“It’s a swamp adder!” cried Holmes; “the deadliest snake in India. He has died with ten seconds of being bitten” (The Speckled Band, Arthur Conan Doyle)

In this video we look at Peninsular Malaysia’s predominantly neurotoxic venomous snakes; namely the cobras, kraits and coral snakes.  These snakes can inject toxins that act directly on the nervous system and cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles… simply put,  envenomation can result in you being unable to breathe and, possibly while still conscious and aware of what is happening, you will slowly die of asphyxiation – effectively drowning while surrounded by air.

Not a nice way to go, and if you want to read a chilling account of a fatal envenomation and the various stages, read this article about the death of herpetologist Joe Slowinski following a krait bite.

King Cobras who can stand 5 ft tall and inject massive quantities of venom, cobras who can spit venom into your eyes with uncanny accuracy, the gentle bite of the deadly krait that may go unnoticed, like a passing kiss of death, until you find your eyelids drooping as you begin to lose the ability to breathe …

…all scary stuff indeed.

But the good news is that these neurotoxic snakes (whose venom is most likely to kill you) are also the snakes least likely to bite you, whereas those venomous snakes who are more likely to bite you (the vipers) have venom that is less likely to kill you (at least not as quickly!)

There is more good news for the jungle trekker that should help relieve the fear:

  • You’re on the snake’s home patch and it knows how to quickly get out of your path, disappearing into the jungle before you even get near, sensing the vibrations from your footfalls long before you get close.
  • These snakes (the cobras, kraits and coral snakes) are terrestrial and rarely climb into the trees – so once you’re snug in your hammock at night, there is very little chance of one of these snakes crawling in there with you.
  • If you get too close to a cobra it will, very thoughtfully, rear up and spread its hood, making it easy to spot;  giving you fair warning that it’s there and not to approach closer.
  • The deadly krait has a small mouth and fangs, so is highly unlikely to be able to penetrate boots or thick clothing… and the coral snake’s mouth is even smaller.
  • The spitting cobras venom is not going to blind you if it gets in your eyes as long as you wash it out carefully and thoroughly.
  • Often the cobras will give you a warning bite first (i.e. a dry bite) and will only give a bite (or repeated bites) with significant amounts of venom if you don’t get the message to leave it alone.
  • None of these snakes are ambush hunters (unlike the vipers and pythons) so they are far less likely to be found curled up on trails waiting for their prey and will get out of your way if they have a chance to do so (unlike the vipers).
  • As far as the snake is concerned, its venom is precious stuff that it wants to save for hunting; so it doesn’t want to waste it on a human (who is obviously too large for it to eat)  unless it absolutely has to.

So, bearing all the above in mind, how on earth do people manage to get bitten by these snakes?

  • People pick up snakes.  Take the case of Joe Slowinski who put his hand into a bag containing a banded krait (believing it to be a wolf snake) and died as a result.  Snake charmers and the like play with snakes and often get bitten.  Children may play with snakes and pick them up.
  • People can mistake a venomous snake for a non-venomous one.  The juvenile King Cobra can be mistaken for the far less dangerous mangrove cat snake, the harmless wolf snake looks similar to the deadly Malayan banded krait… even for experts it’s easy for mistaken identification to be made, so the golden rule for the jungle trekker is don’t pick any snake up and treat all snakes as being possibly venomous.
  • Snakes may become aggressive if they feel trapped.  This is more of a problem when snakes enter the house and can’t find a way out.  In the jungle they are spoilt for choice in terms of escape routes and will simply get out of your way if they can.
  • King Cobras will defend a nest and, if you get too close, they will try and make you go back…possibly becoming aggressive if you’re slow to pick up the message.
  • Snakes may make a home in your rucksack or boots when they are left out overnight (so close bags securely and suspend them above ground and check shoes before you put them on).
  • Trekkers may not be wearing footwear that offers sufficient protection against snake bite and sometimes go barefoot around camp (I confess I am sometimes guilty of doing this!)
  • Jungle trekkers who answer a call of nature in the middle of the night without bothering to check around with a torch for snakes in the area.
  • Jungle trekkers may (by accident) disturb a sleeping snake when collecting firewood.  For this reason it is a good idea to give logs a kick before picking them up, wear gloves and/or use your parang (rather than your hands) for pulling dead branches down from trees.

While filming these neurotoxic snakes at Zoo Negara and at Batu Caves I was struck by the fact these snakes are really not aggressive and their behaviour a far cry from what  Hollywood would have us believe (or for that matter quite a few ‘nature/survival’ programmes).  Even with a camera stuck in their face and someone pulling their tails, most of the cobras were reluctant to even raise up and slithered away at the very first possible opportunity.

If you stay alert in the jungle, wear some basic protective clothing, use common sense and, above all, avoid the temptation to pick up or antagonize any snakes  you come across, then it is very unlikely that you will have a problem with a cobra, krait or coral snake.

The reality is that for someone to get bitten by one of these snakes in the jungle would require them to be either extremely unlucky, walking around with their eyes wide shut or simply lacking in common sense….

But then, as my friend Peter Bailey used to say, “the problem with common sense is it ain’t that bleedin’ common”