The snake whisperer

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Their relative rarity and sheer beauty, combined with a placid temperament, makes the Gaboon adder an iconic snake species. While many people might question his words and run at the sight of a snake, Toy Bodbijl, consulting ecologist for ECO-ED Environmental Education and Training does not shy away.

Bodbijl rescues and rehabilitates injured Gaboon adders before releasing them back into the wild. He started studying Gaboon adders during the 1980s when relatively little was known about
their ecology.

At the time, their South African habitat was severely threatened by dune mining, land invasions and forestry plantations. Much of KwaZulu-Natal’s moist grasslands have been turned into sugarcane and timber plantations, and Bodbijl has his work cut out for him during the burns associated with these activities. “Managed burns of sugar cane and timber plantations are designed to burn large tracts of land with a high fuel load,” Bodbijl explains. The rescued snakes often have skin burns. “Far more serious, and often overlooked, is damage to their respiratory tract from heat inhalation,” he says. “This can cause pneumonia and death.”

Much of the snake’s range in South Africa is now protected. “The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was proclaimed a World Heritage Site after the 1994 democratic elections,” Bodbijl says, “so much of the Gaboon adder’s range in South Africa became protected too.” While the land invasions couldn’t be reversed, forestry and mining activity stopped.

Gaboon adder. Sketch: Graham Kearney

Although the establishment of the park has benefitted wildlife, the increase in tourism has had a few negative effects on these snakes. Increased traffic along roads to coastal resorts means slow-moving Gaboon adders often become roadkill. Breeding males looking for mates are particularly vulnerable from March to May.

“Gaboon adders are lethargic ambush predators that specialise in relatively large rodents, like red veld rats,” Bodbijl explains.

“The consumption of extremely large prey can prove fatal.” Snakes with full bellies move slowly and as a result can become fire victims or roadkill. A 2 075g female adder consumed a 2 139g large-spotted genet before being run over, he says.

Listed as Near Threatened, the snake’s colouring offers perfect camouflage among leaf litter and the moist grasslands it inhabits.

Gaboon adders have a wide range, occurring in 21 African countries from Benin to Mozambique. They naturally occur in relatively low numbers across their distribution, with strongholds in Gabon. A Gaboon adder bite is extremely rare due to their reserved nature. Their venom is predominately cytotoxic, so it affects living cells.

Written by Georgina Lockwood,

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