Ghana Life: Meetings With Ghana’s Snakes

In the 1970s, the veteran curator of the reptile house of the University of Ghana, at Legon, near Accra, proudly told visitors that he had participated in a survey of the snakes of the Gold Coast led by George Cansdale, later of the London Zoo and famous for his BBC TV animal programmes of the 1950s. ‘We found,’ the curator would say, ‘seventy different species of snakes, of which fourteen are venomous.’ Even though it might seem that only twenty percent of Ghana’s snakes pose an immediate danger to human beings, most encounters seem to involve the venomous species, or at least that’s the way it appears in hindsight.

Early in 1982, the revolutionary government of John Jerry Rawlings directed that there should be a national farming day on which everyone was expected to devote all his/her time on the land in some task of practical agriculture. The Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, had recently acquired a large plot of land a few miles from the university campus on which it was intended to demonstrate minimum tillage farming. So on the appointed day the entire staff of the centre reported for duty ready to clear the bush and prepare the land for cultivation.

The work began, but it was not long before the cry went up that a snake had been killed. Fearing that the inexperienced farmers might lay down their tools, the director called out that there was only a one-in-five chance of the snake being venomous. ‘No, no,’ cried the seasoned agriculturalists, ‘this one is really dangerous,’ and they hurriedly brought the corpse for inspection. It had been indeed a very dangerous creature, a Gabon viper with a short thick body and horned head, reputed to be the most venomous of all Ghana’s snakes.

The visitor from Gabon had met its end outside of the KNUST campus, but many other venomous snakes made their home on the campus, and had close encounters with students and staff that did not end in harm to either party. Many of these events involved green and black mambas in transit between the many flowering trees and shrubs and intent only on climbing rapidly up into the copious foliage of their new abode.

One of the more memorable on-campus encounters was recounted by Professor Fred Abloh, head of the Department of Building Technology. Anxious to demonstrate the good qualities of his low cost construction techniques, the professor had erected a single storey structure in which he provided himself with a new office. Shortly after moving in, Fred returned to his office to find a cobra coiled on the chair behind his desk. ‘I turned to run out the door,’ he related, ‘but the reptile moved much faster; he was through the door before I could reach it!’ Needless to say, the professor was soon reinstalled in his old office in the permanent multi-storey faculty building.

Perhaps the highest probability of sustaining a bite came from an encounter with a night adder. These were reputed not to glide away when disturbed but to lie still. As a consequence, they were often trodden on in the dark. Although not usually life-threatening to an adult, the bite of the night adder could seriously harm a small child or animal. Sadly, the dog which made its home at the university horse society stables died from a night adder bite in spite of the prompt and serious efforts of the university veterinary surgeon.

Some men have faced a greater hazard with a happier outcome. At the University of Ghana, the curator of the reptile house used to show visitors the long scar on his right arm. It came from a self-inflicted cutlass slash. ‘I was up a tree trying to catch a green mamba for Mr Cansdale,’ he related, ‘when it turned and bit me on the hand. So I cut my arm to suck out the poison.’

Article Source: by John Powell

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