On the trail with Sydney’s snake-hunter

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On the trail with Sydney's snake-hunter

Eastern browns are most active between September and November, Australia’s spring months © AFP/File William West

SYDNEY – (AFP) – Its head reared in a poise of attack, the Australian eastern brown snake bared its fangs at reptile hunter Rob Ambrose and prepared to strike. A single bite has enough venom to kill 20 adults.

After Australia’s inland taipan — regarded as the world’s most venomous snake and rarely seen outside the nation’s remote central desert — eastern browns are among the most toxic and can cause death in less than an hour.

Unlike the inland taipan, the eastern brown will, and often does, live happily alongside humans and will respond with aggression if provoked or feeling threatened, posing a particular danger to children and pets.

This particular brown snake at hand — the longest Ambrose had ever seen at about 1.9 metres (six feet) and probably 10-20 years old — was spotted with a mate in a children’s playground in northern Sydney.

A local resident called Ambrose in to catch and move the pair to the safety of nearby bushland.

Eastern browns are most active between September and November, Australia’s spring months, when they feed and mate. In the busier months Ambrose is on constant callout.

“Over a year it’s about 180 snake jobs, but during a busy period it can be four a day,” he said. Several species are found in urban areas along the populous east coast, and that’s where snake-catchers such as Ambrose come in.

According to the Australia Venom Research Unit of The University of Melbourne, the country is home to 20 of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes, including the entire top 10, from which a single scratch from a venom-coated tooth can be enough to paralyse the heart, diaphragm and lungs.

“Certain snakes of ours are ranked among the very most deadly snakes in the world,” said Ambrose. “Particularly brown snakes and taipans are in the super-league of venom toxicity.

“We don’t want our children near them, you don’t want to go treading on a brown snake or a death adder or a tiger snake.”

According to official estimates there are about 3,000 snake bite cases in Australia every year, 300-500 of which require anti-venom treatment. An average of two prove fatal.

Most Australians are taught the basics of treating a snake-bite at some point in their childhood: tightly wrap a bandage from the bite site down the affected limb and up again to constrict blood and lymph flow.

The advent of anti-venom has greatly increased the chances of surviving even the most deadly snake-bites; a teenage boy escaped death after being bitten by an inland taipan north of Sydney last month.

Doctors said swift access to a broad-spectrum or polyvalent anti-venom had been key to his survival.

Even non-venomous species can frighten the most seasoned Sydney residents who are used to sharing their backyard with a reptile or two.

Vanessa Clarke called out Ambrose to deal with a pair of diamond pythons nesting in her yard in Terrey Hills.

She knew they were not poisonous, but their sheer size was intimidating.

The female stretched to some 2.5 metres (eight feet) as Ambrose hoisted the python around his shoulders.

Despite his assurances that the snake — which kills its prey of mice and small marsupials by constriction rather than venom — was more docile than a cat, Clarke kept her distance.

“I’d prefer not to have them in my back garden because of the pets and the children,” she explained, warily eyeing the reptile.

“We’ve had one eat a duck. We’ve actually seen the duck inside the snake, the visual of the duck freshly eaten and the other duck watching.”

But Ambrose thinks snakes, even the most toxic and defensive types, get a bad rap. He’s only been bitten twice by a venomous species, the red-bellied black snake, and suffered little more than pain and swelling.

Sydney’s Taronga Zoo holds exposure workshops for people with a crippling fear of snakes and reptile talks for school groups to dispel some of the most common myths about the misunderstood creatures.

“Most Australians wouldn’t know someone that’s been bitten by a venomous snake,” said Taronga reptile keeper Dean Purcell.

“A lot of people think that snakes are out there to bite you and they’re really aggressive and stuff but they’re not really. They’re really shy animals and they would rather avoid us,” he added.

“Pretty much the only time you get bitten by snakes is if you try to catch one or you accidentally tread on one.”

With the proper first-aid and immobilisation Purcell said most snake-bite victims had seven hours to get to hospital before any serious effects would be felt and deaths were now very rare.

“I’d much rather come across a snake crawling across a track when I’m going for a bushwalk than a bear.”


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