How to Live With One of the World’s Deadliest Snakes

Leave the black mamba alone, and it will leave you alone. Probably.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Aug 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Last weekend, I left my rental car parked overnight in a remote location in northern South Africa, where I have been working on a story. When I got back to the car the following afternoon, there was a freshly shed snakeskin on the ground by the rear bumper. The biologist I was with (OK, he was a mammals guy) examined the head and ventured, “It could be a young black mamba.”

I contemplated that as I drove for the next four hours south to Pretoria. Off and on, I wondered whether the snake had sought shelter, as animals sometimes do, in the engine compartment of the car. In case you’ve somehow never heard of black mambas, they are among the deadliest snakes in the world and can grow to 15 feet in length. They generally use their considerable speed to escape rather than to attack, but they can also bite aggressively and repeatedly. Death may occur within as little as 20 minutes of the bite, which Africans refer to humorously as the “kiss of death.” I returned the car without opening the hood.

The scientists at the International Union for Conservation of Nature categorize the mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) as a species “of least concern.” But that phrase seems inappropriate. It’s not uncommon in the African bush to hear stories of black mambas turning up in the shower, or even dropping from the ceiling onto a bed. (“Hello, this is your wake-up call.”) I have a special place in my heart, or maybe it’s my amygdala, for these stories, and particularly for stories of people doing dumb things around these beautiful and generally harmless (but terrifying) creatures.

The topic came up again the other day, when I was visiting a safari lodge deep in the bush. The lodge manager told a story about a guest on her honeymoon who was terrified of insects. One night, the manager heard a horrible scream in the night and ran to the tent to find both husband and wife standing on tables, scantily clad, screaming, “Snake!”

The lodge manager, a slight woman born and raised in Europe, took a look, then pronounced it a spotted bush snake and harmless. (She looked twice, because spotted bush snakes look a lot like venomous boomslangs.) Then she picked it up in her hand and carried it gently out of the room, reassuring her guests. She was feeling quite proud of herself. It was in fact a spotted bush snake. No harm, no foul.

But it reminded her of another time when, over a period of weeks, she noticed that articles of clothing were spilling out of the cupboard in her room. “Who’s doing this?” she wondered. It wasn’t like when baboons broke into her room and randomly shredded her clothing, or like vervet monkeys stealing the toothpaste. Each time, she puzzled over it momentarily, but then went to bed without further thought. One night, though, she looked into the cupboard and saw something moving on the shelf. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness.

It was a snake. It occurred to her that it might be a black mamba. The only way she knew to identify one is that, while the skin is olive green, the inside of a mamba’s mouth is inky black. Then—and this is the stupid part, in case you’ve been waiting—the lodge manager picked up a broomstick and poked one end at the snake, which opened its mouth.

Black mamba.

It was, however, an unusually placid mamba and did not lash out at her.

The manager retreated, seeking someone better equipped to deal with the situation. When the mamba finally came out of the cupboard on the end of a snake stick, it was 1.5 meters long. That is, a mere five-footer. A puppy. Because it was an ecotourism lodge, the snake catcher and the manager proceeded to the second half of the catch-and-release process. Because they were human, they decided the release part would take place on the other side of the river.

Later, the lodge manger returned to her bed and tried to relax. But just as she was beginning to sleep, something moved on the bed by her feet. “I thought maybe it was the black mamba coming back for revenge,” she said. She peeked cautiously over the sheets. But it was just an Acacia tree rat,” she said, almost beaming.

“But a rat,” someone reminded her.

Yes, and she also gently evicted this other trespasser before going back to sleep. Then the lodge manager lifted her eyes and beamed again, as if to say that in black mamba country, and only there, a rat in your bed can be reasonably good news.

After that, we all went to the bar and had a stiff drink.