There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to venom.

If you haven’t guessed by now I have quite a large interest in venomous snakes, I pretty much spent my entire four years at uni studying them. I studied rattlesnakes and their venom during both my Honor’s and Master’s projects.

I want to briefly skim over the impacts that venomous snakes have on people, the functions of venom in all its forms and possessors truly fascinates me. For some people the danger which comes as part of the package when faced with venom probably acts as a driving force for that fascination, I won’t lie and admit that the thrill of dealing with a snake which has the potential to kill you does draw me in. The main impacts I want to discuss however are the ones which have devastating consequences on not only bite victims but also their families and communities. This is something I feel strongly about, especially after witnessing it whilst out in Guatemala. This will partly lead on from what I mentioned in my last post about observing wildlife from a distance and not attempting to capture snakes or any animal for that matter in the wild if you have no purpose or the required experience to do so, you put yourself in danger, stress the animal and potentially cause a sequence of negative secondary issues which I will go into below.

Whilst out in Guatemala the main objective of our research was to study the impacts of oil palm plantations on the endangered Morelet’s Crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) and the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawii). However we also carried out a lot of biodiversity surveys in the forests focusing on reptiles and amphibians. One of the snake species found in these areas is the Fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), this is a highly venomous species of pit viper known to the locals as Barba Amarilla. Getting to around two meters long and being a fairly quick snake with exceptionally quick and accurate strike speeds they can be quite the handful even for people with plenty of experience in working with venomous snakes. The venom of these snakes is primarily haemotoxic, it breaks down blood capillaries and muscle tissue. Local farmers are often bitten when they fail to see the snake and accidentally step on one, the snake thinks it is being attacked and this usually results in the bite. Something to be clear of here is that snakes will not chase you like some people enjoy saying in their little stories, they will almost certainly flee and hide the minute they feel a presence. It is very likely that you pass by a large number of snakes without even realising  when in the tropics if you are not looking for them.

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You can see how easily the Fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) blends in with its surroundings, this is why people often accidentally step on them, extra care and suitable footwear is a must when working in areas which are known to possess them.

So these snakes gain a bad rep from biting farmers as you would expect and this leads to people purposely killing any snake that they see, this involves a lot of harmless snakes which tend to dominate these areas and actually do farmers a favour by eating rodents in their fields. From seeing the consequences of these bites I can understand how people come to hate them but this ultimately puts them in more danger. Many of these farmers when bitten lose a limb, usually half of their leg if they were bitten on the foot. Yes this is sad and a poor human has lost some flesh but this is a minor issue in comparison to the end result. Many of these countries and areas have no health care systems so the farmers need to work for an income, often to support a family. This is the reason that many snake bites result in starving families as their fathers are unable to farm in places like Guatemala or their mothers are unable to work in the rice paddies of India after being bitten on the hands. It’s truly a horrible thing to see and I urge you to research the ‘One Millions Snake Bites’ problem in India where this problem is at its largest.

So, why should you leave snakes alone in these areas when travelling if you see one? Well, often with a little education locals will stop killing snakes (not all the time). In Guatemala the staff at the research station have been provided with tools and have received a little training in what to do if they come across a snake on the premises. This has resulted in staff who in the past would behead any snake with a shovel to those very same people who are completely fascinated by them. It’s a magical thing that occurs when you remove someone’s fear and replace it with an increase in understanding. So when an outsider or child for example comes along, oblivious to the dangers of playing with venomous snakes and picks one up, gets envenomated and either gets seriously hurt or dies what often happens is that the fear is restored. This is completely understandable in many communities were parents have lost children to snake bites, it’s no shock that they go out and kill snakes. However this just puts people into close contact with dangerous snakes again which inevitably results in more bites again. See how we are back to square one?

So the main point that I’m trying to get across with this slightly depressing post is just enjoy snakes from a distance unless you have a real purpose with the required experience and knowledge to capture them. Don’t be the person who sends a community back in time, causing secondary effects of serious injury or death with your actions. I know this sounds depressing and exaggerated but this really is an issue, I really urge anyone who is interested in this topic to research this issue in India, just Google ‘One Million Snake Bites’, it’s a great example how working alongside communities and scientists has already made huge positive steps in the right direction. Thank you for reading and I promise the next post will be a lot more positive! Maybe something a little story about the the origin of the beard…

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