Snakes Alive!

Words and pictures by Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute. Words and pictures by Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute.

Stiletto Snake. Of the 169 species and subspecies of snakes in Southern Africa, only about 10 percent are considered deadly; but a number of less-venomous snakes are capable of very serious bites that may not result in fatalities, but in prolonged hospitalisation.


The lesser-known Stiletto snake (italics Atractaspis bibronii), was previously known as the Burrowing Adder or Burrowing Asp. It spends most of its time underground in animal burrows, where it feeds on lizards and snakes. However, individuals are often found at night, especially after heavy summer rains. Its feeding strategy is to find a reptile in a burrow, move over it and then stab it sideways with one of its protruding fangs.

It’s found mainly in the wetter eastern half of the country, but also occurs in some arid areas like the Northern Cape. This snake is usually quite nondescript – either brown to dark brown with a similarly-coloured belly, or with a white belly. For some reason, people who encounter this snake think that it is a Mole snake or some other harmless snake, and many people are bitten when handling it.

The big problem with the Stiletto snake is that it cannot be handled safely in any way, as its large, sharp fangs point backwards and have a degree of rotation – which enables the snake to make a fang protrude and then to use it in a stabbing manner. It is also our only snake that cannot be held behind the head, as is often unnecessarily done when a snake handler catches a snake – the snake just twists it head to one side and one of the fangs will get the handler. Youngsters looking for snakes are at risk, as they often flip rocks or destroy deserted termite mounds in search of snakes and come across this species. But even experienced snake handlers often get themselves bitten.

The venom of this snake is potently cytotoxic, or cell-destroying, causing severe pain and excessive swelling; and in many cases, necrosis that may result in the loss of a finger. It is not considered potentially fatal, but there is a likelihood that you could spend several days in a hospital. Not surprisingly, this snake ranks with the Puff Adder and Mozambique Spitting Cobra as one of the snakes that accounts for most serious snakebite cases in South Africa. As for treatment, there is no antivenom, and there is very little that doctors can do in the short term. Victims usually receive painkillers, and may be injected with cortisone, antihistamine and antibiotics; but there is very little evidence that such treatment (except, of course, for the painkillers) has any benefits.

The site of the bite often discolours within a day, going very dark, and blisters may develop. It is never a good idea to cut the wound to relieve pressure, as this may lead to secondary infection. Blisters may be lanced to drain fluid, but large cuts should be avoided at all cost. In cases where severe necrosis develops, doctors should avoid cutting for at least 5-7 days. As for first aid, there is little that can be done – get to a hospital and seek treatment for pain. And sweat it out! ..

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