Words and pictures by Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute.
The Herald Snake, also known as the Red-lipped snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia) is extremely common throughout the wetter eastern and southern parts of Southern Africa, and is often encountered, especially at night.
It is what is commonly referred to as a “mildly venomous” snake – it has fangs in the back of its mouth, like the Boomslang, and very mild venom that has virtually no effect on humans and domestic animals. You may experience very mild swelling and a bit of itchiness if you are bitten, but no worse than that. People often speak of a headache, but that’s all in the mind – certainly not caused by the venom. Back in Durban, where I grew up, this snake was also referred to as a “Night Adder”, because it was only seen at night. It is a frog-eater, favouring toads that frequent fish ponds and water features, as well as those that are attracted to the insects lured closer by security lights. This snake, with the Brown House snake, is very well adapted to urbanisation; it is frequently found in gardens in wellestablished neighbourhoods, where it seeks shelter in crevices in garden walls and rockeries, or under building rubble.
The name ‘Herald Snake’ has a rather peculiar origin: the existence of the snake was initially brought to the attention of the public in the Eastern Cape Herald newspaper, hence the common name. In many areas, individuals may have bright-red or orange lips, and that is where the name Red-lipped snake comes from. But it doesn’t always have red or orange lips, and in northern KZN and further north into Zimbabwe, individuals do not have red lips. The head of the snake is always darker than the body, and there are usually some white flecks on the body.
Females lay between 6 and 19 small, white, soft-shelled eggs in early summer; and the young, measuring 8-18 cm in length, hatch when there is an abundance of newly-metamorphosed toads around to eat. And they are exact replicas of the adults. When cornered, this harmless snake stands its ground, and while flattening the head horizontally will raise it well off the ground, and strike out repeatedly, not hesitating to bite. But, as already mentioned, it poses no real danger…