Photo of the week – December week #3: Puff adders

Dec 18, 2012

Off the 22 species of snake found on Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula, the puff adder is commonly regarded as the most dangerous, though not the most venomous. Hikers’ talk of snakes invariably includes hair-raising tales of encounters with puff adders; and climbers on Table Mountain all know about the cases of some hapless climber pulling up on a ledge to find him- or herself confronted by the scaly, triangular head of a puff adder.

As a Table Mountain guide, I’ve spend thousands of days on the mountain, often in remote locations, and have only come across puff adders twice in the past 7 years. So with regards the dangers of hiking Table Mountain, puff adders are not high on the list; but they are out there and it’s a good idea to keep up a level of vigilance without becoming paranoid about it. On Table Mountain, they prefer the rocky and shrub-covered, sun-baked lower slopes of the mountain, often basking in the sun on rocks, and care needs to be taken in this kind of terrain during spring and early autumn (September to March).

The puff adder is responsible for the most snakebite fatalities in Africa owing to its wide distribution and occurrence in densely populated areas. Another reason is its sluggishness: never in a hurry to take flight at the footfalls of an approaching hiker like other snakes, it often gets stepped on, which causes it to strike – faster than any snake on the planet; and with such force, its prey (rats and mice) is often killed by the physical trauma alone.

The venom of the puff adder is cytotoxic (toxic to cells; leads to a breakdown of cells and tissue), and though extremely painful and causing sever swelling, rarely fatal. The fatality rate highly depends on the severity of the bites and some other factors. Deaths can be exceptional and probably occur in less than 10% of all untreated cases. Most fatalities are associated with bad clinical management and neglect.

I came across the puff adder in the photo about 2 weeks ago while strolling down from the Pipe Track to the car park. Although always subconsciously on the lookout for snakes, I almost stepped on it. I had my wide-brim hat pulled low against the afternoon sun and was engaged in conversation with a hiking companion, walking at a brisk pace, my gaze directed only a few feet ahead of me. By the time I noticed it, strung out across the path and in no hurry to get out of the way, I was almost on top of it and had to side-step sharply to prevent stepping on it.


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