Hemachatus haemachatus, "Rinkhals"
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.