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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Land Of Oz


Stepping carefully into Australia

The Eastern brown snake is the second most venomous snake in the world and is blamed for 60% of snake fatalities in Australia. Unlike most other snakes that flee when approached, the brown snake is more likely to stand its ground, making it very dangerous. Snake experts say that Australian snakes are generally reclusive and timid, and due to the ready access to antivenin, death from snakebites occurs only a few times a year in Australia. Records show most bites occur on the ankle, so in most encounters, the person simply didn’t see the snake in the dense undergrowth. Luckily, these snakes aren’t aggressive, unlike in Sri Lanka, where, on average, 84 people a day are bitten by the aggressive Russell’s viper.

Since living in Sydney, I’ve learned the words “venomous” and “deadly” aren’t synonymous. The confusion comes from how you define a venomous or deadly snake. Australia’s inland taipan Oxyuranus microlepidotus is considered the most venomous snake in the world. Its venom is the most toxic, but because it lives in unpopulated areas and is reclusive, humans rarely encounter this snake. There have been no reported cases of this inland viper being involved in a human fatality. However, snakes that are less venomous but that live near populated areas, and therefore are more likely to be encountered, are more deadly.

Mark O’Shea, author of Venomous Snakes of the World, explains the confusion people have between venomous and deadly snakes: “The most dangerous snake is not the most venomous. The most venomous snakes are taipans, brown snakes and sea snakes, but they have small venom yields and few snakebites to humans and few human fatalities in the scheme of things. Australia suffers two to three deaths a year, but around the world 40,000 to 100,000 people die of snakebite. Any highly venomous snake is dangerous if it bites you. Regardless of whether it is the most venomous or the one responsible for most deaths, only one bite matters at that time, the one you just received. So with that in mind I have encountered many dangerous snakes, from rattlers to cobras, sea snakes to desert vipers, but I regard the most dangerous snake I have encountered to be the Sri Lankan Russell’s viper, which featured in my film Venom.”

With this knowledge, my next adventure will be, in the short term, an exploration of my backyard. The photo included here captures the view from my balcony. On my next photo adventure, I’ll explore the trails, cliffs and oceans in the nearby parks. Wherever I walk, I’ll keep a close eye on my next step because I don’t want any of Australia’s venomous inhabitants to resort to deadly habits.

Bill Hatcher is a regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside. Visit www.billhatcher.com.

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