The hitchhiker’s guide to Liberian snakes – by John Howell, ArcelorMittal Liberia’s environmental adviser
Posted on 05.12.13 by
“I have long known that Africa is home to a wide variety of snakes. But I didn’t know that Liberia’s Nimba County, location of ArcelorMittal Liberia’s iron ore mining operations, is home to the greatest variety of snakes on the continent.
Our early environmental studies, carried out after ArcelorMittal first arrived in Liberia in 2005, showed us that the forests around the town of Yekepa and the Nimba mine sites are really exceptional for biodiversity. In particular, we found that there are vast numbers of tree frogs living in the canopies of the rainforests. As expected, there are also a good number of tree snakes, preying on the tree frogs. Nimba County has, in fact, a remarkable number of unusually large tree snakes. These add to the wide range of ground-dwelling snakes, to make an exceptionally large number of snake species in the area.
Humans are often irrational about snakes, and most cultures treat them with a mixture of respect and loathing. However, here in Liberia it is common to assume they are all deadly. In fact, most snakes are not venomous; even with venomous snakes you are not necessarily poisoned even if you are bitten. There is a lot of folklore about how to cure snakebites, but that is mainly because most bites do not actually contain any poison, and so whatever cure you use is likely to be effective. That said, a poisoned bite from a truly venomous snake can lead to a range of horrendous symptoms that do not make for good reading.
“How do you measure a snake?”
To help put the dangers posed by snakes into perspective, we at ArcelorMittal Liberia decided to create a guide to snakes, as part of our biological studies – I like to think of it as, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Liberian Snakes’. Several international reptile specialists visited Liberia to work on the project, disappearing into the neighbouring forests to trap snakes, lizards and skinks. They found plenty of each species, and soon had Liberians assisting them. Once caught, they measured and took DNA samples from them.
I was curious and once asked one of the specialists: “How do you measure a snake?” The specialist looked at me as if I was completely ignorant. “You put it into a pipe so that it is calm, and then you can do whatever you like with it.” He made it sound so basic that I never dared ask the next question: “Yes, but how do you get a snake to go into a pipe?”
One day the consultants’ coordinator came to me in great agitation. “Johannes [the snake specialist] is keeping snakes in his bedroom”, she said. “Well, what do you expect with a snake specialist?” I asked. “But what if someone finds out? It must be against company health and safety rules.” We checked, but the rules were silent on the subject of keeping snakes in your bedroom.
Johannes, when spoken to about this, was incensed. “The snake is under full control! I keep it in a special bag, do my measurements in the evening and release it back to the forest in the morning. It can’t harm anyone. What about all the snakes around that I haven’t caught? They are the real danger.” The co-ordinator spent a long time on the phone discussing the matter with her company, and in the end the snakes were housed overnight in a container on the edge of town.
And so it continued for the months that we were busy with our research.
Once we had the scientific view on snakes, we consulted with our medical colleagues, the compound security department (who are told when a snake is found) and the environmental department (who are called by the security department when they have been told that a snake has been found), and redrafted the report into the ArcelorMittal Guide to the Snakes of Liberia. The guide is a mix of practical information – photos of each snake, details on whether they are venomous or not, information on what to do if you are bitten – and detailed scientific research. We limited the in-depth medical stuff and the complex security procedures that our colleagues wanted, to try to reassure people that snakes are not such a threat. This may not be the first guide of its type, but it is certainly different from the usual snake guides.
When people come to me and say: “You must eradicate snakes here”, I say to them: “How many people do you know who were killed by snakes?” They always say “None”. “And how many do you know who were killed by vehicles?” They always know some. “So”, I say, “Once vehicles are eradicated, I will start on the snakes”.
To conclude, what I would like you to remember is this: There are probably about 54 species of snakes in Nimba, but only six of these are potentially life-threatening. But whatever you think of snakes, even though the chances are that it probably can’t or won’t harm you, as with other wildlife: it is best to leave it in peace.”
John Howell is ArcelorMittal Liberia’s environmental adviser.
Since the Guide to the Snakes of Liberia was published in September 2013, hundreds of copies of the guide have been distributed to schools and communities in Nimba County, Liberia – more copies are currently being printed due to high demand.
The guide was adapted from a report produced by URS for ArcelorMittal Liberia Limited, written by Johannes Penner, with contributions from William Branch, Ben Phalan, Tanya Romanenko and Gareth Hearn.