Fake news is a popular term these days but in reality it has been around as long as humans. It used to be known as disinformation, rumour or even simply as lies.
But call it what you will, no snake in Africa has been the subject of fake news more than the Black mamba. Everyone, expert or not, seems to have a story, about these magnificent apex predators, and unfortunately, some are not true.
Yes, they are Africa’s longest venomous snake, and worldwide only the King Cobra in Asia is longer or heavier. Yes, they produce large amounts of potent neurotoxic venom and all bites from a Black mamba should be considered as a medical emergency. And yes people have been killed by these snakes.
But no, people do not die instantly as a result of a Black mamba bite. No, Black mambas do not deliberately plan aggressive ambushes of people and no, they cannot move as fast as a galloping horse. And no, most people bitten by black mambas do not die.
Over the centuries there have been many, many stories about these snakes. There is the one about huge crested mambas, some with feathers on their heads, that move at high speed across tree-tops and for many years there was a well-known myth that mambas could form a circle with their bodies by grabbing their tails with their mouths and then rapidly rolling down slopes before attacking their hapless victims.
“Despite the deadly reputation of this snake there are a surprising number of victims that survive its bite but in severe cases large doses of polyvalent (snakebite antiserum) may be required,” the African Snakebite Institute in South Africa states on its website. “Although most snakebite deaths in South Africa area as a result of Black mamba and Cape Cobra bites, treatment is very effective and often life-saving. It is however critically important to get victims to hospital and on to a ventilator (if required) or make use of a bag valve mask if the victim is not breathing.”
Black mamba venom is neurotoxic and large specimens have a venom yield of between 280 – 400 mg, between 15-20 mg is sufficient to kill a human, but, and according to the experts, there are many variables when it comes to snakebites.
Venomous snakes are capable of delivering a “dry bite” which means that while their fangs may penetrate the skin no venom is delivered because they are simply biting in self-defence. Their venom is intended to kill prey, not for self-defence. Similarly, for a variety of reasons the snake may elect to only deliver a small amount of venom.
Another factor is that the snake may only strike a glancing blow, sometimes because of fabric from trousers or other clothing.
While Black mambas are not the psychopathic monsters some believe, the recent death of a South African judge in Zambia emphasized the need to get a bite victim to a good hospital as fast as possible. The judge was on an overland trip in remote part of Zambia when he was bitten but was unable to get proper medical care in time and he died.
Around the same time a man living in a suburb of Durban was bitten by a Black mamba but he managed to get to hospital very quickly.
“His first symptom was nausea but not much else. Then hours later his speech became slurred, blood pressure dropped drastically and he had blurred vision,” Nick Evans posted on the Kwa-Zulu Natal Amphibian and Reptile conservation Facebook page. “He ended up receiving seven phials of antivenom and was discharged the next day.” The severity of this bite is not clear but the point is that appropriate medical care was available very quickly.
Black mambas of over four metres in length have been recorded but most herpetologists believe that the biggest specimens these days reach about 3.8 metres. They also say that Black mambas are seldom aggressive and usually do all they can to move away from humans.
They eat a variety of small animals including rats, squirrels and prey as large as dassies (Rock Hyraxes). They also take birds
They are seldom black in colour but range from dark grey through a range of olive-brown and their bellies are usually pale grey/green. The lining of the mouth is black.
Black mambas often use the same home, a termite mound, dead tree or rocky area, for years but as expert herpetologist Bill Branch notes that “If disturbed it will retreat unless cornered”.
“[If cornered] It will bite readily and often. It’s hollow ‘hiss’ is best heeded – if you step back it will also retreat,” Branch states.
Much of this information is drawn from the African Snakebite Institute and the references listed below.
Those interested in the medical treatment of snakebites should contact the Institute They have a 24 -hour poison information hotline: + 27 21 931 612 or in South Africa 0861 555 777
Field Guide to the Snakes and other Reptiles of Southern Africa – Bill Branch.