How to cope with snakes

Even Indiana Jones quails in the face of snakes, but there's no need to fear...

7 mins

There is a primordial fear of snakes among many people, and the Processione dei Separi is perhaps an acting-out of people’s respect for – and dreadful fascination with – the Biblical baddy that introduced evil to mankind. Fear of snakes is often out of proportion to the actual risk. Strangely, even in parts of the world where they are harmless – Madagascar, for instance – snakes are still regarded as harbingers of evil and illness. Is that why, when travellers set off into the jungle, they often ask questions about snakes? They want to know: “Should I take antivenom?” “How can I avoid being bitten?” and “If I am bitten, how many minutes do I have to live?”

The fact is that it’s rare to be bitten by a snake of any sort, and people are not attacked at random – snakes seldom strike without provocation. Those most likely to be bitten are agricultural labourers who disturb snakes in the course of their work, especially those cutting sugar cane or harvesting rice.

Being bitten by a Russell’s viper is the fifth-commonest cause of death in Burma and most victims are bitten in ricefields. Statistics about snakes are incomplete and therefore unreliable but, globally, perhaps 100,000 people a year die from snake bite; cobras are probably responsible for the most deaths. They are especially common in India and live close to people, feeding on rats that scrounge from human rubbish, chicken feed and the like. Sometimes they stray into houses where they get cornered and strike out in self-defence. Snakes attack in response to movement, so anyone who can stay cool enough to stand immobile won’t be bitten. The trick is to stand stock still until the snake slithers away.

Avoiding bites

Most snakes hunt at night, so venturers who are camping risk bites if wandering out after dark to find somewhere to pee. It is especially important to find a torch and put on shoes even for such brief expeditions. Another time when people inadvertently disturb snakes is when collecting firewood, since snakes – as well as scorpions and big, venomous centipedes – skulk under fallen logs during the day. The technique is always to lift and tip any wood away from your legs so that creatures underneath will flee away from you. Rock climbers sometimes disturb snakes that are basking in the sun on a ledge – in snake country you always want to be able to see where you are about to put your hands.

There are very occasional accounts of people being bitten while they sleep.
This is most likely to happen to those sleeping on the floor, as poor villagers do in India, for example. Sometimes backpackers are offered a mat on a veranda: I encountered some gap-year students in Nepal who were given mats to sleep on in a grain store.

Since grain attracts rats, and rats attract snakes, this was less than ideal accommodation: anyone local with any sense sleeps on a charpoy (string bed). Accidents happen when a snake is roaming around inside a hut looking for food; it strays close, the person moves in their sleep, the snake feels threatened and bites. Sleeping off the floor is safer – on a camp bed or in a hammock – and sleeping under a tucked-in mosquito net is even better.

Kinds of snakes

There is a huge array of snakes but less than a sixth of more than 2,900 species are seriously venomous. The trouble is that the definition of which snakes are harmful and which are not continues to be redefined so it is best to treat any snake as potentially nasty. Even the non-venomous British grass snake can inflict a bite that will become infected and troublesome. There are 11 species of cobra with specially modified fangs, allowing them to spit if cornered – some can cause permanent blindness. Constrictors occasionally kill people, too.


Any snake bite is best treated and cleaned by a paramedic. Hospital and clinic staff should be in a position to assess any bite and, if necessary, administer antivenom. This needs to be specific to the species of snake although in some localities the antivenom will be a ‘soup’ of several venom types; Indian antivenom, for example, covers cobra, krait and Russell’s viper. Serious allergic reactions are common in response to even the ‘correct’ antivenom, so it needs to be given by a trained clinician who has adrenaline ready to treat anaphylaxis should it occur. Antivenom, then, is not something the average backpacker should carry. Suction devices and other gismos don’t help either.

It is worth knowing that snakes are often mean with their venom; it is energy-expensive for them to produce so they often withhold it if they can. Even highly venomous snakes may give ‘dry’ bites where no venom is dispensed. It is estimated that the rather lethargic seasnake will only envenom 20% of its bites. Saw-scaled vipers, though, are thought to be more malignant and envenom 80% of the time. As a sweeping generalisation, there is a 50:50 chance of receiving no venom, even if bitten by a venomous snake. Venom is a meat tenderiser, designed to immobilise and help digest prey – most snakes that bite humans just want to get away and save their venom for catching dinner.

That said, everyone wants to know what to do if bitten, and incompetent first aid often does more harm than good. Cutting into any bite is a bad idea. It does nothing to flush out the venom but can cause nerve damage, and – if the snake is a viper or other species whose venom hinders blood-clotting – then such cuts can provoke disastrous blood loss, which can itself be life-threatening. Tourniquets, too, are not recommended since these do little to stop the venom but can cause loss of a limb: every year in the developing world many limbs are lost when a tourniquet is applied after a non-venomous or ‘dry’ bite.

The ‘best’ first aid treatment partially depends upon the kind of snake but, for all bites, keeping the victim calm and immobile is good. Splinting the bitten part to keep it still helps to reduce venom spread and pain. Keeping the bitten part below heart height is also wise. Then evacuation needs to be arranged. Vipers tend to cause a great deal of swelling around the bite site and one important additional measure is to remove any tight jewellery.

In Australia the many dangerous snakes all belong to the elapid family, so first aid is straightforward. The bite site shouldn’t be washed (because Australian medics can identify the species from spilt venom). A pad of cloth should be placed over the bite and then the bitten limb wrapped as much as possible with a stretchy crepe bandage. Bandaging should start at the toes or fingers and continue up the limb (including over the bite site) to cover as much of the limb as possible. This technique is also helpful after bites from cobra, mamba, seasnake, taipan and krait but should not be used for viper bites.

But don’t worry: be properly attired for the jungle and sleep off the ground and you will be fine.

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