The pale yellow head of a Burmese python, forked tongue flicking, startles onlookers as it appears suddenly in front of Elroy Arendse's face, but he isn't even slightly phased. “Hello, you beauty,” he says, giving it a kiss.
Arendse is sitting surrounded by snakes – some in cases, some coiled around his fellow snake handlers' arms and, rather alarmingly, necks. The reptiles are acting as ambassadors for their kind at one of the many educational demonstrations Arendse helps organise for the public in Cape Town; around him and the snakes is gathered an even larger crowd of excitable humans.
Read: Learn how to handle and identify snakes
In his other life, Arendse is an assistance compliance officer, but his great passion is snakes. Snakes, and snake education: teaching their most grievous enemy – that would be us – not to fear them.
Fear, he says, is what undermines conservation of these unique creatures; fear drives dislike, even hatred of snakes, and leads people to interfere with and kill them quite unnecessarily and illogically.
“Adults are generally more scared of snakes than youngsters are,” says Arendse. “Often kids are the ones who persuade their parents to be more accepting.” Although there's some evidence that primate babies, including humans, evolved to have an innate fear of snakes, it does seem to be largely taught in humans. In the days when we lived in bush or jungle, fearing snakes was sensible, but now it should be way down on the risk scale, with modern hazards (like cars and guns) placed nearer the top.
View: Dangerous snakes
Even so, as human settlement encroaches increasingly into the last patches of wilderness, modern South African city-dwellers can encounter the occasional snake. The appropriate response when this happens, apart from not panicking, is to call an experienced “snake remover” such as Arendse.
Snake removers (as snake wranglers prefer to be called) operate in most parts of the country. This breed of snake fanciers will often travel considerable distances without remuneration to safely remove a snake from a property and relocate it – all in the name of conserving these unique creatures.
“We find snakes in people's gardens, but also in bathrooms, in vehicle engines (where they may creep for warmth, shade or shelter), and even in bedrooms and living rooms, “ says Arendse.
“One client found a cobra in her scarf drawer; in another case the snake was coiled inside a TV cabinet. They're attracted to water and areas they can hide, so rubble and marshy areas near your property are attractive to them.”
What to do if you find a snake on your property
Cape Snake Conservation recommends the following steps:
- Don't try to catch or kill the snake, or in fact interfere with it in any way. Bites nearly always happen because of humans interfering with snakes, not the other way round.
- Have someone keep an eye on the snake so it can be located when the snake removal expert arrives. Keep at least 5 metres between you and the snake while observing it, however. Take note of the snake's appearance and behaviour; it may be helpful if you can describe the snake over the phone to the removal expert before he/she arrives on site. Compare it to familiar objects e.g. the snake is the length of a rake or a ruler, and as thick as a person's wrist or little finger. Note overall colouration, distinctive markings and defensive behaviour e.g. hood spreading in cobras.
- Keep pets and people away from the area.
- If the snake is inside, close doors and windows leading to the room, and place a rolled-up towel along the base of the door to prevent the snake escaping.
- Call a reputable snake expert in your area from the African Snake Bite Institute's removal list. Don't make use of any so-called experts who do not have the correct permits to remove snakes, and who are not known by the reputable snake handler community.
Many local snake removers don't charge a fee for their services, and stress that their priority is protecting both snakes and humans, but they do appreciate a donation from those who can afford it for their time, expertise and travel costs – not to mention the risk they take.
What happens to removed snakes?
Snakes are removed with tools called snake hooks: these are used to gently guide the snake, and to deftly lift it off the ground, at which point the animal generally relaxes and can be safely deposited in a sturdy bag, crate or snake tube.
Using snake hooks to safely move a puffadder (Photo: O.Rose-Innes)
Snake handler Vard Aman uses a snake hook while releasing a Cape Cobra on Signal Hill, Cape Town. (Photo: O. Rose-Innes)
Then, in the case of an indigenous snake, it is transported to an appropriate release site. This is within a 20km radius of where it was removed, as snakes don't tend to travel long distances in nature. Also, moving an animal to a completely new area may introduce new pathogens against which the local fauna have low resistance
Exotic snakes such as escaped Burmese pythons will not be re-released; they may be kept by the snake remover as pets and used for educational purposes.
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Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.