Many people have been living in fear after media reports that a female officer of the Nigerian Air Force died after being bitten by a snake, which hid in a water closet.How did that news come to you?
Snake envenomation incident anywhere in the world, is a common occurrence, especially in the tropical regions of the world, where snakes are common, except in places like Antarctica, Greenland and some other places where there are no snakes. But in every other part of the world, there is a common interaction between mankind and serpents. In some Asian countries, some people keep deadly snakes in their house, some worship them and some release them to protect their farms and take them back home afterwards. This gives an idea of the interaction between humans and snakes. Snakes are very wise, they are shy and they hide from people but some persons have unpleasant experiences mostly out of ignorance or carelessness on their part, without reference to this unfortunate instance. A common instance is to see people walk in the dark without light; people don’t wear protective boot and if they step on a snake by accident, they would be bitten. You also see farmers and herders walk in the bush without proper safety wears. That is not good enough.
You said that snakes are shy creatures. In the case of the bitten naval officer, what do you think could have gone wrong?
I am very sad about incidents like this but I’m happy you contacted me, so we can talk about this for people to know how to prevent a recurrence. On the issue of snakes in the toilet or even in the house, most of the time, we are the ones who indirectly invite the snake to the house. Some people carelessly break the toilet pipe that conveys the human waste to the septic tank. Some people climb the pipe and there is a crack and sometimes a rat goes into the crack and snakes follow the rat into the pipe. When it kills the rat, it finds the place cool and comfortable. Since water doesn’t pass through the pipe all the time, the snake could find its way in and it’s easier for the snake to keep going forward in a pipe than to make a U-turn. So, out of curiosity, the snake would keep moving till it gets to the water closet. And when someone comes to use the toil and opens the WC suddenly, they may mistake the snake for another person’s dung that didn’t flush well. When the person sits down, the snake is jolted and tries to find a way to escape. Your bum does not cover the entire toilet seat, so there would be some light in between your legs; then snake puts its head there to find a way out and you shift when it touches your skin and then it bites.
The incident about the female naval officer has put fear in the minds of many Nigerians; is there any do-it-yourself that people can adopt to put their mind at rest?
Let people boil a bucket of water and flush their toilets with it. The snake would be scorched by the hot water, and if people can do two buckets, it is even better, because there is already cold water inside the channel. If the snake is mature, it has a skin that is resistant enough to bear the heat but the second bucket coming in quick succession would flush the toilet and there is 75 per cent chance that whatever (snake) that is there would escape or die. That is affordable by everybody. People who have water heater system in their houses could have their plumber make a provision for the flushing of the WC with hot water.
Some people have advised that a mixture of salt and kerosene can chase snakes lurking in a water closet, is it true?
Anything that cannot be validated scientifically, someone with my level of science cannot dwell on it. I’m not a snake charmer, I’m a scientist. Meanwhile, in many parts of Nigeria, we have salt water and we have snakes in the salt water, so I don’t know how salt would help to kill snakes. Kerosene and petrol do kill snakes if they cannot escape from it, but the danger is that in trying to put kerosene or petrol on snakes, some people end up setting fire to their houses, maybe out of panic or the snake runs across the fire to another place where the fire catches something else. That has caused fire incident in a number of places in the past. There are certain snakes that fight back; they panic and fight back and they end up biting the same person pouring the kerosene or petrol on them, because the liquid doesn’t kill them at once. The best thing is to call an expert to come and remove them. Snake charmers have their own strategy, which I don’t know about. But in countries like Papua New Guinea, where I have gone to work in the past, some snake charmers could remove the snake and put another one there so that you call them again, since you would pay them each time.
What can people do to keep snakes away from their environment?
If you give snakes their space, they won’t come to your house. In designing our residential areas, industrial complexes, market places and public facilities, we must make room for snakes. However, if you keep your environment clean, they won’t make your place their habitat. The venom of a snake is not meant for human beings. They use it to kill their prey and digest it. And a human being is not the prey of a snake, so it’s not meant for humans.
People have to clean their compound and once it is free of snake food like lizard, rat, birds in the roof, snakes would likely not come. However, when you plant excessive flowers that droop into another person’s compound or into a bush or plantations like banana, plantain and crawling plants, snake must come. Also, those who use latrine, it is the habitation of the Spitting Cobra, because latrine rats live inside and roam on the dung, enjoying the heat generated by the putrefaction, the same way the cobra would enjoy the heat and it would definitely go and stay there. Also, people must stop piling unwanted materials, like woods and all kinds of metallic and plastic things, in their compounds. People, especially women, should learn to dispose of what they no longerneed, because those are places for rats and snakes to hide. Gutters must be kept clean always.
You said we should make room for snakes, how do we do that?
We must design and create green spaces where those animals restrict themselves and humans are not in conflict with them. Also, we must, as a nation, come together to decide on having anti-venom in all our hospitals, and especially communities health centres. There are people that are very far from health facilities. And it is almost forbidden to carry a victim of snakebite on a motorcycle.
Why is it forbidden to use a motorcycle?
The person would likely die because of the vibration, which would help the venom to circulate faster and get to where it shouldn’t get to, and then the person would die. Unless we produce snake anti-venom locally, the little anti-venom for victims of snakebite would continue to be out of the reach of the people. One single shot of the injection would be about N15,000 and I’m talking about the cheapest. On the average, a victim needs up to five to seven shots. Can an average person afford that? To worsen the situation, many of the anti-venom (brands) available cannot be preserved outside sub-zero temperature. So, hospitals that don’t have constant electricity and cold storage facilities cannot preserve the anti-venom they buy, so they don’t store them. But if we produce the anti-venom locally, we will be able to produce enough for the kind of snakes we have in our environment.
Anti-venoms are action-specific. The anti-venom for cobra cannot be used for Mamba bite and vice versa. So, the Mamba in Nigeria is different from the Mamba in South Africa. Also, the Green Mamba in southern part of Nigeria, the South-South especially, is different from the one in the North and there is no record of having the Black Mamba anywhere in Nigeria. So, like we have deadly snakes like the one they call Carpet Viper, from Nsukka all the way to the northern part of the country, in fact, they have invaded some parts of the South-South through urbanisation and globalisation and they are even in Akwa Ibom. We need to produce anti-venom for the Carpet Viper, because that is the snake that causes the most snake bite incident in Nigeria. During the lockdown in 2020, I got more than 40 of the snakes in a single farm around Gwagwalada area (Abuja). Farmers, herders and other people go to these areas, so we need to start producing anti-venom locally so we don’t keep importing. We could even end up importing what is not functional, because if it was produced for the snakes in India and you bring them here, the Indian snake, for example King Cobra, is not here and doesn’t have the same venom with our own black cobra here. These are the issues we have to think about as a nation to prevent this kind of incident that happened. People need to have a hotline they could call in an event like this. There are instances a snake bites a person and they have not even injected the venom; it could be a warning bite or what we call a dry bite, which has no venom even though the snake is venomous. If it’s a dry bite, it’s a warning. Some snakes don’t even have venom.
Can Nigeria afford an anti-venom factory?
Why not? We have the snakes here, so we are not asking them to go and bring snakes from India or Indonesia to breed. We can breed Nigeria’s snakes, extract the venom, get some consultants who would help us to do the chemistry on the venom and we produce and even export them. Camping snakes and producing anti-venom would give us as much money as the petroleum industry is giving us because snakebite a global challenge. Asian countries like India have so much envenomation and thousands of people die every year from snakebite. So, what will it cost the government to build a serpentarium, maybe in my university, the University of Uyo?
What percentage of the snakes in Nigeria is venomous?
In Nigeria, majority of our snakes have no venom, but because people are ignorant, once they have snakebite they start taking medicine they don’t know about. Some go to a native doctor that gives them a concoction that becomes a poison in their body, because the native doctor wants to take money from them. So, he must give them something. Whereas, if they consult scientists, I could ask them to take a picture of where the snake bit them and I would ask a few questions, like the time the incident happened, because there are snakes that move at certain times of the day. I’m likely to know what happened to the person up to about 75 per cent and then I can advise accordingly. Also, if I see a picture of the bite, I would certainly know the type of snake that bit the person and I would be able to advise a medical practitioner on what to do.
What other ways do snakes get into those pipes and the septic tank?
The answer is simple. Any place you see a rat in your house, wherever that rat passed to enter the house, a snake, two to three times the size of the rat, would pass through that same space easily and without hesitation. Also, any place you find agama lizard, there would always be snakes there. So, if rats have been entering your house, know that you are a candidate to have snakes as visitors. The rat is coming there to eat and they find your house habitable, so the snake would follow it from outside and that is how it enters the house, apart from the pipes.
Even when you don’t have rats and you have birds like bats living in your ceiling, please know that you would have snakes as visitors. Snakes feed on animals, so there is no magic about it.
When there is snakebite, what are the wrong things people do that worsen the situation?
When people come across snakebite, call the expert. In a matter of minutes, you would be able to take the picture of the snakebite and send the picture across and someone like me can advise on what to do or tell the doctor what to do. I won’t charge for that. As I said, the person should not climb a motorcycle. If there is no other means of transportation, let the person lie down without panic. Just lie peacefully in one place, let the people around reassure the person they would be fine. Sing them a song; tell them a story or anything that could stop them from panicking. If the person can sleep, fine. Instead of rushing the person on a bike to the hospital, you can rush the doctor or nurse on a motorcycle to meet with the patient where they are. It is only experts or medical practitioners that know how to tie the right places without causing more harm. This is why we don’t advise people to tie anything. We also advise people not to suck the wound because if there was venom there, the person would be poisoned through the mouth. The person could even get blood-related infections like HIV if the victim had such infections because you don’t know the status of the victim. So, the person must seek medical attention. The doctors know how to suspend a leg or an arm to prevent rapid blood circulation that would transport the venom to different areas of the body it shouldn’t get to.
What parts of Nigeria are snakes most prevalent?
So far, Gombe and Plateau states have recorded more snakebite incidents in recent years (than other parts of the country). Cultural attributes of the people and their environment are a factor. Plateau, Gombe and Nasarawa are states with rocky terrains where snakes can easily hide. They also have some swamps and amphibians would build up in those areas and form easy food for them and you know that venomous snakes reproduce rapidly. Even though they don’t have parental care, they are able to protect themselves because of their venom which they were born with and so they could easily survive. Given the extremely unsanitary situation in Nigeria, dirty environments attract pests like rats, insects, lizards and so on. With these food species very abundant in the environment, snakes also have the probability to grow in population. We have to know that the cleaner our environment is, the safer we are from snakes. More importantly, we should teach people about this component of our natural ecosystem. Let the government make it a policy that if you construct a highway, you must make snake facilities for the highway, same for our airports, farmlands and schools and we need to train more people for basic first aid and response for snakebite incidents.
How did you grow to love snakes?
I didn’t love snakes per se, I only always pitied them. I have never had the heart to kill a snake because I used to consider that they didn’t have legs or hands and I used to see them as helpless, given that it is only their mouth that they have to defend themselves. In those days, when my father used to ask me to go after snakes that fell from our coconut trees, I would go there and be doing something else until they entered the bush and escaped and my father would beat me thoroughly. I kept having sympathy for snakes till I grew up and left the village. However, a professor at the University of Ibadan pushed me into studying snakes; he insisted that I must study snakes for my PhD (laughs). Then, I discovered that snakes are more beneficial than a lot of the animals that we cherish. I should add that the fears people have of snakes are unfounded and should be discouraged. It’s not all that evil. Snakes are more worthy than evil. It’s ignorance that is responsible for the fear we have. In Australia, 80 per cent or more of their snakes are deadly, whereas in Nigeria, only 12 per cent of our snakes are deadly. So, we have no reason to fear unnecessarily.
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