"Spitting Cobra"

Film 2
(one hour HD special)

May 20th-June 5th 2003

Location of OBA film 4:2

(mouse-over for view of northern KwaZulu-Natal)


Naja mossambica

The Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica) is a small cobra which does not grow much longer than 1.5m and is usually much smaller. It inhabits eastern and southeastern Africa, from southern Tanzania and Zanzibar, through Zambia and Zimbabwe to Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and the S.African provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, and it occurs westwards across the north of Botswana into northeastern Namibia and southern Angola.

An inhabitant of savanna and savanna-woodland, the Mozambique spitting cobra, or M'fezi as it is known in Zulu, often enters human dwellings and storage buildings in its search for prey, which ranges from amphibians and reptiles to small mammals.

Spitting cobras are the only snakes which have evolved a venom for defense. When they feel threatened they 'spit' or rather eject fine sprays of venom from specially adapted fangs into the face of their supposed aggressor. Venom landing on the skin or even entering the mouth is of little or no danger unless broken skin is present, but venom entering the eyes causes immediate pain, distracting the enemy and allowing the cobra time to escape - spitting cobras do not use their venom in this way when hunting, it is a purely defensive tactic. The venom of cobras is usually neurotoxic, it attacks the nerve synapses and causes death through respiratory paralysis, but spitting cobras have evolved a cytotoxic (aka proteolytic) venom which destroys or digests tissue. When this venom enters the eyes it causes intense pain and a form of conjunctivitis called "venom ophthalmia" (Chu, Weinstein,White & Warrell 2010) that would ultimately lead to permanent blindness, were it not treated, due to the necrotic action of the venom.

First aid is simple, immediate and continual flushing of the eyes with water or any other available suitable liquid to dilute and remove the venom. This is perfectly possible, as the author can testify having experienced ophthalmic injuries from three different species of spitting cobras.

Snakebites from spitting cobras do not usually cause deaths but they can result in horrendous injuries that take long periods of time and extensive skin-grafts to recover, or even loss of limbs though amputation. This is as a result of the effects of the cytotoxic venom and differs greatly from the life-threatening but far less tissue damaging effects causeed by the neurotoxic venom of non-spitting cobras. Mozambique spitting cobras are the cause of a large number of non-fatal but debilitating snakebites across their range, especially in the lowveldt of eastern South Africa.

Mozambique spitting cobra, Naja mossambica


Chu, E.R. S.A.Weinstein, J.White & D.A.Warrell 2010 Venom ophthalmia caused by venoms of spitting elapid and other
snakes: Report of ten cases with review of epidemiology, clinical features, pathophysiology and management. Toxicon 56(3):259-272.

KwaZulu-Natal borders three countries & three provinces.
(click on map for enlarged view)

Facts about KwaZulu-Natal

(sources Wikipedia and others)
KwaZulu-Natal is the eastern-most province of South Africa, formed in 1994 from the combination of the former British colony, and later S.African province, of Natal, and the Zulu homeland known as KwaZulu in the Zulu language. It borders the countries of Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho, and the S.African provinces of Mpumalanga, Free State and Eastern Cape. KwaZulu-Natal contains two areas of high mountains, the Lebombo Mts along the border with Swaziland, and the Drakensburg, bordering Lesotho, and an important tropical coastal area that extends down from the Mozambique border to north of Durban, the state capital, and the Tugela River. The central features of this tropical coastal strip is the famous St Lucia Wetland, which is a national park. KwaZulu-Natal is S.Africa's most tropical province and one of its most diverse biologically, with important, enigmatic tropical snake species, such as the Eastern green mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps) and East African gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), enterring S.Africa through the tropical corridor, south of the Lebombos, and some less well known and unusual species such as the Natal blacksnake (Macrelaps microlepidotus).

KwaZulu-Natal is also a popular safari destination with numerous large and small game parks and reserves where visitors can view a wide variety of game animals, including The Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo), and a great diversity of birdlife.


The Anglo-Zulu War

KwaZulu Natal was the location for the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Under the pretext of sorting out a border dispute between the Zulus and the Boers (with whom the British was eventually fight the two Boer Wars between 1880 and 1902) the British, under the command of the 2nd Baron of Chelmsford, invaded Zululand, then the powerbase of the Zulu leader Cetshwayo.

Cetshwayo had 40,000 warriors at his command, arranged into militarily highly organised units known as impis. The total British force numbered fewer than 7,000 British soldiers and just over 8,000 African levies, and the force was split into three columns because Chelmsford completely under-estimated the military skills of the Zulus.

The first major confrontation was the Battle of Isandlwana (22 January 1879) where 20,000 Zulus attacked a British column comprising 1,700-2,000 British and African troops, killing over 1,300 of the British force, including all its commanders, for a loss of approximately 1,000 Zulus. This was Britain's most serious military defeat and it is portrayed in the movie Zulu Dawn (1979).

The following day (23 January 1879) 4,000 Zulus mounted an attack on a small mission station defended by 139 British soldiers in what became the most famous action of the Anglo-Zulu War, the Battle of Rorke's Drift. The Zulus were eventually repulsed with a loss of only British 17 killed. The action resulted in the award of 11 Victoria Crosses (Britain's highest award for gallantry in the field of battle), the highest number ever awarded in a single action. The defence of Rorke's Drift, some good news after the appauling defeat at Isandlwana, was made into a movie Zulu (1964) made 15 years before is prequal Zulu Dawn.

Other major confrontations included the Siege of Eshowe when the Zulus surrounded the British fort at Eshowe and held it under seige for ten weeks (22 January - 3 April 1879) until relieved by a force led by Chelmsford, and several other smaller battles culminating in the final battle that broke the Zulu, the Battle of Ulundi, the Zulu capital (4 July 1879).

Battlefields and cemetaries from the Anglo-Zulu War are clearly marked across KwaZulu-Natal and tourists visit to follow historical timelines as much as they visit to view wildlife.


The Film Crew and Expedition Participants

From the UK:
Roger Finnigan (Director)
Ann Breeze (Associate Producer)
Mark O'Shea (Presenter)
Mark Stokes (Camera)
Ross Neasham (Sound recordist)

From South Africa:
Donald Strydom (Contributer, herpetologist and snake park owner)
Warren Klein (Contributer and herpetologist)
Paul Rollinson (Contributer and snakebite specialist)
Barry Stander (Contributor and herpetologist)
Kirsten Cantor (Contributor and cheetah biologist)

From USA:
Bruce Young (Contributer and herpetologist)



The snakemen (L-R) Bruce Young, Warren Klein, Mark O'Shea
& Donald Strydom
click to enlarge

The Expedition

KwaZulu-Natal is one of the areas with a high density of both Mozambique spitters and also humans and a high incidence of ophthalmic injuries caused by these snakes.

Our aim was to capture Mozambique spitting cobras and induce them to 'spit' onto clear perspex sheets in order to determine their ability to 'spit' frequently in rapid succession and control the amount of venom expelled in this manner. We planned to find cobras by both active searching and also responding to snake call-outs from persons finding them in their dwellings or store rooms.

This could entail a considerable amount of travel since the cobra is distributed throughout the entire province, so we decided to confine our responses the the area between Mkuze and Eshowe and locations close to the N2 highway.

The documentary would involve professional herpetologists with local field knowledge and also medical doctors familiar with the treatment of spitting cobra bites. To provide a flavour of the location, KwaZulu-Natal, we also included big game stories, endangered species and aspects of the Anglo-Zulu War.

Upon completion of "Spitting Cobra" we decamped to Zambia to begin "Water Cobra" (OBA 4-3).

The locations around KwaZulu Natal visited during filming in 2003 were:

1. KwaZulu Natal:
a) Mkuze
b) St Lucia National Park
c) Game Reserves
d) Shakaland and the Zulus
e) Eshowe, Empangeni and Richards Bay

Filming schedule & itinerary:
Monday 19th May - Depart UK
Tuesday 20th May - Arrive Mkuze
Wednesday 21st May - Mkuze
Thursday 22nd May - Mkuze
Friday 23rd May- Mkuze & Empangeni
Saturday 24th May - Hluhluwe & Intibane Game Reserves
Sunday 25th May - Mkuze, & Intibane & Abu Madi Game Reserves
Monday 26th May - Thanda & Intibane Game Reserves, & Mkuze
Tuesday 27th May - Empangeni, Richards Bay & Mkuze
Wednesday 28th May - Mkuze, Hell's Gate & St Lucia NP
Thursday 29th May - Hell's Gate
Friday 30th May - Hell's Gate, St Lucia NP
Saturday 31st May - St Lucia NP & Shakaland
Sunday 1st June - Eshowe & Shakaland
Monday 2nd June - Shakaland, Eshowe & Kehekhekhe's village
Tuesday 3rd June - Thula Thula Game Reserve
Wednesday 4th June - Empangeni & Thula Thula Game Reserve
Thursday 5th June - Johannesburg and depart for Zambia


Expedition Results include a full life-list for the 2003 expedition to KwaZulu Natal.