Recently I reviewed a book on spiders and made the observation that many people seem to have an ingrained and sometimes irrational fear of arachnids. This aversion is perhaps only topped by a dread of snakes! A healthy respect for venomous snakes is a good thing, however; they are potentially dangerous to humans and are capable of causing injury and death.
Snakes are an integral and vital part of a healthy ecosystem, and treated with respect and caution, should be left alone to occupy their place in the predator/prey cycle, so essential to maintaining a natural balance. Even though snake/human encounters may be deadly, it is more likely that you will survive a snake bite than die from one. In fact, you are at greater risk from death at the hands of your fellow man, traffic accidents and other hazards associated with everyday life. In Africa the people who suffer most from snake bites, ("the biggest public health crisis you've never heard about," as Kofi Annan put it), are the rural poor - subsistence agriculturalists with primitive tools, barefoot, and living in huts that are not sealed against snake entry. The average white resident, or tourist, wearing sturdy footwear, often covering the ankle, and long trousers is at very low risk from venomous snakes. And for the overly cautious, commercial snake gaiters are available.
The authors of this work are highly respected authorities on African snakes with a combined experience in excess of fifty years. Tragically, before completion of the first draft, Bill Branch was diagnosed with ALS and rapidly succumbed, leaving it to Stephen Spawls to complete the work alone.
This book fills a real need in Africa, presenting as it does high resolution photographs of all the dangerous snakes, enabling people to readily identify them, exercise due caution, and provide vital information to medical teams dealing with patients who have been bitten by snakes. Such timely and accurate information can mean the difference between life and death. Specific antivenoms are available for snakes known to pose significant risk in certain areas, and generalized antivenoms are also effective in many instances. Having said this, antivenom does not keep up with the need for it. Big pharma is motivated by profit and there is little incentive to invest time and money in products used mainly in the poorest areas of the world, where the expectation of return on investment is minimal.
Distribution maps are provided for each species, with a plea for observers to report sightings outside the known range, since for many species information is lacking, and increased knowledge can serve to reduce suffering.
At the end of each species account there is a section entitled Medical Significance. Here information is provided as to the level of threat and the type of venom injected by the snake - Cytotoxic, Haemorrhagic, Neurotoxic or Myotoxic. Appropriate dos and don'ts are given with the advice that a patient should always be transported to the nearest hospital quickly and safely if that possibility exists.
The final sections of the book are packed with a wealth of information regarding the frequency of bites, treatments available, how to stabilize and transport a victim, and even the administration of antivenom by a lay person. Appropriate pictures highlight each section.
A checklist of dangerous snakes from regions and countries of Africa is very useful, as is a list of medical and snakebite terms. A glossary completes the picture.
I have little doubt that this book will be a valuable reference for herpetologists, both amateur and professional, but it will also be a practical guide for people most at risk, who are those possessing the least knowledge, ironically.
One is left with the hope that improving living standards throughout Africa will lead to a reduction in the number of snakebites, and that humans and snakes will be able to peacefully coexist. The point is made that in Australia, the only continent where the number of venomous snakes exceeds harmless ones, only two to five deaths from snakebites are recorded each year. This is due to better education, better medical facilities, hospitals stocked with antivenom, and dwellings that do not permit easy access to snakes. One hopes for no less for Africa.
The Dangerous Snakes of Africa
Stephen Spawls & Bill Branch
US$35.00 - £30.00 - 9780691207926 - over 650 Colour photographs, maps and diagrams - 5.25 in. x 8.5 in.
Publication date: 04 August 2020