"Water Cobra"

Film 3
(one hour HD special)

June 6th-25th 2003

Location of OBA film 4:3
Lake Tanganyika

(mouse-over for view of Lakes Tanganyika, Victoria & Malawi)


Naja annulata stormsi

We planned to search Lake Tanganyika for the endemic Storm's water cobra (Naja annulata stormsi)* a subspecies of the Banded water cobra which is found to the west, from the Rift Valley to Cameroon and the Angolan exclave of Cabinda. Storm's water cobra, which can be distinquished from the more widespread nominate race by the presence of bands on the neck only, may be endangered due to the gill-net fishing techniques practised by 100,000 villagers who live along the shorelines.

Water cobras are enigmatic and little known snakes and Storm's water cobra is especially so. It may be locally common or extremely scarce, and it has caught the attention of at least two previous British herpetologists, Arthur Loveridge (1891-1980) and C.J.P.Ionides (1901-1968):

Initially they were not easy to find.
It took me twenty-six days to get my first water cobra and twenty-three more to get my second. I
I then engaged some people to spread out along the shore of Lake Tanganyika where I was hunting for them, and in that way managed to find and take three in one week.
Then once we got ourselves organized and discovered where to look for these snakes, we took five at Kigoma and three at Karema which is further south.
I then went on recommendation to Mpulungu in Northern Rhodesia where I took twenty-five in twelve days on the first trip and forty-two in twelve days on my second trip.”


According to native reports, which my own experience confirmed on some points
and contradicted in none, when the sun rises and strikes the rocks the cobras emerge
from their retreats beneath them and bask for a short time on the tops of the rocks.
Shortly afterwards, and I found none on the rocks an hour and a half after sun-up –
they take to the water in search of fish.
I was told that on a calm day one might see as many as ten in the course of a morning’s fishing.
We saw four in a little over three hours.
The rocks slope precipitously beneath the water so that it is often ten feet deep
within ten feet of the shore.
I hired a boat and cruised very quietly along the shore peering through the clear waters at
the jumbled boulders, in and out among which brilliantly coloured small fish
in great variety, darted and hovered.
At last we saw a huge head come out from beneath a rock followed by the
handsomely barred neck and body of a large cobra
which I estimated as about eight feet in length.”

Arthur Loveridge 1931

The distribution of Storm's water cobra is probably very localised in Lake Tanganyika. It shows a preference for rocky shores, spending the night deep in the crevices and fissures and emerging in the morning to hunt fish in the lake. It feeds primarily of fish but captives also take frogs and mammals may also feature in its diet. It may remain submerged for 10minutes at a time and swims gracefully. It is highly venomous with a strongly neurotoxic venom but water cobras are relatively inoffensive and bites are unknown. Females lay 22-24 eggs.

There are many extensive and highly suitable rocky stretched around Lake Tanganyika, especially in the southeast, but whether they are all inhabited by water cobras has not been ascertained. What is known, by the local fisher-folk, is that these are also the best places to set gill-nets and the result of that practise is that a snake snared, and unable to reach the reach the surface to breath, will drown. Local fishermen tell that they remove 2-3 drowned cobras from nets on some occasions and often remove ten in a week.

Such death rates in localised areas can lead to localised extinctions and ultimately, given the human pressures all around the lake, a lake-wide extinction. Since this cobra subspecies is endemic to Lake Tanganyika, that would mean total extinction.

Some tourist lodges impose gill net bans on their stretches of rocky shoreline, more to conserve fish for snorkellers and divers than to protect cobras, but even these local rules are openly flounted by fishermen.

No indepth survey of this endangered subspecies has been carried out and the most recent published observations appear to be those of Madsen and Osterkamp (1982) who encountered cobras whilst working on another endemic lake serpent. Storm's water cobra may be on the verge of extinction and virtually nothing is being done to prevent its loss.

Storm's water cobra, Naja annulata stormsi

* The water cobra genus Boulengerina was recently synonymised within Naja (see Wuster et al below).

Ionides, C.J.P. 1965 A Hunter's Story. W.H.Allen, London. 222pp. [aka 1966 Mambas and Maneaters. Mayflower. 236pp.]

Loveridge, A. 1931 On two amphibious snakes of the Central African Lake Region. Bulletin ofthe Antivenom Institute of America. 5(1):7-12.

Madsen, T. & M.Osterkamp 1982 Notes on the Biology of the Fish-Eating Snake Lycodonomorphus bicolor in Lake Tanganyika. Journal of Herpetology 16(2):185-188.

Wuster, W., S.Crookes, I.Ineich, Y.Mané, C.E.Pook, J-F. Trape & D.G.Broadley 2007 The phylogeny of cobras inferred from mitochondrial DNA sequences: Evolution of venom spitting and the phylogeography of the African spitting cobras (Serpentes: Elapidae: Naja nigricollis complex). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 45: 437–453.


Lake Tanganyika is divided between four countries.
(click on map for enlarged view)

Facts about Lake Tanganyika
(sources Wikipedia and others)
Lake Tanganyika is the longest lake in the world, at 673km (418miles) from north to south, but it is very narrow, with an average width of only 50km (31miles). The 1,828km (1,136 mile) shoreline and the lake waters are shared by four countries: Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is also the second largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, after Lake Baikal in Siberia, with a surface area of 32,900 (12,700 sq.miles) and a average depth of 570m (1,870ft) but a maximum depth of 1,470m (4,820ft).

Lake Tanganyika's great depth prevents regular turnover of the water at its greatest depths resulting in anoxic (oxygen-free) 'fossil water' that occasionally rises to the surface and causes massive die-offs of organisms.

The great size of the lake causes it to act like an inland sea, with tides and currents. The lake fauna is also like that of a sea with showls of Lake Tanganyika sardines (Limnothrissa miodon) and Lake Tanganyika sprats (Stolothrissa tanganicae) being pursued by four endemic species of large predatory fish (Lates spp.) related to to Nile perch and the Barracuda. There are even great swarms of Lake Tanganyika jellyfish (Limnocnida tanganyicae) that rise from the depths on dark nights.

Lake Tanganyika is most famous for its hugely diverse and largely endemic cichlid fauna of 250 species, many of them popular in the aquatic trade.

Lake Tanganyika is also home to two endemic snake species: the Lake Tanganyika watersnake (Lycodonomorphus bicolor) and Storm's water cobra (Naja annulata stormsi).


The Battle for Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika was also a stategic location during the Great War when the British Navy took on the Imperial German Navy in the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. The German battleship Graf von Götzen, built in 1913 and transported overland to the lake in pieces from the coast of German East Africa, was eventually scuttled in the mouth of the Malagarasi River. Refloated by the British, she became the MV Liemba, the ferry that now runs the length of the lake. Michael Palin travelled on the MV Liemba during filming of Pole to Pole and we encountered the vessel coming out of the mists one night out on the lake.

The Battle of Lake Tanganyika is the subject of several books and articles:
Foden, G. 2004 Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika. Penguin 320pp.
Magee, F.J. 1922 Transporting a navy through the jungles of Africa during wartime. National Geographic. 42(4):331-362.Shankland, P. 1968 The Phantom Flotilla: The story of the Naval Africa Expedition 1915-1916. Collins, 224pp.

And two fictional books which became feature films:
Forester, C.S. 1934 The African Queen. News Chronicle.
Smith, W. 1970 Shout at the Devil. Pan.


The Film Crew and Expedition Participants

From the UK:
Mark McMullen (Director)
Amy Lansdown-Nasson (Associate Producer)
Mark O'Shea (Presenter)
Des Seal (Camera)
Terry Meadowcroft (Sound recordist)
Jon Pinkney (Second camera, 18-24 June)

From Zambia:
Tony Veall (Contributer and cichlid farmer/exporter)
Michael Mbambiko (Medical doctor)

From Tanzania:
Charlie & Fiti (Snake catchers, 12-18 June)

From the US:
Peter McIntyre (Contributer and cichlid biologist, 21-24 June)

From Zanzibar:
Xavier Medina (Dive master, 18-24 June)


The participants (L-R) Toby Veall, Peter McIntyre, Xavier Medina,
Amy Lansdown-Nasson, Terry Meadowcroft, Jon Pinkney,
Michael Mbambiko, Des Seal, Mark McMullen, Mark O'Shea
(missing Charlie & Fiti who left earlier)
click to enlarge


With the specialists:
Peter McIntye (cichlid biologist), Xavier Medina (dive master) & Michael Mbambiko (medical doctor)


The snakemen: Mark and Fiti from Dar es Salaam

The Expedition

Due to logistical problems our original plans to travel across northern Tanzania and then decend Lake Tanganyika aboard the MV Liemba, stopping off to check locations highlighted by Loveridge or Ionides, had to be shelved. Instead the crew and I flew in from Johannesburg to Lusaka, then on to Mbala, where we were met by the production team who had travelled up by road with the kit earlier. We all then travelled by road to Mpulunga, land-locked Zambia's only port, and out onto the lake, intending to confine our search to locations within Zambian territory or just over the border in southwestern Tanzania. This film followed immediately on from "Spitting Cobra" in S.Africa (OBA 4-2).

A narrative of the expedition entitled
In pursuit of the lake serpent (1.0MB)
first published in The Herptile in 2008
is available for download

The quest was confined to the southern portion of Lake Tanganyika, in Zambia and Tanzania.
Main localities indicated on map.

(click on map for enlarged view)

The locations on Lake Tanganyika visited during filming in 2003 were:

1. Zambia:
a) Mbala to Mpulungu
b) Kalambo Lodge and Chitili
c) Isanga Bay and Chisanza
d) Luke's Bay
e) Kalambo Falls
f) Kasaba Bay
g) Diving Lake Tanganyika

2. Tanzania:
a) Kisanga and Muzei
b) Kantalamba

Filming schedule & itinerary:
Friday 6th June - Arrive Kalambo Lodge from S.Africa
Saturday 7th June - Kalambo Lodge
Sunday 8th June - Kalambo Lodge
Monday 9th June - Isanga Bay & Chisanza
Tuesday 10th June - Chitili
Wednesday 11th June - Luke's Bay
Thursday 12th June - Kasanga & Muzei
Friday 13th June - Kasanga & Muzei
Saturday 14th June - Chitili & Kasanga
Sunday 15th June - Kalambo Falls & Isanga Bay
Monday 16th June - Isanga Bay & Kasaba Bay
Tuesday 17th June - Kasaba Bay
Wednesday 18th June - Kalambo Lodge
Dive phase
Thursday 19th June - Kalambo Lodge
Friday 20th June - Isanga Bay
Saturday 21st June - Kantalamba, Luke's Bay & Isanga Bay
Sunday 22nd June - Kalambo Lodge
Monday 23rd June - Kalambo Lodge
Tuesday 24th June - Mpulungu and depart
Wednesday 25th June - Arrive home


Expedition Results include a full life-list for the 2003 expedition to Zambia and Tanzania.


O'Shea & McIntyre 2005 Herp Rev 36(2) 189