of a black mamba; death of all life
Many years ago, as a lad of seventeen I spent school holidays working on a friend’s sugar cane farm near Umzinto on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. On a hot summer day while on the farm, I killed a black mamba. It was a male, a little more than eight feet (2.4 metres) long. The execution was done with a pellet gun, half-dozen pellets and a stick.
At first, there was the modest sense of triumph one might expect of a teenager, since I’d ensured the safety of a number of people. But, later with the passing of years as I engaged increasingly with wild creatures, I thought back to that mamba with only a hollow feeling and enduring sense of regret. And the regret was tenacious and pervasive. It was just one of many such feelings that can come with growing maturity and change in outlook.
One the day of the encounter I was told that the tractor driver of the farm wanted to see me. It was an urgent matter. He was sweating from exertion when he arrived, and his words came in a rush. He’d just seen a huge black mamba coiled in an orange tree next to the footpath from the farmhouse to the labourers’ quarters. Although the snake probably wouldn’t be aggressive unless provoked, it was in striking distance of anyone using the footpath. It must be killed.
I was perplexed because neither the farm owner nor his mother was on the premises. Only they had access to the double-barrel twelve-bore shotgun which was locked in a safe. The cartridges were stored elsewhere.
Two other workers appeared. “It’s a big mamba close to the road,” they said. “The children go past that tree. What will you do? You must come now.” I could think of no good answer. The men persisted. The farmer didn’t let me use the shotgun; nor was it available for my use even if I had permission. It remained locked in the gun safe of the farmhouse. All I had was the rusted BSA pellet gun, a small-bore rifle that was not a suitable weapon of execution for so large a creature.
Still, the pressures were mounting. I must do something. I took the gun and a few pellets and approached the tree. The labourers were standing a respectable distance away in an erratic ring of excited, gesticulating onlookers. With the gun loaded, I approached the tree until I was a couple of metres from it, but could not yet see the snake. There was an expectant hush. I edged closer.
There, deep within the orange tree I saw the first evidence of what I had to deal with. A thick coil of dark grey tinged with a hint of brown and sporting a dull cream underbelly showed where the snake was draped. My head was not a half-metre from it as I tracked the sinuous body of the reptile. It was comprised of layer after layer of coils. The scales were beautifully patterned in little regular rows, like small shields melded together.
It looked enormous, and I had visions of something spanning four metres. The reality eventually proved more modest, but with a rampant imagination at work at the time, the snake seemed huge. It was as thick as my wrist, perhaps thicker. The crowd fell silent, waiting expectantly for action.
I pushed the muzzle of the air rifle against the reptile until it was in direct contact, and fired. The mamba didn’t flinch. I fired twice more, noting that the pellets had entered cleanly. The snake began slowly to resettle itself. It was a remarkably slight reaction because three pellets were now embedded. The mamba then slid forward a hands-length. It paused again, staring out at me with its jet black, mesmerising eye. There was no expression beyond the riveting intensity of the stare. It seemed to ask why I was driving these sharp, wounding missiles into it, but offered no threat at all.
I was making a hash of the job, and wanted desperately to finish the mamba’s suffering. Only later did I give any thought to the danger from a creature known for its virulent neuro-toxic venom and fearsome reputation for speed and aggression, draped through the foliage only a metre from my head.
After placing several pellets, I flushed the reptile from the tree. The crowd scattered, leaping and scrambling away with cries of alarm. The snake shot from the foliage on the far side of the tree and slid swiftly to the ground in a long, fluid movement. Despite the pellets, it managed to glide into a patch of rank grass where it lay concealed from view. I followed.
Two African kitchen staff arrived, carrying a heavy metal drive-shaft. We edged gingerly forward until we could make out the body of the snake amidst the grass stems. With a heave the men cast the metal rod onto it, pinning the snake and causing it to thrash and flail as it tried to escape. After discarding the rifle I despatched the stricken snake with a stick. We dug a shallow hole, dropped the mangled body into it and covered it with earth.
The cruelty of its death troubled me for years, yet I felt that I could not have left so venomous creature in peace when it was frequenting a habitat close to the staff living quarters. The larger snakes such as mambas no doubt came close to the farm buildings because rats, which were their major food source, were attracted by the grain stores. To leave the mamba in the vicinity could have led to an accident.
The troubling nature of the execution was deepened by several other encounters, during all of which the snakes I came across showed no aggressive intent. They only wanted to lie immobile as a camouflage, or else escape from the vicinity as quickly as possible. Not one came at us. Although my brother and I caught several reptiles for a Durban snake park, I never had cause to kill another snake.
On reflection, my brief anecdote about the mamba illustrates a syndrome that has operated continually throughout the world in recent times. It tells a microcosmic story of the worldwide destruction of wild creatures. Wildlife has been annihilated almost everywhere to make way for humankind as top predator. My home city of Durban, a port, can provide a good example.
In the year 1824 after literate Western settlers arrived by sailing vessel, they described the lagoon of Port Natal (Durban) as one of the most beautiful places in the world. There were mangrove forests, thick coastal lowland forests, reed beds, grasslands and scattered bush. Large and small game was everywhere, and the coastal seas were swarming with fish. The seashore was well populated and the river estuaries were thriving with an astonishing variety of life. Birdlife was plentiful. It had been an Eden.
And then, to these shores came Western man with his technology. Elephant herds were decimated, and buffalo, hippopotamus, the large carnivores, antelope beyond count, primates, reptiles and so many of the other wild creatures woven into the bio-diverse population of creatures were steadily annihilated for profit or sport.
Clearly, if we humans were to live here and use the marvellous resources the lagoon offered as a harbour, then the destruction of wild creatures was inevitable. How could the history have been different? If we were to survive and proliferate, it could not. We simply could not have continued to co-exist with the cornucopia of wildlife as our numbers increased and our properties expanded. One or other party had to give way. Inevitably it was the wild creatures that did so.
The question inevitably arises: what of the future? Will the present world-wide destruction of biodiversity continue unabated? Before I turn to that question, let me get back to mambas.
I was recently invited by herpetologist Jason Arnold, a noted snake-catcher living in Durban North, to join him in a ‘snake-release’. He was often featured in the local newspapers for his exploits in catching a variety of reptiles that had made some domestic residence or other its home, to the dismay of the registered human owners.
On this occasion, Jason had six black mambas ready for release. Each snake was secure in a spacious plastic container. There were adequate air inlets. A couple of centimetres of fresh water had been poured in to ensure that each reptile was well hydrated when it was released to explore its new home. They ranged in length from a young female of a bit over two metres, to a large male of more than two and a half metres. They were beautifully constructed creatures. Each was sleek and muscular; each sported the characteristic jet-black mouth cavity, a clean creamy-white belly and dark brown-grey back.
We drove for a half-hour to get well clear of human habitation that surrounds Durban, and found a remote spot along the inland Umgeni River Valley some kilometres from human habitation. Free of buildings, it was a unique wild location ideal for the release. Jason was well prepared for the job in hand, and efficient. He was focused and measured in his movements, with no sense of bravado. I was reassured. It was not a time and place for amateurs.
“I’ll get each one out of its box, and then scan it to see if it’s a repeat offender. If it already has a chip, I’ll know for sure. Finding a chip is unusual, but it happens now and then. I like to keep a check on their movements,” he said.
“Where do you catch most of them?” I asked.
“Outhouses, garages, storerooms, sometimes in the main house.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Not really. Not if you’re careful. They just want to get away.”
“Have you been bitten?”
‘‘A black mamba got one fang into me, and that wasn’t too bad because there was almost no venom. I think it was a mistake. As first choice, they’re not aggressive. They’d rather get away. I’ve had a couple of bites from other snakes, but nothing serious. I don’t take risks. Sometime, I think, people are unlucky. You know; really scaring a snake, or blocking its way when it wants to get away. And, as I say, they just want to get away. Sometimes when I’ve got them ready for release, they crap simply because they’re so afraid.”
In each case a procedure was followed; first re-catching the snake, then scanning its neck for an embedded chip, then searching for a good release site. This was usually a low branch on one of the acacia thorn trees. The body of the snake was first draped along a clump of branches or twigs until the reptile had a firm purchase, then the head was released with a gentle flicking action of the wrist to get it pointed away.
In every case, the snake wriggled uncertainly for a moment to get balance in the foliage, then got its bearings and settled down calmly. It first looked around to sight us, then moved away a metre or two before pausing, draped immobile across a couple of branches. There was no threat or aggression. The snakes all showed the gentle grin that the jaws of a mamba usually show. They seemed secure in their camouflage.
The images brought back memories. I knew that the gentle, smiling look of a mamba holds the promise of unspeakable horror.
After a while, most of the snakes slid slowly through the foliage seeking denser vegetation, and climbed further in the acacia trees to be well clear of the ground. They then lay immobile for a time, apparently feeling secure in their natural habitat. When we looked again in a few minutes, they had disappeared. It was time for extra care on our part.
Once we had released three of the snakes, we shifted our vehicle a hundred metres further along the road to ensure that the next three releases were free of interruption from those mambas already released. They could still be in the vicinity and there was no need to tempt fate.
I’ve seen one or two snake programmes on television, showing ‘experts’ engaging with snake encounters. Sometimes this is focused around provoking the snake to get it to show sustained aggression to which the presenter can react while showing bravery. It’s understandable as a strategy to enhance viewer enjoyment, but my preference is to watch a thorough professional who understands the usually non-hostile nature of the snake and handles the situation accordingly. If aggression needs to be shown, it should surely be kept in context and balance. Aggression is not the usual behaviour and overdoing it is tasteless and sometimes cruel.
These creatures are not malignant killers seeking out human victims to envenom. A human is, of course, not a food source. Mambas live largely on small rodents or young rock hyrax where these latter creatures have colonies. They immobilize them with their virulent neuro-toxic venom. They simply want to get away from a larger creature that they realise intrinsically is a threat with the means to do them serious harm.
Nevertheless, all snakes with highly toxic venom must be treated with deep respect. This is especially true if one encounters them in a confined space. One runs a serious risk if one behaves casually or carelessly in their immediate proximity, or misreads a situation. It’s best to retreat to a safe distance. There’s also always the possibility of simply being unlucky.
As with so many other beautiful creatures, mambas are by default identified as aggressive creatures posing an immediate threat, and are being killed systematically. The best protection these and other living creatures can have is to be provided with as much natural environment as can be afforded in the present climate of exploding human populations.
Indeed, the growth of human populations in most countries needs urgent stabilization or reduction. Surely we need to have fewer children and to devote more resources to each child? Obviously, in doing so we will have to confront enduring and pervasive, primeval instincts embedded deep within our consciousness. But now, has the time not come when we must confront overpopulation seriously? With climate change, it is the most difficult problem we humans face. Our very survival as a species depends on finding solutions..
We must give more resources back to the wild wherever we can, and must think more compassionately about the creatures that share our planet as we learn to empathize more. We need to re-establish biodiversity as best possible. We need to engage with the big picture beyond our personal concerns. And we must do this urgently at a particularly difficult period in our history as a species.
We also have a critical disadvantage no other species has; we are intelligent enough to destroy our own species totally and completely, but without sufficient empathy to prevent the catastrophe from happening.
I’ve written far more comprehensively in Adventures with African Animals, obtained for a few dollars from Amazon as well as Createspace (hardcopy) under Alex Coutts. They are displayed on www.alexeducational.co.za