Close encounters with a puff adder

The beautifully patterned puff adder lies quietly in the thickets of shrubbery that litter the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. This is the puff adder’s natural habitat where it will hibernate until summer arrives, when it will slither its way into slivers of warm sun light.


© Kevin MacLaughlin

Largely misunderstood, the puff adder is not an aggressive snake that seeks to attack. Despite is deadly concoction of cytotoxic (cell destroying) venom it is mostly a placid snake that only strikes under duress. Being one of Africa’s most well-known snakes, I wanted Kevin Maclaughlin, from nThambo Tree Camp, to find and film a puff adder in its natural habitat so that we can observe the adder’s behaviour and reactions.

With its chevron shaped patterns breaking the bland tanned background, its heavy-set structure and flat head; it is an easily recognizable snake. Kevin, our ranger and passionate herpetologist, had no problem finding and identifying this snake. Sitting quietly from a respectable distance, he is careful not to alarm the snake.

He took the assignment seriously and located a puff adder, despite the weather not being conducive to snake sightings. Videographer, Dave Jackson, filmed the scenario for us to observe the adder’s behaviour and reactions.

In the video below Kevin gets up close and personal with this deadly adder. I asked him if he felt it was a compromising position and he had this to say, “This puff adder was really relaxed while I was taking photos, this snake is a very slow moving snake which allowed me to get so close to it, but if you get too close it can strike faster than the eye can see. Having grown up with and handled many snakes, it’s through experience that you learn where that strike range of snakes is, which allowed me to photograph the puff adder safely.”

When asked about his overall thoughts regarding these snakes, Kevin says, “Puff adders are remarkable, their coloration and patterns are mesmerising in a way, but definitely a snake that needs to be treated with respect. Their cytotoxic makes this snake one of the deadliest snakes in Africa. But to go against what most people believe, these snakes are not out to bite us. They will use their venom if it is an absolute last resort to chase the potential threat away. Biting only happens after all the other warning signs like hissing and puffing. I have witnessed a snake handler demonstrating what would happen if you stand on a puff adder with a “false foot”. Pressing lightly on the snake with the foot so not to hurt it, all the snake did was hiss. It was only after handling the snake for too long that it struck.”

The puff adder digests its prey from the inside and their venom kills prey fast. They will try their best not to bite people in order to conserve their venom. If a snake is agitated to a point where they feel they cannot escape, then it will bite you.

Kevin has never had any deadly encounters with a puff adder. However, the closest he has come to being in a precarious situation is when, out of necessity, he rescued a puff adder by behind the head using a stick.

5 facts about puff adders:

• Puff adders are born alive. The leather-shelled eggs are carried inside the female and emerge alive.

• They rely on its camouflage colours to blend into its surrounds and this helps with the ambushing of prey.

• The puff adder gets its name from the fact that it puffs and hisses when disturbed.

• The puff adder moves in a straight line – it has an easily recognizable mark in the sand.

• It has a strike rate faster than that of a camera shutter!

If you want to witness the wonder of the puff adder, head to the Kruger and ask your ranger to find this docile snake. Word of advice? Don’t get too close !


© Kevin MacLaughlin

Carolynne Higgins

Carolynne Higgins loves life, sometimes a little bit too much, she admits freely. This quality became evident at university, where she managed nevertheless to finish her degree in English, teach herself web design & SEO, study copywriting and cartooning. She's passionate about photography, writing, sketching, design, travelling and the outdoors. Recently, she has developed an odd obsession with a lion pride in South Africa's Klaserie Nature Reserve, near Kruger. Her interests are sometimes a little bit offbeat as she doesn’t particularly care for the normal, and her 'winging it' approach to travelling has led her into some interesting situations. If something's boring, Carolynne will ensure it becomes an adventure. Her current position at Sun Destinations, a company that handles marketing, sales and reservations for a number of camps and lodges, manages to curb her not-being-able-to-sit-still problem and allows her to write about travel … and travel.

Africa Geographic