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The Deadly Snakes of Sri Lanka

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An unavoidable prelude to any journey is convincing my mother that the destination is safe and that I won’t suffer an agonizing death in a foreign land, far from those who love me. In this respect, Sri Lanka presented more of a challenge than usual.

Oh, did I pick and choose the statistics which I casually revealed to my mom! “Huh, would you look at that? Sri Lankans have one of longest average life-spans in Asia.” Or: “Wow! Who’d have thought that Sri Lanka’s literacy rate would be so high? Isn’t that amazing, Mom?” And: “It’s so nice that the Civil War is over and done with, completely, and there’s nothing more to worry about on that front, at all, since it’s finished now, and peace and love reign supreme in this magical place that I think I’ve heard some people call The World’s Very Most Safest Island.”

But my trickery was for naught. “Michael. Come over here.” Oh no, she’s opened up the internet! She’s gone straight to Google and keyed in Sri Lanka Danger Death. (Though it’s doomed me in this case, I remain silently proud of her web smarts). “Michael Ross Powell! It says here that Sri Lanka has the highest per capita rate of snakebite deaths in the world“.

Busted! Fine, mother, it’s true. In no other country are you more likely to drop dead of a snake bite than in Sri Lanka. It’s the world leader. Tropical, verdant Sri Lanka is a snake paradise; a fertile breeding ground of evil. 96 species of snakes have been recorded here, more than half endemic to the island. 32 of them are venomous, and twenty of these are deadly: seven land snakes and thirteen sea serpents.

Cobras are the most famous of Sri Lanka’s snakes. They’re found all over the island, except for a small zone in the highlands. This hooded killer is both feared and venerated here; statues of cobras are perhaps only second to Buddhas in places of worship. They’re also popular with snake charmers, who can be found hanging around any large tourist site. We had the chance to meet one during our time in Colombo (Mom, you may want to avert your eyes, now):

Scared of Cobras

The common krait is another of Sri Lanka’s deadly snakes. This fellow can grow over five feet in length and delivers a powerful neurotoxin that results in paralysis and eventual death by suffocation. They’re nocturnal, so encounters with humans are rare. But during the rainy season, they often seek evening shelter inside of a house and are a danger to sleepers. The bite isn’t very painful, akin to a mosquito or spider, so there’s a good chance that you wouldn’t even wake up. Until you’re choking on your own tongue.

The good news about the saw-scaled viper is that it’s mostly confined to the Jaffna peninsula. The bad news? We had ten days planned there!! Its toxin causes massive kidney failure and something called hematemesis (not sure what that is, maybe I should Wikipedia it… [reading] … oh god oh god oh god).

Cobras are perhaps the most terrifying, but they’re not the most deadly of Sri Lanka’s snakes. No, that distinction goes to the god awful Russell’s Viper. These large snakes are common in populated areas, where they hunt the rodents that live among humans. They’re mostly nocturnal and often found on roads at night. If bitten by one, you’re in trouble. They can deliver over 250mg of venom, and it takes only 40 to 70mg to kill a man. Nothing like making extra-sure, eh, you stupid snake? The bite will immediately swell up, and you’ll start bleeding. From your gums. In your urine. You’ll be in severe pain for up to two weeks, after which you might die of kidney failure.

The most important thing in the case of any snake bite is to immediately seek treatment. Even in the case of the Russell’s Viper, you’re very likely to survive if you get to a hospital right away. Sri Lankan clinics, predictably, are well-equipped to handle snake bites. Also, try and identify the type of snake which bit you, and you’ll save a lot of time once you arrive. Our plan (yes, we have a plan) is to take a picture of the snake, and then get to a hospital.

See mom? Nothing to worry about. Hospitals are prepared and we have a fail-proof survival plan! Now, log off Google and WebMD and YouTube, and relax. We’re as safe as can be.

Taiming Snakes
Sri Lankan Cobras
Cobra Hood
Cobra Bites


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March 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm
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