The Shadow of Death

The Shadow of Death

Inhabitants of South Africa hold the black mamba, Dendraspis polylepis, in great dread; to them this snake is the shadow of death. Many authorities consider the black mamba the deadliest snake in the world.

Outstanding among the many old wives' tales about the black mamba is the assertion that it can keep pace with a fast—moving horse. Even though this is a gross exaggeration, these snakes can move exceptionally fast for crawling reptiles. They have been clocked at seven miles per hour and can easily overtake a slowly fleeing human. Striking swiftly, they deliver a load of venom toxic enough to kill several men. Unless medical attention is immediate, the victim will most certainly die, usually within a very few hours. Recently a man bitten on the shoulder died in less than ten minutes! The snake probably delivered the bite directly into an artery.

Being inhabitants of the dense bush and jungle, black mambas do not often come in contact with man. Therefore, despite the extreme toxicity of their venom, they are not the greatest reptilian killers of man.

The dubious honor of top killer goes to another serpent, the puff adder, Bitis arientans, which kills more people than all other snake species on the African continent combined! The puff adder is rather lethargic during the day, but at night it seeks out human habitations in search of rats, its chief source of food. The snake is not easily frightened, and when a human approaches it does not move out of the way and is therefore easy to step on in the dark. When this happens, the snake reacts instantaneously, and the human is bitten. The puff adder has enormous fangs and very deadly venom. Medical treatment is often not available, and usually the victim dies.

Although the puff adder is a much feared snake, it once served a useful function. Before rifles were available in central Africa, natives would capture a live puff adder and tie it to a post alongside a well—traveled buffalo trail. The furious captive snake would strike violently at the first unsuspecting buffalo that came within range. The buffalo that was bitten would soon die, thereby providing the hunters with fresh meat. And, as often as not, the snake itself was served up as dessert.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth