SOUTH AFRICA
2003


"Spitting Cobra"

Mkuze, KwaZulu-Natal

 

Mkuze on the N2, the main road
down the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

Cameraman Mark Stokes, sound recordist Ross Neasham and I flew into Johanneburg, picked up two vehicles and made the 7hr drive to Piet Retief and then on down the N2 highway to Mkuze on the Elephant Coast, in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Arriving after dark, we met up with our production team at the Banghoek Lodge.

The Banghoek Lodge, run by the very amiable Pine, was located on a small road that ran parallel to the N2, on the other side of a railway track. It would become our base for the first half of the filming trip and although we often ventured as far south as Empangeni or Intibane, on snake call-outs, we would return to Banghoek.

Already in residence were Donald Strydom, an old friend from the days of filming Black Mamba and the owner of the Swadini (now Khamai) Snake Park near Hoedstruit in the Transvaal, Warren Klein, a young S.African snakeman, and Bruce Young, an American herpetologist who had been a contributor on the film The Cobra's Revenge.

Bruce, Pine, Mark and Warren at Banghoek Lodge. 

 

 

We would be based around Mkuze and planned to film at several locations in the vicinity but responding to snake call-out, in the hopes of bagging some spitting cobras, could mean we would have to drive considerable distances away from our base. Fortunately the N2 is a very good road and most major towns in northern KwaZulu-Natal were within a couple of hours drive time.

Mkuze is located on the N2 just south of the Swaziland border. The habitat is Acacia savanna and savanna-woodland. The Umbombo Mountains separate Mkuze from the Mkuzi Game Reserve.


Acacia on the lowveldt habitat around Mkuze. Hillside habitat near Mkuze.
  Acacia savanna and the Umombo Mts lie between Mkuze town and the N2
from the Mkuzi Game Reserve and the coast.
Ghost Mountain (529m) near Mkuze, scene of several blood battles.

We planned to search the local hibitats widely for Mozambique spitting cobras (Naja mossambica) and other interesting reptiles, whilst all the time Donald kept his mobile (cell) phone switched on in the hopes of a call-out. If the call came from somewhere within easy reach of the N2 we would stop what we were doing: filming, searching, interviewing, jump in the vehicles and head off in the hopes of bagging an mfezi, the Zulu name for the spitter.

Mark out herping with Ghose Mountain in the background.

 

FROGS from MKUZE
Red toad, Schismaderma carens
Bushveldt rainfrog, Breviceps adspersus
Grey foam-nest treefrog, Chiromantis xerampelina

Searching around Mkuze revealed a number of amphibians, ie. Red toad (Schismaderma carens), Guttural toad (Amietophrynus gutturalis - see later), Bushveldt rainfrog (Breviceps adspersus), and the Grey foam-nest treefrog (Chiromantis xerampelina), for which Mkuze is about the southern-most extent of the range.

LIZARDS from MKUZE
Northern striped skink, Mabuya striata striata
Large-scaled grass lizard, Chamaesaura macrolepis macrolepis
Large-scaled grass lizard, Chamaesaura macrolepis macrolepis,
in close-up showing head and hindlimb detail.

 

Lizards recorded included the Northern striped skink (Trachylepis striata striata) and the curious, almost legless Large-scaled grass lizard (Chamaesaura macrolepis macrolepis), a lizard that mirrors the snake-lizards (Lialis spp.) of Australasia in being elongate, long-headed and in possession of short, flap-like hindlimbs.

Donald found a Southern African rock python (Python natalensis) somewhere near Mkuze.

Southern African rock python, Python natalensis

Apart from natural habitats we also searched man-made agricultural habitats such as the extensive sugar-cane fields around Mkuze. These dense areas are probably full of wildlife of all kinds, they certainly attract a lot of rats and warthogs, but it was impossible to venture far off the bisecting fire-breaks through the cane fields.

 

Sugarcane fields near Mkuze. Irrigation booms in the sugarcane.

Sugarcane workers trapped a snake
in a pipe in a ditch.
Arriving to remove the snake
which turns out to be a
young
Puff adder, Bitis arietans arietans
Searching other ditches did not produce anymore snake.

We did get an occasional local call-out such as a snake found in a dtich by sugar-cane workers. They had the good sense to drop a heavy concrete pipe over the snake so it was still there when we arrived, a juvenile Puff adder (Bitis arietans arietans).

Puff adder, Bitis arietans arietans
Photographing the Puff adder, Bitis arietans arietans

We learned that it was sugar-cane burning season, when a deliberate fast-burn would take out all the dead growth quickly without damaging the sugar-cane crop's roots. This was the time when people reported seeing snakes fleeing the fire so we based ourselves on the fire-breaks and waited.

The heat, speed and sound of the fire was incredible, like a living beast consuming everything in its path. So intense was the heat I feared many animals would pass out before the flames reached them and be killed, anything unable to escape down a burrow would cartainly die in the flames and the fate of tortoises in the cane fields was an obvious consideration. We rescued a single Guttural toad (Amietophrynus gutturalis) and saw one fleeing Olive grass snake (Psammophis mossambicus) but nothing else emerged where we were waiting.

Burning the sugarcane. Many animals must die in these fast-burn infernos.
We hoped to capture snakes escaping the heat but nothing emerged.
The heat was intense and "zulu snow" fell everywhere.
But the fire died as quickly as it had grown.

 

Guttural toad, Ameitophyrnus guttutalis, rescued from the flames.

 

Sisel field are also reportedly a good habitat for snakes, but we found no reptiles. Scorpions were in evidence in the old huts on the site, and we found three species: Zululand flat scorpion (Hadogenes zuluanus), Natal creeping scorpion (Opistacanthus vallidus) and Natal bark scorpion (Uroplectes formosus). The flat scorpions are in the family Ischnuridae while the creeping scorpion are in the Scorpionidae, neither families considered dangerous to humans, but the bark scorpions are members of the Buthidae which contains most of the world's lethal species.

Zululand flat scorpion, Hadogenes zuluanus
Natal creeping scorpion, Opistacanthus vallidus
Natal bark scorpions, Uroplectes formosus

Perhaps the strangest creature found during herp searches around Mkuze was the Natal wing-legged centipede (Alipes cf. crotalus), a species with curious racquet-shaped extensions to its rear-most legs.

Natal wing-legged centipede, Alipes cf. crotalus
Natal wing-legged centipede, Alipes cf. crotalus,
in close-up showing features of head and hindlegs.

Although no snakes were found during active searches, responding to call-outs we did manage to capture a couple of Mozambique spitting cobras (Naja mossambica) near Mkuze, a juvenile and an adult.

A juvenile Mozambique spitting cobra, Naja mossambica, from near Mkuze.

 

A larger Mozambique spitting cobra,
Naja mossambica, preparing to eject venom.

 

We found a location near Banghoek where we could set up out spitting cobra collection station and film the process.

Bruce, Mark, Donald and Warren
waiting to get started with the spitting cobras.

We planning to take newly captured and captive Mozambique spitting cobras and have them "spit*" onto clear perspex sheets, using ourselves as the inducement.

Mark with one of the spitting cobras.

Donald worked the cobras while Bruce Young and I indiced the cobras to 'spit' at us. Bruce had set up a camera box into which he could slip the perspex sheets and photograph them, with flash illuminating the dried venom. In this way we could assess spread and quantity of venom expelled. Some of the cobras 'spat' repeatedly and clearly had large reserves of venom.

* Spitting cobras do not actually spit venom. Spitting is the forceful ejection of spittal, saliva, whereas spitting cobras spray jets of venom from specially adapted fangs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encouraging the Mozambique spitting cobras, Naja mossambica, to "spit" on the perspex sheets.

In total we used ten Mozambique spitting cobras (Naja mossambica) for the experiments, four wild caught and six captive borrowed from snake parks and private collectors. We also tested two captive Ringhals (Hemachatus haemachatus). See the Postscript for a link to the paper resulting from this fieldwork.

The area near Banghoek was also were we filmed cobras moving over the ground past camera.

Spitting cobra approaches the camera. Spitting involves a rapid head movement but cobra and target.