“Adventure without risk is disneyland” (Douglas Coupland)

Risk assessment is something we do every day and involves two steps: 1) what is the magnitude of the problem should the risk be realised (e.g. “if there’s a zombie apocalypse I could be eaten alive”) and 2) estimating the likelihood of that event happening (in the case of zombie apocalypse this is zero).

But there is a third element that people often forget and that is assessing the risk to yourself should you not do something because of fear of associated risk.

For example:

  1. The jungle contains venomous snakes (true)
  2. I might get bitten (possible but unlikely)
  3. If I get bitten I might die (possible)
  4. Therefore I should stay at home and watch nature documentaries instead (false)

because, if you stay at home and become a couch potato, you may well end up unhappy and overweight and drop dead early from a heart attack.

With the venomous snakes of Malaysia the ones that strike most fear into the average jungle trekker are the cobras and, should you be unlucky enough to be fully envenomated by a King Cobra there’s a strong possibility that you won’t live to tell the tale.  However the likelihood of being bitten by a King Cobra is extremely low in the first place so (for me at least) it is an acceptable risk.

Vipers are a different story for the jungle trekker as 1) the risk of being bitten by a viper is higher, but 2) the chances of you surviving the bite are much greater (vs being bitten by a neurotoxic snake).

Why are jungle trekkers more likely to be bitten by vipers?  Simply because they are much more difficult to see.  Vipers are ambush hunters and tend to wait, motionless, either perched on low hanging branches (in the case of the arboreal vipers) or hiding in logs/leave litter (in the case of the terrestrial vipers).  Whereas the cobras will, very thoughtfully, let you know if you get too close and do their best to get out of your way, the vipers show no such consideration and, like surly teenagers, will refuse to budge as you approach but, should you get too close and invade their ‘personal space’ they will suddenly lash out…

The venom from a viper causes: 1) immediate pain followed by swelling and necrosis (tissue death) at the site of the bite and 2) disruption of the blood clotting system.  A viper bite is a serious matter as complications can be fatal – for example, by products from the the destruction of the muscles and blood cells may damage the kidneys and internal bleeding may occur (e.g. from the brain)… but, with correct first aid procedures and a speedy transition to hospital, the victim’s chances of survival are good.

But let me give you a real life example of this.  Last week I went down to KL to meet up with a guy called Herman who is fellow jungle trekker and outdoors enthusiast.  In September this year he was unfortunate enough to be bitten by a green pit viper and, as we sat having coffee he showed me where he was bitten – or rather he didn’t, as the top of his thumb had been amputated at the site of the bite.

This is his story:

“It was a Saturday and I was on a trek, hiking to a peak called Batu Lapan Belas near to Broga using compass and map.  I was the sweeper with my four friends in front and none of us saw the snake that bit me although they must have all passed next to it too.  It was about 3pm and we were cutting a trail through some secondary forest, lots of bamboo, and I guess the snake was hanging on a low branch next to the path.  I was about to put my parang back in its sheath when I suddenly felt the bite on my hand – instinctively I flung out my hand, dropping the parang, and I noticed blood on my thumb.  On the ground next to me I saw the snake – it was only a foot long; a juvenile green viper.  We killed the snake so as to be able to identify it later”

[A quick note here: killing a venomous snake that has bitten you is not the best course of action as you risk getting bitten again in the process.  A much better idea is to take a photo with your phone/camera and take that along to the hospital]

“Almost immediately I started to feel pain but at this time it was still bearable.  The summit was only another 50 m ahead and we decided to keep going.  Looking back this was a mistake and we should have immediately started to descend.  We reached the summit at about 3.30pm and then started to return to where we’d parked the car.  By now the pain was getting worse and beginning to throb – I couldn’t grip anything with that hand and descending was very difficult.

We reached the carpark at 7.30 pm and my friends drove me to hospital. On the way to hospital I started to develop a fever and by the time we reached the hospital (at 9pm) I was feeling really bad.  They kept me in hospital overnight – by then my thumb had gone black and the joints near to the bite were beginning to ache as well.   On the Monday they decided that the best thing was to perform surgery to remove the dead cells (necrosis) at the site of the bite and they cut off the top of my thumb.  They also cut open my hand to check the spread of the necrosis.

I was in hospital for ten days in total but the pain lasted for about two months and even now it’s still very sensitive”

Listening to Herman’s account it struck me that, although a viper bite may not be fatal, it is still something to be avoided if at all possible.  For the jungle trekker this means being alert to your surroundings: not blindly reaching out for handholds or wildly slashing with your parang.

Above all the golden rule in the jungle is: move slowly, move carefully and keep your eyes open.