A black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis). Photo: Nick Evans (Home – KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (nickevans.co.za))

The black mamba. You may have heard this snake described as ‘aggressive’, ‘massive’, ‘terrifying’, or ‘deadly’. Cultural beliefs about this snake have given it a reputation as a cold-blooded killer – one who will stalk you in the streets, or who will enter your home and lie in wait to strike while you climb into bed at night. These myths – and they are just myths – have sadly led to black mambas being unjustly persecuted. The truth is that they do have a highly potent venom, and are frequently cited as one of the deadliest snakes in the world. However, like other snakes, this species has no interest in picking a fight with humans; they simply want to survive.
The Species

The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a wide-ranging species, found in at least 22 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. These snakes prefer dry habitat such as arid woodland, valleys, rocky hills, and savannah. They are large and grow quickly, capable of reaching 2m in length by their first birthday, and typically up to 3 m at full maturity – although one measuring 4.4m was found in Zimbabwe! In contrast to its aggressive reputation, the black mamba is a shy snake which uses threat displays and its infamous speed (up to 20 kph!) to avoid conflict. If cornered, a black mamba will rear upwards, expand its ‘hood’ much like a cobra, and show the inky-black mouth from which it gets its name. Though their neurotoxic venom is deadly, bites are rare, and quick medical treatment will usually result in a full recovery. In this blog’s focus city of Durban, there has not been a fatality in over 6 years – impressive, considering the city’s large population of both humans and snakes!

The Locale

Durban is one of the largest cities in South Africa, with a human population of approx. 3.7 million as of 2018. The Port of Durban is one of the largest commercial ports in the world; sugar is one of the main exports of South Africa, and most of this is produced in KwaZulu-Natal province, where Durban is located. The city’s climate, beaches, and big game reserves make it a popular tourist destination year-round.

Durban has been listed as the second greenest city in the world by HUGSI. The region has 35 nature reserves and managed natural parks, and a total green space cover of 60%. With so much natural space spread throughout the city, the chance of human-wildlife interactions is high. At least 25 species of snake can be found in the Greater Durban Area, 12 of which are venomous. In addition to the black mamba, a lucky herpetologist may be able to find several other infamous snake species in the Durban area, including the Mozambique spitting cobra, boomslang, and puff adder.

An aerial view of Durban and its highway. Photo: Andres de Wet

The Methods

KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Amphibian & Reptile Conservation was established in 2015 to advocate for snakes, spread knowledge, prevent potentially dangerous human-snake conflicts, and change people’s perception of these fascinating animals. This program has produced photo guides for the snakes and frogs of Durban, and one free book on understanding snakes. Snake awareness talks and identification sessions are provided to children and adults alike, and Nick Evans – head of the program – conducts snake rescues to remove snakes that have wandered into people’s homes and translocate them elsewhere.

Snake rescues are one of the busiest parts of this program, with multiple calls for removals coming in on an eventful day – if the weather is right, Evans says he might get as many as 25 calls in a week! And not just for black mambas; green mambas, Mozambique spitting cobras, and even the harmless spotted bush snake are just a few of the many species people call in about. These rescues keep both people and snakes safe, while creating an opportunity for data collection! KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation records the location of all black mamba sightings, and those that are captured are measured, weighed, and sexed. In addition, in collaboration with the Association of Reptile Keepers (ARK-KZN), 51 black mambas have been micro-chipped to provide insight on their movement and growth. Most black mambas are found near the perimeter of natural areas; as green space is slowly cut back, these animals head into the city in search of food like mice and rats, which are attracted to garbage left out by people. Once captured, the black mambas are released back into a nearby nature reserve. The snake translocations are also used as outreach opportunities, where small groups are invited to attend the release and see the snake up close.

Nick Evans and a group of happy onlookers with a rescued black mamba in Durban. Photo: Snake Removals – KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (nickevans.co.za)

“Snakes are animals that have been feared by people since the dawn of time… Apart from the terror associated with snakes, there is very little education about them. In schools, all that’s really covered on snakes is that they’re a reptile with scales. This does nothing to help people understand snakes better and to overcome their fear and misunderstanding.”

Nick Evans – Founder, KsaZulu-Natal (KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation
Final Thoughts

Many people around the world live near or alongside dangerous animals, not just snakes. There are conflicts between humans and bears, wolves, tigers, and lions each year – and yet it seems that snakes are most often depicted as evil or deceitful. Perhaps providing people with education and positive experiences are effective ways to slowly change such deeply-ingrained beliefs about snakes, and, in turn, to help people and snakes peacefully coexist. Nick Evans, along with fellow herpetologist Cormac Price, have been studying black mambas in Durban to gain a better understanding of human-snake conflict. Their work has highlighted the need for education and further research into preventing these conflicts – not just in Durban, but in other cities worldwide.

“Durban finds itself in a very unique position as a city with over 3.5 million resident citizens and a stable population of both the world’s second longest venomous snake and a spitting cobra species. Yet there have been no recorded human fatalities within the city since before 2015! This makes Durban an incredible research site as a way to understand the behaviour of urban snakes, how they avoid human confrontation, and how they and the people of Durban react when they come into contact with one another… [Durban] could become a leading example to other cities with resident populations of potentially dangerous snake species.”

Cormac Price – Herpetologist

Kelly Antaya

Field Technician – Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery

Kelly started working with Wildlife Preservation Canada as an intern, and is now a field technician. She has worked in reptile conservation throughout Ontario, and has also assisted on population studies of skinks and snakes on islands in northern Madagascar. Kelly is a graduate of Fleming College, where she received her diploma in ecosystem management.

Jonathan Choquette

Lead Biologist – Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery Program

Jonathan manages the recovery program for the Ojibway population of the massasauga rattlesnake in Southern Ontario. Jonathan’s research interests lie in the field of urban herpetology, having studied both biology and landscape architecture at the University of Guelph. Jonathan has authored or co-authored numerous reports and publications about the conservation of Canadian reptiles and amphibians in urban environments.

Jonathan Choquette