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Snake charmer rescues residents from 600 snakes

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By TIMOTHY SIMELANE - SWAZI TIMES-27-Apr-2010

SIMUNYE – A snake charmer has had to rescue about 600 snakes from people’s houses and areas of habitat in six months, and 100 of these are the much feared black mamba.

Thea Litschka Koen and husband Clifton are the only source of hope to residents of Simunye, Ngomane and surrounding areas, who are tormented by fear of living with the highly venomous snakes. Other notorious types are the cobra (imfeti) and the puff adder (libululu).

Within these areas, many children have been bitten, in some cases fatally, by the snakes. Some have even lost limbs as a result of delayed treatment. Also affected are the workers in the sugar cane fields, where Black Mamba snakes like to hunt for rodents and frogs.

Educating

The couple has assumed the responsibility to save the community by not only removing the snakes from cupboards, under beds and washing sinks, but by also educating them on how to avoid and survive snake bite. Litschka recalls two incidents that moved her, wherein children were bitten to death by the Black Mamba snakes. In one incident, a 11-year-old child, Tengetile, was playing hide and seek with other children when she was bitten by the venomous Black Mamba last year. She died because of a delayed treatment as there was no anti-venom in nearby clinics.

Another case was that of a boy who was also bitten by a Black Mamba near the Lusip Dam. “His father called me to say his son had been bitten and I told him to rush him to a clinic whilst I was also rushing to the scene. Along the way, he went to two clinics but there was no anti-venom in both. When he called me later, he was at the Siphofaneni Police Station and his son had died.”

Litschka has made a documentary with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) crew in which she is shown removing Black Mamba snakes in many homesteads, while terrified residents watch. She uses snake tongs to clamp the body next to the head and then pops the snake into a small sack. She then takes the snake to the bushes and releases it.

“Some of the residents say the snakes better be killed because they would return to the homes where they were removed. We recently asked a South African vet to come and help us ascertain where the snakes end up after they were released in the bushes.”

Four of the Black Mamba snakes were operated on and a transmitter was inserted in their bodies, afterwhich they were taken to the bush lands. One of the snakes was found still in the bushes living atop a tree where it fed on birds, whilst another was found dead as it was trapped in a garage and rats feasted on it.

Litschka says if she had not rescued the snakes, the only remedy for the residents was to call the police, who would only shoot them dead because they are also scared of handling them.

The Black Mamba is not an endangered species in Swaziland. Litschka says there is no Green Mamba in Swaziland, contrary to beliefs by many. She says communities should learn to cohabit with snakes because there is no other option. “You can’t kill all the snakes, but you have to learn to live with them,” she said.

The couple is not employed for this but only have the passion to help communities that are exposed to snakes. Koen was recently charged for the possession of pythons, however that case is still pending in court.

...no drugs in some rural clinics

MBABANE – Some rural clinics do not have the anti-venom, whilst some have certain quantities. Principal Secretary of Health Dr Stephen Shongwe said he was still to investigate this, when called on Friday. Some were called by the Times of Swaziland to ascertain how they cope with the situation.

Nyonyane Clinic – We do not have anti-venom, which is why we refer patients to Dvokolwako Clinic, about 40 minutes away. Siphofaneni Clinic – We have some anti-venom and we think it is enough.

Lomahasha – We have some quantities and it expires in 2013. Sinceni – We do not have any anti-venom in stock.

Hlane – We have some.

Anti-venom fund to help the poor

SIMUNYE – Thea Litschka Koen says all clinics should have anti-venom medication, a cure for snakebites.

She says she was appalled that most clinics occasionally ran out of this important medication yet communities were so exposed to venomous snakebites.

She and her husband Clifton have since established a fund for the anti-venom by which people can donate towards the purchase of the anti-venom. In Africa, 200 000 people are bitten by snakes every year, and of these 20 000 eventually die because of lack of anti-venom, She says snakebites are a poor man’s disease.

“It is the poor people who live in houses with holes and who work in fields and bushes. These are the people mostly exposed to the snakebite, which is why clinics close to them should have the anti-vemon. “I started realising there was not enough anti-venom when a child was bitten on her leg and the infection spread. The leg was almost amputated, until I found a sponsor to take her to the United States of America, where she was treated and her leg was saved,” she said.

Since Litschka and her husband started the anti-venom campaign, they have been able to distribute 460 bottles made of five mililitres each. She says this is enough for only one summer as it can only save 92 snakebite victims. Each of the 5ml bottles cost about E1 000 to purchase from South Africa and a snakebite victim needs at least five bottles.

Explaining how the snake venom is made, Litschka says venom is collected from various snakes and processed, afterwhich it is injected into a horse. The horse’s blood is then later extracted to make the antivenom.

Litschka says a mamba snakebite victim will definitely die after a few hours if he has not been treated with anti-venom. Within 15 minutes, the victim will struggle to breath and eventually die. However, if the anti-venom is administered to the person, he subsides within 30 minutes.


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