Working with mambas can be somewhat difficult to describe, but I will try…
The Black Mamba is the most notorious and feared snake in Africa. People think of it as this evil, aggressive, psychotic killer, which will either stare you down, eye to eye, or just chase you. Is that really the case? No, not at all.
Before I started working with them, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew they weren’t exactly how people described them, but I still felt very uneasy about working with them. They made me nervous!
After school, I went straight into working at Dangerous Creatures reptile park at Ushaka Marine World. Here, under the guidance of Carl Schloms, I learnt a whole lot about mambas.
I watched Carl catch the mambas on several occasions. After explaining how to go about it, and giving me some tips, he then let me catch the single Black Mamba which was on display. To be quite honest, I don’t remember the experience all that well! I just remember my hands trembling, but I was very happy and proud once I had it! That triggered my love, and what I guess you could call an ‘addiction’, to these awesome snakes.
(Please note, the snakes were never restrained for fun or even for training. They were only handled for medical treatment or just simple veterinary check-ups).
I set up KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian & Reptile Conservation as a chapter of The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization, at the beginning of 2015. I wanted to turn my passion into a career. So I started doing snake removals in the Greater Durban Area.
My mum used to get called for them when I was at school, by her friends or student’s parents who knew of my love for snakes. So she would drive me around after school to remove snakes from people’s homes! We were never called for a mamba.
So when I was starting out in 2015, while I was trying to get my name out there, I relied on referrals. People who had been doing snake removals for some time, but who were momentarily unavailable, would refer calls to me. I got quite busy, catching Mozambique Spitting Cobras, Night Adders, but never a mamba.
One day, in March, my friend Chris Lourens called me, to ask if I was available for a mamba call in Queensburgh. “YES PLEASE CHRIS!”, I shouted, jumping up and down with excitement. My mum thought I had gone insane! I hopped in my car and rushed off to the property.
After a long time of clearing out the storeroom and ripping off roof tiles, trying to find it, I eventually did. It curled up into a corner trying to hide. I successfully removed it, and I was beaming with pride! My first mamba, “WOOHHOO!!”
A few days later, I removed one out of an old car for the Kloof & Highway SPCA. It had crawled into the dashboard of the car, and wasn’t willing to come out! I tried getting that snake out of there for well over an hour. It wouldn’t come out, and at one point, it got stuck while trying to move between a small space. I struggled to free it, and onlookers thought it was time to kill it. “We will not let this snake die!”, I commanded. Eventually, I got it loose, and pulled it out. Despite being in the process of shedding, it was a beauty!
From then on, I have had many, many mamba calls! I have been on some real exciting adventures! I have been into deepest darkest Africa (e.g Umbumbulu township at night time) to fancy office parks.Mambas aren’t too fussy on where they want to live! They do favour valley areas.
On these escapades, I have learnt a great deal about mamba behaviour.
I always used to hear that, if you corner a mamba, that’s when it will definitely attack. Not true, from my experience. Of course, no animal likes to be cornered. But Black Mambas don’t seem to attack if cornered. I have had them cornered many times before, as they often seek refuge in dark rooms, whether it’s a tool shed, or a hut in a township. Not once has a cornered mamba come at me. I’ll walk carefully, and slowly towards them. When they feel cornered, they stare at me, exposing their black mouth. It’s an intimidating sight, that’s for sure! But they seem to just wait for you to come closer, and get ready to defend themselves, but all they really want is for me to back-off. In my case, I don’t have a choice. If I back off and leave the snake in a room, it will be killed. But a member of the public should never approach this snake, cornered or not!
Black Mambas are just like you and me, and like any other animal, they sense fear. I’d say the only thing I don’t enjoy about removing Black Mambas, is seeing the fear in their eyes. You can see that they are genuinely terrified of humans. Think about it, we’re much bigger than them. When they see us big, ugly, smelly humans approach, they want to just get away, not attack! They know that we’re dangerous, and attacking us could be fatal for them. So trust me when I say that they are a lot more scared of us than we are of them.
Remember, I have to remove these snakes from properties, or else they face execution. Few people want to co-exist with a mamba, especially if it’s in one’s house, understandably so.
Admittedly, there is nothing more that I love than a mamba call (well, maybe my fiancee’)! So as much as the snakes don’t like it, I can’t say that I don’t either. Whenever my phone rings, I always answer hoping that someone tells me there’s a mamba in their property. When they do see that, my excitement levels go through the roof! I’m totally pumped up, full of adrenaline and excitement. It’s the highlight of my day, it’s like my happy pill!
People often ask, “Aren’t you scared?”. Well, in the moment, not really. Yes, I do fear being bitten. But when I’m close to one, reaching for one, or restraining one, I’m fully focused. As my fiancee’ recently told someone, she could shout at me saying, “I don’t want to marry you”, and it won’t phase me, I won’t hear it. I’ve always told people that a gun-fight could go off, and I won’t flinch. All my attention and focus is on the sharp-end of the Black Mamba, my eyes rarely leaving it’s head. If you’re not one-hundred percent concentrating while working with a Black Mamba, you’re going to end up in hospital, or worse. There is absolutely no room for complacency or distractions.
One could expect complacency with working with an animal continuously. I try my best to avoid that, and hope I always do. A bite from a Black Mamba can, as we all know, put you in the grave. They have a potent, fast-acting, neurotoxic venom. Fortunately, there is antivenom available, and most people who are bitten survive (unless maybe hours away from hospital).I don’t think that I will ever not go into that zone that my mind goes into, which is a good thing!
Black Mamba’s are deceptively strong animals. People who help me measure them are always astounded at the strength of the animal! It’s pretty much pure muscle. I have to hold that snake firmly! Holding it behind the head like I do, is most definitely not at all comfortable for the snake, but I’m NOT squeezing to hard and breaking its spine. Restraining it behind the head like that is by far the safest way to catch a mamba (please don’t try!). It’s the safest way for me, and for the snake. Otherwise, it could be thrashing around, hitting it’s head against things. I recently tried removing one without restraining the head. The mamba swung around and almost tagged my friend and I, and that was the last time I tried that.
The most enjoyable part of the job, is releasing these snakes back into the wild. Not only is this just such a pleasure, it’s also so interesting, and a great opportunity to learn more about these animals. I often invite interested friends to tag along to enjoy the experience.
Before letting the snake go off into the bush, I do try to get some photos. It’s not always possible, but I try. I love photography, and I need photos for my educational work.I do push my luck a little I guess, but experience has finally taught me when to skip photo opportunities (only recently)!
When I do try, I will first try and stick the mamba in a small tree. Sometimes they sit in the tree nicely, but they mostly just shoot down into the grass and disappear.
If there’s no tree, I tip the bucket over, and as the snake moves out, I grab hold of the tail. I try holding it back, while trying to get some photos with my other hand holding the camera. You would think that, with me grabbing it’s tail, it would come flying back at me. Uh-uh, that’s not what happens. Despite me doing that, all the mamba wants to do is get away. At first, they have no interest in risking an attack. They just try to pull away and slip off into the bush. I love it when they do this, especially if people are around, as they can see the myth being dispelled. However, if you keep holding on, it will quickly get tired of you and let you know. Don’t ever try it.
While releasing mambas, I have also learnt that each one is different. Like us, they’re individuals, they all have different personalities. Some are a lot more defensive, and wild. Others are fairly calm, and don’t get too irritated. It’s fascinating.
Seeing a Black Mamba going off into the bush is a magic sight. They’re so graceful and majestic, yet so powerful and impressive. They are so fast on the ground, and climb really well. It can leave you speechless, awe-struck.
The mamba doesn’t say thank you for saving its life and letting it go free. That’s not how animals work. They still see humans as a danger, no matter your actions. I don’t care, I don’t expect a thank you from a snake (I do from people). I guess what I consider a thank you from them is if they don’t bite me. But watching it go off is the biggest reward. Knowing that that snake could have been killed, but instead, it’s back where it belongs, keeping dassie and rodent populations in check. Just how nature intended!
I hope that you have gained some insight into what I do, why I do it, and what Black Mambas are really like. They’re not what they’re often made out to be. It’s an animal that deserves a tremendous amount of respect, so that’s all you need to do. I don’t encourage anyone to catch a Black Mamba, or to ever approach one. I’m not advocating that you can go close, I’m just trying to say that you don’t need to live in fear of them, or dread seeing one in the bush. Just leave it alone, and watch this remarkable animal go about it’s day (unless maybe it’s in your lounge, then call me!)
So, to summarise, working with Black Mambas, for me, is nothing but a privilege. I am so grateful and honoured that I get to work with them regularly. They are amazing animals which are worth saving and conserving!
P.S, I love Green Mambas too, they’re just more scarce than the Black Mamba. I rarely get calls for them unfortunately.
Snake removals in the Greater Durban Area: 072 809 5806
To see some videos of some of my Black Mamba rescue exploits, take a look at this YouTube video on my channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cd35cpizvbc
To view some of my Black Mamba photos, check out my mamba album on Flickr:https://www.flickr.com/photos/131238423@N02/albums/72157671402083685