Return of the Rinkhals

Hemachatus haemachatus, "Rinkhals"

[Photo credit]

Thought to be extinct in the Cape Peninsula, Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) have recently been spotted in Gordon’s Bay, Hermanus, Somerset West, up along the West Coast to Mamre and Table Mountain National Park.  Interestingly enough there have been no sightings in urban areas previously known to habit Rinkhals, such as Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area.

So Rinkhals (or Ringhals, literally “ring-necked”) are back.

This.  Is.  Big.  News.

Rinkhals have the biggest reputation when it comes to venomous snakes, more so than adders I think.  The fear they instill compared to other snakes is astounding, even though they are the least of the venomous snakes to be worried about.  They are the quintessential Ophidiophobia snakes.  …Ok maybe not really, but even those with no fear of snakes have their reserves when it comes to Rinkhals.  I have no idea why but maybe it’s because we don’t know much about them here in the Cape?

[A word on Ophidiophobia:  I think perhaps it is innate in all of us, a healthy fear of snakes keeps a healthy distance.  There is not too much interaction that needs to happen between humans and snakes, a healthy respect and separation is the best way to manage things.]

Although they are hooded and move similarly to cobra’s, they do not belong to the genus Naja (the Cape Cobra being Naja nivea) but are closely related.  Their scales are keeled and not smooth like cobras.  Their fangs, when exposed, eject venom up and out from the centre as opposed to the tips (as in cobra’s), often marking their targets eyes.  This only happens when the snake is up and hooded as it needs to rear back and fling its head to hit target.  Hence the Rinkhals is often confused with the Mozambiquean Spitting Cobra.  Either way, keep your distance, they spit to about 2.5m.

Rinkhals are also known to feign death, probably when faced with no other means of escape.  They are known to twist their bodies into awkward positions, mouths agape and their tongues lolling out.  This is all a means of deterring predator’s – the spitting, the death-feigning- not a scheme to trick prey.  If you see a snake that looks dead, leave it alone.

Rinkhals feigning death

[Photo credit]

Rinkhals feed mostly on toads and frogs and thus are found mostly near dams, vlei’s and wetlands.  Being aware is the most important thing, when you’re out on the veld, walking your dog on the mountains, keep an eye out.

It is also interesting to know that the Rinkhals venom is much less toxic than that of Naja’s and that their venom gets diluted with saliva.  Still, they carry neurotoxic venom (which is also partially cytotoxic) which means the venom ‘attacks’ nervous and cell tissue.  Human fatalities are not common but the venom will do definite damage.  If you (or your dog) get spit in the eyes, irrigate as soon as you can with whatever liquid you have on hand: water, energy drink, milk, booze, even urine.  The pain is excruciating and the venom needs to be washed out as much as possible.

It is good to note that the only hospital in the Western Cape that carries anti-venom is Tygerberg Hospital Poison Unit 021-931-6129, from boomslange to adders to cobra venom.  And yes it is far, but you have enough time to get there.

Remember, in South Africa there are more reported deaths by human bite than by snake bite.  Seriously.  A snake has no need to approach a human, if you see a snake, any snake, back away.

I would highly recommend that if you have the means you should do a snake-handling course.  I did mine with the Cape Reptile Institute, endorsed by the FGASA (Field Guides Association of South Africa).  What stuck out the most to me was the immense diversity within the snake families, especially venomous snakes.  The way they move, their habitats, the differences in scales (smooth, keeled), their weight (I could not pick the puff adder, was like a pit bull – short and stout but pure power), the different body shapes and even their diets.  It was a humbling experience and I came out with a great deal more respect.

If you spot a Rinkhals, or think you may have spotted one, give Grant Smith a call on 084 328 1001 or e-mail him at rinkhalsrelic@gmail.com.  Ideally GPS co-ordinates would be most helpful but an explanation of the location would suffice too.  Grant and his team at the City of Cape Town’s Biodiversity Management Branch are doing very important research into Hemachatus haemachatus distribution in the Cape and would appreciate any leads.

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24 Comments

Filed under Research, Snake

24 responses to “Return of the Rinkhals

  1. Candice

    Thanks Zayaan, I do indeed have a healthy fear of snakes. I am curious to find out more as reptiles are often stigmatized due to their lack fur and “cute” mammal- like attributes. That is my opinion too; which is unfortunate because it is based purely on my lack of knowledge. Imma take you up on that advice to do a snake- handling course in the near- future. Thanks man!

    • That’s so true, Candice. It’s Biblical :). Absolutely – do the course! For me I was pleasantly surprised to learn so much about their individual personalities apart from how absolutely different each species is. It’s humbling. It’s also important to be aware of snakes, to comprehend. A man I did the course with, a father, had just bought a small-holding and had two small daughters and felt the need to to be aware: be able to identify the snakes, which ones were venomous, what to do in a stressful situation, which ones were probably just looking for water. What’s great is that the course will come to you if you have ten people willing to do it and a suitable area to do the course.

  2. Grant

    Thanks for posting this. Just to clarify none of the sightings from Table Mountain or the west coast have been confirmed yet. There appears to be suitable habitat and food available (especially on the peninsula) and records from these areas from members of the public give us reason to believe that there may still be some surprises in store.

    Awareness is key. The more eyes there are the more chance there will be of recording the whereabouts of this species in the Cape. As the article states…please take photographs if possible but be safe. There is no danger in photographing a snake as long as you give it the respect and space that it needs and deserves. Never try to capture the snake or corner it. Allow it an escape route and it will certainly use this as its first option.

    For any further questions please feel free to contact me at rinkhalsrelic@gmail.com.

    Cheers,
    Grant

    • Ah Grant, what an honour! Well done on your incredible research, this is such amazing news and I am working at spreading the awareness. Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool.
      I have started work in Cape Point a few months ago and myself and my colleagues are all aware, the word is spreading in the deep south as we should surely soon have a few encounters, especially with the weather slowly heating up (and as you say, suitable habitat and prey).
      Grant, keep up the great work, perhaps one day I’ll call you with good news!
      -Zayaan

  3. Grant

    Hi Zayaan. The response to this research has been incredible and encouraging. I have been lucky enough to have the means to get the ball rolling but the credit should be extended to each and every person involved as without them none of this is possible. Thank you for your efforts. This is great stuff!

    Cape point is an interesting one. I received a few records from the area, but one can never be sure without proof. The accounts were certainly convincing though. Are you working for SANParks?

    Grant

    • Hey Grant, so I am a horticulturist based part-time (for half the week around weekends) at Good Hope Gardens Nursery, we are on Plateau Rd just before Cape Point but I suppose the area doesn’t have a name so we just say Cape Point :). We see a lot of people from all over down there and I make a point to bring the Rinkhals up in conversation to our customers and visitors. We supply to TMNP and often staff will pop in and I’ll pounce with Rinkhals questions. No one I have met has seen anything, mostly puffies, molesnakes, boomslange, skaapstekers, the usual venomous and non-venomous suspects. But it has garnered real interest and some people are aware of the comeback so I think perhaps it’s only a matter of time, no? It really seems the perfect habitat for them down there. I have your information saved on my phone and will pass it on to anyone who may have seen one (…or two, or three…). In fact I may just put a sign up in the nursery, people respond to pictures!

  4. Hey Zayaan – nice blog by the way, and thanks for commenting on Cape Point Chronicle (thats how I found you, hope it leads to more traffic for you.)

    About four years ago I was convinced that I saw a Rinkhals at the Cape Point Nature reserve, just casually crossing the main road. It was a long, slender, olive coloured snake. This was before I found out the snakes are not supposed to be in the area anymore, and so I put it down to being a mis-identified cape cobra or a large mole snake. Now I am not so sure…
    Always good to see snakes in the wild, a fascinating species at the very cutting edge of evolutionary possibilities.
    Ps. I have just subscribed to your RSS feed- I suggest others do the same.

    • Russel! Many thanks, I truly appreciate it.

      That is the thing with snakes, there is so much variety within species, juveniles to adults and even then the colour variation is immense, with Cobra’s especially. It’s about getting to know the way they move and their habits which is obviously not easy since it is not recommended to get too close and it’s not often we get the privilege of coming across snakes. When I was doing work up in Rondeberg, snake sighting was a daily occurence, mostly big mole snakes and sizeable cobra’s but also some juveniles of which I still have been unable to identify. Down in the deep south I come across snakes less often but definitely more variety. It would be amazing to come across a Rinkhals, just to see, then move on :).

      Have subscribed to yours too, I am part-time in the deep south, past Scarborough and Red Hill but before the reserve so it is important to know what’s going on down there.

      Best,
      Zayaan

  5. Candice

    Hi Zayaan! Thanks for your response. Two of my friends and I are interested thus far. Hopefully more of our friends can join before summer, although I still have to make course inquiries. Thanks! Candice

  6. Grant

    This is great stuff guys. What is encouraging is the number of people who are becoming aware, interested and increasingly knowledgeable about the snakes in their areas. Knowledge really is power when it comes to snakes.
    Back to rinkhals on the peninsula itself, Russell, could you elaborate on your sighting? Typically rinkhals are dark snakes. When we try to deduce the possibility of a sighting we look at a number of things: Physical characteristics such as colouration and markings; behaviour such as feigning death, venom spraying and spreading a hood; time of day; and weather conditions. Photographs or an actual specimen are the only ways to confirm a sighting.
    We have received records from various areas in the peninsula which indicate snakes feigning death, snakes spraying venom and as one gentleman described – who had captured a snake to move it away from his property – a dark snake which spread a hood displaying two white bands on its throat region which sprayed venom onto his glasses. Convincing right? But this cannot be confirmed without proof.
    Zayaan, what we have found is that when it comes to snakes, people tend to exaggerate and are seldom able to differentiate between the different species. The most common snakes thought to be rinkhals are puff adders, boomslang, Cape cobra and mole snake although i have had received calls of rinkhals which turned out to be spotted harlequin as well. However, if people aren’t aware of what a rinkhals looks like identifications of rinkhals could also go missing when people assume that it is something else, especially a Cape cobra due to its general similarity when it spreads a hood.
    To illustrate this i have a story which always keeps my hopes alive. August 2010, the project was now in full swing and the weather was warming up. I was investigating a call from a woman in Grabouw who claimed that her dog had been sprayed in the eye by a rinkhals. On the way I found myself a little lost amongst the farms where I happened upon a gentleman in his garden who looked like he might know where I was supposed to be. I used the opportunity to question the man about the snakes in the area and when I showed him the project flyer he emphatically told me that in his 15 years on the plot he had never seen a snake like the one in the picture, in fact he didn’t even know that there was such a snake in the Western Cape. “Cobras and puff adders definitely, but that snake…never!” he stated.
    Disappointed I moved on, doubting that the next woman had encountered a rinkhals but wondering what could have caused the damage to her dog’s eye. Roughly three weeks later I received a phone call. It was the gentleman who had given me directions. “Grant, we have a snake which looks a bit like the one on your flyer. Actually it looks EXACTLY like it!” And that it was. We rushed out to the site to find our first Cape rinkhals beautiful and unfortunately injured…but that’s another story.
    This snake was not one found within the city boundaries; however, it was only a few kilometres away and gave us hope for other areas with similar habitat within the city, some of which, later proved to be fruitful. Many of the areas on the peninsula are only visited by people hiking and this usually takes place during daylight hours. For a secretive snake which probably moves more during darker periods the chances of encountering one are reduced dramatically. In addition those in the past that have encountered a rinkhals may have misidentified it or passed it off as something else, some of them may have run in fear.
    Of course, there is the possibility that they may not be there at all and we have to keep this in mind. However, for a species which, despite urban development, is still common on the Highveld I believe that they could have been overlooked and that with a little bit of knowledge and awareness we may have more stories similar to the one about gentleman in Grabouw.
    Grant

    p.s If anyone would like a copy of last years flyer please email me

  7. Grant, doing research myself (definitely not as awesome as yours), I know that feeling of success, how amazing that must be! What a great story, the affirmation. I am going to mail you to get the flyer and I will print them out and leave them at Good Hope Nursery, put one up at the noticeboard in Scarborough etc. I am sure as you are that the Rinkhals are around there but as you say, proof is belangrik. Hope to run into you too.

  8. I’m not sure that I would say I feel success, more hope I would say. I am still concerned with the plight of this species. Naturalists of the past claim that this was once a common species in the Cape. However, areas where they were documented, such as Princess Vlei, Marina da Gama and Retreat have lost any form of suitable habitat. Kenilworth racecourse is another area where this species was known to occur, and is under formal conservation, but the last sighting from there was in 2002.
    So why are they not there? Have they all been collected? Is it because of competition, disease, predation? Have they been overlooked? None of these questions are easy to answer. Populations within the city have been confirmed, but we have no ideas of numbers and, apart from brief past accounts, we have nothing to compare it with.
    What if we find one on the peninsula, or at Kenilworth? I’d be incredibly excited initially…but, we need to remind ourselves that if it wasn’t for their decline we wouldn’t need research like this.
    Only time will tell.

    • Knowing a few conservationists myself, I know how involved those questions become and sometimes how desperate it all seems. The point is it’s crazy that they’ve returned (or come out of hiding??), and the best we can do is speculate. The work you’re doing is so important, are you tagging at all? Is it possible that in Kenilworth they have become extinct, KRCA is not a very large area and while it is home to many incredible species such as the Micro frog, perhaps the snakes were too limited within the area? How big is their range? Is this information known? So what you’re saying is that it is not enough to record the sightings and ‘see it for yourself’, the bottom line is knowing where they disappeared to and why? It’s big work but as you say, only time will tell. Keep us posted if you ever do educational programs or talks, word-of-mouth is undeniable.

  9. Grant

    Great news! A member of the public sent a photograph through to me this morning of a snake he spotted on Table Mountain this weekend. We have positively identified it as a rinkhals. This is the first official confirmation we have from the Table Mountain range. Needless to say…i’m ecstatic!

    • Grant, this is FANTASTIC news! What is the next step, do you have gps co-ords and will you now go and seek out any hard evidence? This is amazing news, hahaa, I can only imagine what your reaction must have been.
      It’s as if they were here all along and we just had our eyes closed and misidentified them all these years. What is your hypothesis?

  10. After much scrutiny we have determined that the snake is actually an unusual colour morph of a juvenile cape cobra.

    This has been in consultation with experts who initially agreed that it was a rinkhals. We had to be certain so we explored every possible angle. The result disappointing, but at least it’s accurate.

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  15. Frank Hutchons

    We caugt a snake what snake is it black stripe under neck bick one and on smal borh black and head goes flat snake is grey and stands up

  16. If anyone can help Rinkhals and puff adders needed for breeding at Tribal Reptiles Breeding Centre Email: geagleclaw@yahoo.com

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