MUT Nature Conservation department teaches local school learners about snakes

from left, Sthembile Nkosi; Makhosazane Mathenjwa, learner; Scelo Sibiya, professional snake handler; Ntando Dlamini, learner; and Smangaliso Mthombeni, owner of Gqama Environment Group

Giving the reasons why she was conducting a snake awareness programme at Umlazi Township’s Ndukwenhle High School, Sthembile Nkosi, a Lecturer at the Department of Nature Conservation, said there were several reasons for rolling out the awareness effort. “Firstly, it is essential to educate learners about the importance of coexisting with wildlife, including snakes. By providing information about snakes, the learners’ behaviours might change. We also want to debunk common misconceptions about the snakes. The learners can then develop a better understanding and appreciation for these creatures,” said Nkosi. Nkosi further said that “snakes are a vital part of the ecosystem and naturally occur in many environments. By conducting a snake awareness programme, we can help students develop an understanding and appreciation for the natural world around them.” She also said that the empowerment effort would educate the learners to coexist with snakes and other wildlife in a responsible manner.

Nkosi also emphasize the need to change the learners’ attitude towards the snakes. “Many people, including learners, have a fear or negative perception of snakes due to misinformation or lack of knowledge. A snake awareness programme can help dispel common myths and misconceptions about snakes, thus reducing irrational fears.” Nkosi said that “irrational fear” would be replaced by a better understanding of the snakes, their behaviour, and how to safely interact with them if necessary.

Nkosi also said that there was a need to inform the learners about what to do when they unintentionally come face to face with a snake and suffer a snakebite. “Snakebites can occur when people unintentionally encounter snakes, without knowing proper safety precautions. By conducting a snake awareness programme, we can educate students on how to identify venomous and non-venomous species, understand snake behaviour, and adopt strategies to minimize the risk of snakebites.” She said that was life-saving knowledge; students were equipped to make informed decisions if they encountered snakes.

Nkosi advised people to stay calm when they encounter snakes. Most snakes are not aggressive and will try to avoid human contact. “Do NOT approach or try to handle the snake on your own unless you are an experienced herpetologist or snake handler.  Keep a safe distance of around two meters or more, to minimize any potential snake bites.  Remove any immediate threats to the snake, such as pets or curious onlookers. Most importantly, contact local authorities, such as wildlife control agencies or snake rescue services, and seek their advice.

Nkosi and her team used pythons to demonstrate their messages. These are a group of nonvenomous constricting snakes known for their large size, powerful coils, and distinctive hunting style, Nkosi explained. “Pythons are fascinating creatures with unique adaptations and behaviours that have captivated the interest of researchers, wildlife enthusiasts, and snake lovers around the world. Pythons are a popular choice for such demonstrations due to their docile nature, which makes them relatively safe and easier to handle, compared to more venomous snake species,” Nkosi said.

Learners reacted with shock and excitement to the story about the snakes, and the demonstration. Scelo Sibiya, a professional snake handler from Gqama Environment Group, gave the learners a lecture on snakes, in most cases supporting what Nkosi said. Sibiya’s main message was that the snakes are part of the ecosystem; they need to be treated with care. And that all the problems that people have with snakes are because people do not have the necessary knowledge about the creatures. He said there are 3 000 types of snakes, living in different environments. A certain kind of environment would determine the type of snake found there, said the man who survived several snake bites and a crocodile bite.

Ntando Dlamini, a science learner, and Makhosazane Mathenjwa, a humanities learner, volunteered to take part in the demonstration, much to the shock of their school mates. Ntando said he wanted to know how it felt like to touch a snake.