snakes

Gaboon viper

From the moment I learnt about the existence of the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) it entered, together with the Pangolin, in my “Hall of Fame” of animals I would like to see in the wild. I saw it “live” for the first time at a snake park in Tanzania and my interest increased.

Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons (2/11/190

It is a species found in the rainforests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Later on, reading about it I realized that it also collects a few gold medals. It is of course highly venomous and the largest member of the genus Bitis. With its record 5 cm fangs it is capable of innoculating the largest volume of venom of any snake! It measures in average between 80–130 cm, with a maximum total length of 175 cm and its body is rather large.

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Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons. Downloaded on 2/11/19.

Luckily for us bush walkers they are usually nocturnal, slow moving and placid and are very tolerant, but, if threatened they can side wind and even hiss. As they ambush their prey that can be up to rabbit size, their slowness is not an impediment and they are one of the fastest snakes when they strike!

C.J.P. Ionides (1901-1968), the well known snake catcher of East Africa, would capture them by first touching them lightly on the top of the head with his tongs to test their reactions. Most did not react angrily and he would grasp them from their necks with his hands while supporting their bodies with the other and then bag them where they stayed rather calm!

As I mention Ionides, one of my favourite African historical characters, I should mention that he estimated to having caught a few thousand Gaboon vipers, and he measured the number of black mambas caught in hundreds and the green mambas in thousands. [1].

You would agree with my decision to look for them when, in the late 90s, I learnt that they were present in Zimbabwe as these snakes are rare in southern Africa. Even in Zimbabwe they can only be found in the Honde valley, located in the Eastern Highlands, between the Nyanga Nationl Park and Mozambique, in the Gleanegles forest reserve.

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So, last week we went in search for the Gaboon viper despite the misgivings of Mabel who I managed to convince that there were many orchids there that she could look at while I searched for the snake. Of course she did not believe any of it but still agreed to come!

“…After driving through the beautiful Honde Valley and the Eastern Highlands Tea plantations you arrive at … Aberfoyle Lodge … situated in a very special part of Zimbabwe. With rolling tea plantations, riparian forests and the Nyamkombe river surrounding the lodge, you feel as though you are in an oasis of true serenity…” [2] The description is accurate as you really enter into a “different” Zimbabwe with strong similarities with the Kericho area in Kenya but with much less human presence.

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Tea was established in Zimbabwe in the Chipinge area in the 1920’s and the first tea at Aberfoyle was planted in 1954 and we saw sections of the plantations that have been there from 1960-61. The present Aberfoyle lodge was the Club for the tea estate. Originally planned as an Italian villa, lack of resources and the Zimbabwe civil war changed plans and it was finally built in a simpler way and completed in 1960.

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Our first thoughts were that, although the tea plantations are rather spectacular, lots of trees must have been removed to achieve this! However, reading about how the plantations were done, the damage to the forest was more from tree cutting for fuel for the factory rather than for planting tea. This was not because owners were ecologically minded but because it was cheaper to plant in open areas than to clear the forest.

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Later, the Gleaneagles mountain reserve -located between the tea plantations and the Nyanga National Park- was created to preserve what is left of the forest. In addition to tea, coffee was also planted and most of it removed and there are also pepper plantations and new ones of macadamia trees.

We stayed at the self-catering Hornbill House, part of the Aberfoyle lodge, a house once upon a time occupied by a farm manager and excellently positioned on a hill that offered great views not only of the undulating tea plantations but also of the far off mountains. To the west Mtaka, Kayumba and Dzunzwa peaks and to the east the rugged Tawangwena in Mozambique. They were mostly shrouded in smoke from the frequent bush fires as it was very hot and dry.

As we were new in the area we thought it was a good idea to join guided walks and so we went with the lodge’s birding guide Morgan who did not flinch when I asked to go looking for Gaboon vipers! He only quietly replied: “We will try”.

In fact, we went also looking for birds as the area is renowned for having several unique bird species but we placed a ban on little brown jobs (LBJs).

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Morgan and Mabel looking at a “No LBJ”!

I am quite sure that by now you have realized that, despite the efforts of Morgan and myself, the snake watching trip failed although we covered a few miles looking for it and threading carefully on the leaf-covered floor. I am pretty sure that no snake was to be found, otherwise Mabel would have found it miles before we would have done!

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The forest floor offered excellent camouflage for our target snake!

Luckily, thanks to Morgan’s skills and despite the LBJs ban, we saw a number of very interesting birds apart from Palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis) that nest near the 9-hole golf course of the lodge. Despite being residents we only saw their nest and the birds very far away like white and black dots.

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Narina’s trogon.

We had better luck in our forst walks. We found a few Narina’s trogon (Apaloderma narina) in several places and also sightings of White-eared barbet (Stactolaema leucotis), Grey cuckooshrike (Coracina caesia), Blue-spotted wood dove (Turtur afer), Blue-mantled creasted flycatcher (Thrococercus cyanomelas), Red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis), Livingstone’s turaco (Tauraco livingstonii), Red-throated twinspot (Hypargos niveoguttatus), Dark-backed weaver (Ploceus bicolor) and Green-backed woodpecker (Campethera cailliautii).

Two views of a Cardinal woodpecker, pale flycatchers having a bath, Narina’s trogon, and brown-hooded kingfisher.

We also enjoyed finding a number of butterflies along the paths we walked. We saw a few swallowtail butterflies and, thanks to Morgan, we found them congregated by the … River that traverses the tea estate. It was just amazing to watch these beautiful creatures fluttering and sucking up some nutrients at one particular spot. Unforgettable!

 

The visit was very enjoyable despite having failed to achieve its primary objective as we not only saw several bird species for the first time but also because discovered a real gem of an area in this amazing country.

As for the snake failure, it only fuelled my hunger to find it in the wild but, in the meantime, I will invite friends on Sunday to visit the ones at Snakeworld in Harare to see them there and get them out of my system, at least for a few months until we return to the Honde next year!

 

[1] Although rare, two books deal with his life, Margaret Lane’s ” Life with Ionides” written in 1964 and published by Readers Union; Book Club edition and his autobiography “A Hunter’s Story” published in 1966 by W.H. Allen. If found, both are worth reading!

[2] See: https://www.aberfoylelodge.com/

 

Note: This post is not meant as an endorsement of the Aberfoyle lodge and it only contains the opinion of the author who was a paying guest there.

 

Snakeworld

The place still exists. It is located a few km outside Harare, on the Bulawayo Road. We do not go there often nowadays. In fact, we have not visited it since we returned to reside in Harare after my retirement in 2013.

However, in the late 90’s we brought our children there a few times. The idea was to familiarize them with the various reptiles they were likely to find in Africa and avoid or at least minimize the “yuck” factor.

I still remember our first visit when we were fortunate to meet George, one of the guides working in the place. He was a small skinny man probably in his late forties. George only had one arm, his left. My recollection is that he had lost it after the bite of a cobra but the rest of the family believes that a crocodile was responsible for the loss. I am sure I am wrong!

The first time he guided us through the reptile collection it left such an impression that, whenever we came back for a visit, we looked for him as our chaperone. It was well worth it. He was not only extremely kind and patient with our children, but had a natural way of putting them in “direct contact” with the various reptiles. With him they handled for the first time varios beasts such as the resident monitor lizard, chameleons and a number of harmless snakes.

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A chameleon from our Harare garden.

What really made the visit to Snakeworld different was George’s guided tour through the successive enclosures that hosted the snake collection. These were a succession of glass windows where the various African snakes were on display. You started from the various non venomous snakes and gradually worked your way through a crescendo in poison severity that reflected on our level of excitement.

The tour started with a quick walk through the harmless beasts. As some of these had already been handled, they attracted mild interest.

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Mating Spotted bushsnakes at Masuma dam, Hwange National park.

The exception were the African pythons, located at the end of the “non-poisonous” wing. Their enclosure was large and populated by a few specimens, one of which was especially large if not very active. The ability of these snakes to kill and swallow prey much larger than themselves by virtue of being able to stretch their jaws was the main comment George made about them.

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African rock python. Picture By Yinan Chen (www.goodfreephotos.com (gallery, image)) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

While moving to the “poisonous” wing a few metres on, George prepared his audience for what was coming giving facts about the various snake teeth arrangements and various venoms.

The first dangerous ones were the boomslangs that only awoke mild interest on the youngsters. Conversely, I found their beautiful bluish-green colour and arboreal habits really fascinating and to see them brought to my memory and incident that happened a few years earlier while camping in Chobe National Park with our very young kids. We were sitting at our camp during lunchtime waiting for the heat to subside when, without warning, a green bundle landed between us with a thump. It was a boomslang that had just caught a lizard and clearly lost its balance! Almost before we could recover from our severe fright the snake re-climbed the tree and it was gone in seconds, only its bluish tinge and typical scales made me guess its identity.

But let’s go back to Snakeworld.

The twig snakes with their great ability to mimic -yes you guessed well- twigs, are always attractive as you can spend a few minutes before spotting them among the branches, even when you know they are there, looking at you!

While waiting for us to find them, George would give information about the biology of the various snakes, their distribution, conservation status and prey. Through him we learnt that Eastern Zimbabwe (the valley of the River Honde) was the place where the most dangerous snakes were likely to be found.

Then we moved to the final part of the exhibit, where George gave facts about each snake species. The latter ended with a statement about their lethality and this was the real “pièce de résistance” of the visit!

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A rather green boomslang. Picture by Day & Haghe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While boomslangs and twig snakes would kill you if they could get hold of some part of your body, death would occur after days of agony. The situation was more dramatic with the few that followed.

The gloated-looking puff adders with their excellent camouflage and slow slug-like displacement were striking as I could understand that stepping on one would be the most likely snake accident that could happen, as George confirmed.

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A freshly moulted and slow-moving Puff adder goes for a swim at the Sand River, Maasai Mara, Kenya in the 80’s.

The “cobra parade” started with the most common Egyptian cobra, that would kill you in a couple of days if not treated. We were getting anxious to continue but he would walk a couple of displays on and stop again showing us what looked like water stains inside one of the glass panels. Pointing at some beautiful terracota coloured snakes, he would explain that they would blind you if they would manage to hit your eyes with their spray of venom. I immediately remembered Alan and Joan Root filming spitting cobras in “Two in the Bush” where Joan wearing glasses was the target of a large spitting cobra while Alan filmed the scene! Two in the Bush is a great documentary worth watching!

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Young Spitting cobra pictured by bushsnob in Bushwhackers Camp, Kenya in the 80’s.

After the cobras it was the turn of the mythical mambas. The beautiful and deadly green mambas were first and they took us aback, honouring their names by sporting the most wonderful and shining pale green colour. George would explain that these were rare in Zimbabwe but rapidly lethal if not treated by the right anti-venom. We were all in awe at their almost “smiley” face that made them look deceivable friendly. “Luckily they live up trees”, George said to calm things down ‘but if beaten, you only last a couple of hours” he concluded.

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Green mamba. By Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

The black mambas were unnerving, not black but grey and reaching a size both in thickness and length that is not what you expect. Clearly an impossible foe to escape in the field if angry as, George told us, they can reach a speed far greater than a running human! Luckily, like most snakes, they are shy and move away way before we know they are there. “Do you enter their cage?” I asked George. His answer was short and clear: “No. If bitten you would only last a short time, maybe one hour”. “In South Africa, the black mamba’s bite is known as the kiss of death”, he added. The atmosphere was getting tense!

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Black mamba. Picture by TimVickers (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Trying to control our excitement and imaginations we came to the last window where we could not see anything. When George pointed it to us, a humongous and colourful snake suddenly came together. One very large Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), its thickest part like my forearm and with a large head, lied totally immobile in front of our eyes.

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Gaboon viper. Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

Adorned with the most beautiful colouring, waiting to explode in a strike that would take care of its prey. Its colouring consists of a succession of cream coloured sub-rectangular splotches running down the center of the back, interspaced with dark brown hourglass markings with yellow edges while its sides have a series of fawn or brown rhomboidal shapes, with light vertical central bars.

Although its colouring seems to be rather obvious, it gives the snake an excellent camouflage on its tropical habitat littered with tree leaves. George, showing it his utmost respect, mentioned that this snake was only found in the Eastern Lowlands but that it was -luckily- rather uncommon. He also mentioned that the one we were looking at had been at Snakeworld for many years and that it was extremely aggressive. Then he added: “we call it two steps”. Although I realized why, our kids immediately asked him the reason. That was what George had been waiting for! “You get bitten by this one and you can only walk two steps, then you die”.

Although I am not able to confirm his statement, the snake was massive and at the time I could imagine that the amount of toxin it could inoculate through a good bite would be very large and rapidly lethal[1]. I can assure you that George’s “two step” statement had an impact on the family and to listen to George saying it again become one of the reasons to return to Snakeworld.

As time goes on we mature things. In our case we have incorporated George’s “step” scale into our own family “bush language” and, in the rare cases we spot a snake, the immediate comment is “was this a two-step one or a ten-step one?” I must admit that we get lots of amusement with what follows.

 

 

 

[1] The Gaboon viper is the world heaviest viper with two-inch long fangs! Not surprisingly, it dispenses the highest amount of venom of any snake. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaboon_viper