Next level reptile recovery

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Chris Hobkirk, founder and director of Lowveld Venom Suppliers in Hazyview has trained scores of people to safely handle and remove unwanted mambas, cobras and puff adders from homes in the region. The snakes they remove are not just released further into the Lowveld bush, they provide clean dried venom for the production of anti-venom in South Africa.

The snakes are taken to the centre in Hazyview, which is currently one of the larger suppliers of venom products in South Africa.

Chris Hobkirk handles a green mamba

The idea resulted after Hobkirk analysed 12 years’ worth of data gathered from relocating venomous snakes removed from residences in Nelspruit, White River, Malelane, Hazyview and Barberton.

Approximately 80% of Mozambique spitting cobras in any season were male and released to four sites. As approximately 60 of these spitting cobras were removed per season, their relocation could have created an imbalance over the 12 years.

With euthanaising venomous snakes or convincing people to live with them ruled out, a venom centre where they could be kept in pristine captive environments and ‘milked’ for life-saving anti-venom seemed like the perfect solution.

The centre, situated at the Perry’s Bridge tourism centre in Hazyview, adheres to strict biosecurity regulations. Staff members are professionally trained and all legal requirements in dealing with product and permits are in place. The NSPCA, the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and the Department of Environment and Tourism (DEAT) carry out regular inspections. The Alien Invasive Unit of DEAT also visits, looking for dangerous and invasive species on the new Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) restriction list in South Africa.

Extracting venom from more than 500 snakes is a mammoth task. For most species, the centre uses the standard method of letting the snake bite through a film into a glass. The liquid venom is dried, packaged and transported to the laboratories at the South African Vaccine Producers.

Anti-venoms were first produced more than a century ago when it was discovered that an animal could be ‘hyper-immunised’ against snakebites by gradually increasing a dosage of venom. The animal could be saved if the serum of an immunised creature was injected into it.

Today anti-venom is still produced along the same principles, albeit with minor modifications like neutralising the venom with formaldehyde to reduce suffering.

Milking venomous snakes is not for the faint-hearted

Blood is drawn then the serum is removed and passed through various testing and refinement processes until it can be used in humans with the same results. The serum basis contains immunoglobulins, which are digested by pepsin (digestive enzymes) to isolate the antigen (toxin) that in turn neutralises the venom. In South Africa anti-venom production was first limited to the venom of the puff adder and the Cape cobra, but bivalent anti-venoms were later produced against venoms of both snakes.

Trivalent anti-venoms were also produced for the three mamba species of Southern Africa. During the 1970s all the anti-venoms (bivalent, trivalent and monovalent) were integrated to form polyvalent anti-venoms effective against most venom, excluding the boomslang and the saw-scaled viper.

The centre offers venomous reptile capture and handling courses. Living in the Lowveld guarantees encounters with snakes and the courses provide participants with the confidence to manage surprise meetings.

Contact Chris Hobkirk on +27 82 372 3350 and Anneke van Schoor on +27 79 931 8744 or
info@lowveldvs.co.za

Five facts

September to March: The time of year when snake activity level is at its highest.
12 years: The amount of years’ worth of data analysed about snake capture and release in the area.
Immunoglobulins: The basis of anti-venom serum.
60: The number of spitting cobras removed on average from homes in the Lowveld during one season.
500: The number of reptiles from which venom are extracted at the centre each month.

Written by Mariana Balt. Photos Provided

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