Saving Snakes to Save Our Skin

All over the world there is a general wariness of reptiles, and fear of snakes. There is no real explanation for this beyond the hyper-inflated threats that people believe snakes pose. I spoke to Chad Keates, a student at Rhodes University who is doing his Doctorate in Zoology, specializing in herpetology, the study of snakes, and other reptiles in and around Makhanda. Keates makes it very clear that the fear of snakes is based on misconceptions about snakes and the threat that they pose to humans.

“The fear of snakes is based on misconceptions”

Chad Keates
Chad Keates hosts “critter” walks and talks to help educate children and adults about snakes and other reptiles. Photo from Next Gen Herpetologist Facebook page.

As is everything in nature, snakes are an important part of the environment and play numerous roles, but their primary role is controlling the rodent population. Rodents are the main food source for most big venomous snakes, and the presence of humans in nature has introduced a new rodent into the food chain, the Norwegian house rat. These rats thrive around human populations, eating our waste, because it is easily available. This reliance on scavenging makes these rats an easier source of food compared to indigenous species such as vlei rats and field mice which are the natural prey of snakes in the wild. This makes common rats much easier prey for snakes and as a bonus they provide more nutrition, which is why big, venomous snakes are found close to human settlements.

Because humans don’t know enough about snakes their reaction is to kill snakes, instead of calling someone to remove the snake, which minimizes danger to both the human and the snake. Not killing snakes also helps keep the rodent population in control. Controlling the rodent population is important because rodents carry diseases and snakes are in fact helping control diseases spread by rats. If snakes were to go extinct there is a high likelihood that those diseases carried by rodents would become more widespread.

I handled Sheba, a brown house snake as part of my research. Photo taken by Sven-Erick Weiss.

Even though I have a long standing fear of snakes, I have never killed a snake because I have always understood that nature relies on every creature in it to sustain itself. I know that removing one of those creatures will cause a devastating cascading effect on the rest of the environment. To prevent this it is important to not kill what you are afraid of, but either move it, or move out of its way.

There is a long list of people in Makhanda who handle and remove snakes and other species like frogs and lizards, if you need such assistance that list with their contact details is here. 

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