Meet the African species that one expert calls 'death incarnate'
or much of my life I lived quite happily with the vaguely held notion that a mamba was a type of Latin American dance step. I learned of my error one evening beside a campfire in Africa, in Botswana's Okavango Delta, when my host announced that a black mamba had been seen in camp that day but not located since.
A mambo, I was informed, is indeed a cousin to the tango and the cha-cha. Africa's black mamba, on the other hand, is a slender snake that grows to 4.3 meters (14 ft.) and packs a neurotoxic venom that almost always delivers speedy death. This is the sort of revelation that seizes a traveler's attention, and it filled me with a keen interest in the natural history of the creature and its potential for intersecting with my bodily health.
We never did see the mamba, but it prompted me to start asking questions. I soon found that every bush person seems to have a story about the largest, quickest and most feared venomous snake of a continent loaded with reptiles of awesome powers. Throughout a range over most of sub- Saharan Africa, black mambas are the subjects of myths taken for truth and of true tales that are as strange as any myths.
On alert, as when hunting or threatened, mambas travel with a third of their bodies raised off the ground, so that a sudden confrontation can instantly put the snake head-high to a human. A bite to the face or torso or a direct hit into a vein or artery can bring death from paralysis within 20 minutes.
An aroused mamba often strikes repeatedly in blurred succession, reputedly fast enough to tag a bird in flight. Bush wisdom grants mambas an aggressive nature and great speed over the ground. Colonial lore tells of mambas overtaking men on horseback or dropping through chimneys to wipe out whole families. In fact they are among the nimblest of snakes, quicker than a person in thick bush and at times undeniably pugnacious.
My inquiries took me around southern Africa and introduced me to a loose and eccentric circle of herpetologists, field collectors, bush guides and native people who actually know the creature. All are admirers, for the black mamba--king of a tribe that includes the smaller and less aggressive but still lethal green, western green and Jamieson's mambas--is an altogether extraordinary animal, a superb predator at the top of its food pyramid. A full-grown black mamba has little to fear except those age-old destroyers of serpents--people.
The first mamba I ever saw was moving through the treetops of a friend's garden on the edge of the Okavango. A swarm of palm-sized songbirds informed us of the snake's presence by their angry mobbing behavior. I've watched cowbirds and blue jays harass my cat in my Maryland backyard, but that was friendly joshing compared to the hazing that the diving, chittering swarm gave one of the largest predators in their arboreal world.
The homeowners shared the birds' feeling. A shotgun was produced and down tumbled the mamba, fully 8 feet long, with dull dark olive skin--an adult is more dusky green or purple than black. A black-lined mouth curved upward in a humorless smile on a coffin-shaped head.
When the snake was unmistakably expired, we picked it up carefully, holding it with two hands as one would a live one. An inadvertent scratch of the fangs in death could be as fatal as a live bite.
The tail lashed around my arm in fading reflex. The dry skin was cool and the dead muscles squeezed mine with one last spasm of whipcord strength. The sensation gave me an involuntary shiver, of the sort people say means someone just walked over your grave.
he next black mambas that I found were safely behind plate glass at Jack Seale's Snake and Animal Park outside Johannesburg, South Africa. A clipped moustache accents Jack's roguish air. "It's one of the gods of Africa," he says. "It holds the power of life and death. …