My experience with the Cobras of Durban

There are around three and a half million people living in the Greater Durban Area, South Africa. Nestled amongst many of the suburbs surrounding the city, are a number of nature reserve, conservancies and green belts. These are severely fragmented, and constantly shrinking. Because of that, human/snake encounters are a regular occurrence in this part of the world.

There are around twenty-five species of snakes occurring in these parts, including a good few venomous ones. The Rhombic Night Adder (Causus rhombeatus) is the most common of the venomous species, frequently found in suburban gardens. Whilst a bite is not lethal to humans, it still should be treated as serious, and it is a painful experience. The infamous yet very misunderstood Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), (http://bioweb.ie/black-mamba/) pays a visit to the properties bordering valleys and reserves on a fairly regular basis. But far more common than the Black Mamba is another highly venomous species: the Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica).

The Mozambique Spitting Cobra is very common in the Greater Durban Area, frequently seen in and around homes. It is the species responsible for the most snakebites each year in South Africa, mostly due to them being common and often venturing into or around homes- when accidents happen. It has a destructive cytotoxic venom, which could well be lethal. In saying that, I can’t remember the last time someone was bitten by a Mozambique Spitting Cobra in the suburbs of the Greater Durban Area. Perhaps in the rural areas, but none that I can recall in recent times, although they may not always get reported. I know many of the bites in South Africa happen in these sorts of areas, as well as in game reserves.

 It’s a well-known species here, and feared, much like the Black Mamba. A few people here have the misconception that it doesn’t belong in South Africa due to its name. But it occurs in a few other countries in south-eastern Africa, not only in Mozambique. Again, like the mamba, it is very misunderstood. They’re quick to retreat, defending themselves only if necessary. They have the brilliant defensive-ability of spraying their venom, but they obviously can bite too, contrary to popular belief.

Above a juvenile and adult Mozambique spitting cobra, photos by Nick Evans.
Above a juvenile and adult Mozambique spitting cobra, photos by Nick Evans.

As a snake-remover based in Durban, I am kept busy on sunny days during the spring and summer period. This spring was particularly busy. After a few years with less rainfall than usual, including a period of drought, we eventually had terrific rains in September, and especially in October, when we actually had severe flooding. This rainfall of course brought out the frogs in force. The Guttural Toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) is the most common amphibian species in suburbia, and is a firm favourite prey item amongst the cobras. The cobras aren’t fussy though. They’ll eat rats, other snakes and even each other! With plenty of food around, they were really on the move.

September-October is also breeding season for the Mozambique Spitting Cobra, so that’s another reason for the spike in activity. I was getting calls for them almost daily! I was called to either remove one, asked advice about one which was seen in the garden but which disappeared, or called for advice about how to treat a dog which has been spat at. I was amazed at how busy these snakes were! It has quietened down now though, quite drastically actually.

During the month of October, I received two similar calls in two days. Both were for pairs of cobras! I had never had a call for a pair before, let alone a pair of cobras. And they were just a day apart.

The first call was for a “large brown snake”, from a security guard based at a small, electrical substation, just south of Durban. Well, it turned out to be two large brown snakes, not one! I discovered a pair of cobras cuddling in a pipe, which was partially buried. It was one of the most amazing and memorable snake sightings that I have ever had! The female was 1.2m long, whilst the male was 1.35m.

Two's a crowd! A pair of breeding Mozambique spitting cobras; Photo by Nick Evans
Two’s a crowd! A pair of breeding Mozambique spitting cobras; Photo by Nick Evans

The next day, I was called out to an office park, just north of Durban. The parking lot of the office park was bordered by a short wall (1m+-). On the other side of the wall was a gap, where a cobra had taken up residence. It had been seen on several occasions. A friend (Dylan) and I were trying to extract it out of there, which was no easy task. We tried flooding her out with a hosepipe, but that didn’t work, and so we had to try and break the wall to get it out. Many of the employees were terrified of it, but one caring man there was more concerned about the snake being unnecessarily killed. So we went ahead with the destruction!

Both Dylan and I were on our haunches, peering into the gap in the wall. We could just see the cobras face. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something rather alarming. Another cobra was moving alongside my foot! It was clearly gunning for that gap in the wall, and was now close to Dylan, who didn’t see it until I shouted! Fortunately, I was already in position, with my tongs, to grab the cobra in the wall. So it took me a few seconds to grab and secure this cobra. It didn’t even put up a fight, it just seemed focused on getting into the gap, with what I assumed was the intent of mating with the female inside of there.

About an hour later, thanks to the hard graft put in by one of the employees, we had broken down enough of the wall to get the remaining cobra out. What a job! She was about 30cm longer than the male. She had obviously left a scent trail behind, which the male picked up with his forked tongue. This is how snakes track down in partners in the breeding season. As well as that close-call for us, and two hours of frustratingly trying to get the cobra out, I had stepped back into the electric fence during the process! That seemed to cure the cold I had.

Similarly, in September 2015, I had a crazy day with cobras. I was called out to the Northdene area of Durban, for a massive cobra seen in a garden. Unfortunately, when I arrived, it had already moved down the garden and into the reserve below. The homeowner then took me to where he first saw it, which was in a woodpile. To our surprise, when we got to the woodpile, we could see another cobra curled up in there! I quickly caught it, feeling relieved that this wasn’t a waste of time!

I arrived back home, and started getting ready to go to a braai (BBQ) with friends. I had just showered, got changed, when my phone rang. I recognized the number, it was the man from Northdene again. “The big one is back!”. I raced over there, and could see he wasn’t over-exaggerating. It was a huge cobra, slithering into a storage area, right next to the woodpile. It was a little tricky pulling it out of the clutter, but I soon got it. I was amazed at the size of it! Together with the homeowner and his family, we measured this beast. It was just over 1,7m, which I thought could be a record length for this species!

As I was getting in my car to leave, I realised I had my left my phone in their garden. I had asked them to snap a photo of us measuring the snake. I walked around the house, and to my astonishment, there was another cobra! A third! It too was going straight towards the wood pile, after slithering up the bank. I grabbed it before it could get in there. It was of a similar size to the first one that I caught.

Three cobras in three hours- unbelievable! Upon checking the sexes of the snake, it all made sense. The first was a female, who was clearly ready to mate and who had left a scent trail behind.

Those were just three exciting calls, but there have been many in my almost three years of doing snake removals full-time. I’ve had a tonne of calls for these snakes, removing them from all sorts of places. I’ve caught them in rural homes, suburban gardens, cars, swimming pool pumps, bedrooms, bedroom cabinets, on a bedside table, in kitchen cupboards, underneath fridges, under T.V’s, and more! Each capture is a thrill for me. It’s always interesting seeing these highly venomous snakes in such peculiar places. And yet, I can’t remember the last time someone was bitten by a Mozambique Spitting Cobra in the suburbs of the Greater Durban Area. Perhaps in the rural areas, and I know many of the bites in South Africa happen in these sorts of areas.

Have I been spat at during these encounters? Yes, three times- not fun. Generally though, I wear a visor, which shields my whole face. The less venom you’re exposed to, the better. Many snake-catchers have, over time, developed allergic reactions to the venom of this species. Venom in the eyes is extremely uncomfortable, and painful too of course. It feels like someone has thrown course sand in your eyes, mixed with soap or vinegar. One needs to rinse it out immediately with water. I tend to use a hosepipe on low pressure. That’s my routine when I have to help homeowners rinse their dogs’ eyes, as well as my own. Dogs get spat at far more often than people do. People getting spat at is relatively rare, and usually it’s when people approach the snake. Incidentally, I recently captured one over a meter long. I had the head securely in my hands, although that does not stop this species from spitting. My friend who was with me, who was standing around 2.5m from me, walked past the direction in which the cobras head was facing. It spat at the movement, with the venom directly hitting him in the face. We had to rinse his eyes out! It was just a reminder as to how easily and accurately these snakes can spit. It’s a brilliant defensive mechanism.

 When it comes to pets, I mostly hear about dogs clashing with cobras, rarely ever cats. Dogs see the snake, and instincts kick in. Most of the time, the cobra is able to escape safely after spraying its attacker, but sometimes the dog ‘wins’ the battle (but not the war, as its left with painful eyes). When venomous snakes and dogs clash, it’s never a nice ending for at least one of the animals. I have been recording these incidents, and am nearing on one hundred records for the year. I’d of course prefer a lot less of them!

The unfortunate and painful result of a cobra/pet conflict, a Daschund on the receiving end of a Mozambique spitting cobras spray.
The unfortunate and painful result of a cobra/pet conflict, a Daschund on the receiving end of a Mozambique spitting cobras spray.

We’re only at the start of our summer here, so I am expecting the calls to pick up again shortly. Soon, it will probably be for females trying to regain their weight and looking for food, after laying their eggs. From January onwards, I should start getting numerous calls for juveniles. Really looking forward to it!

*Please note: the snakes that I catch are not sold or traded, they are released. With mambas and cobras, I measure, sex and collect DNA off each specimen before setting them free, for genetic projects.

Nick Evans
About Nick Evans 5 Articles

Nick Evans, based in Durban, South Africa, runs a programme called ‘KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian & Reptile Conservation’, a chapter of The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization. The purpose of the programme is to try and change people’s perceptions of these amazing animals, and raise awareness for the conservation of them.

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