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Snake Bite in Bali - Inform Yourself!

As development continues to cover Bali’s verdant rice fields with villas, shops and restaurants, a less visible change is also taking place.  The many small creatures which live in these areas are driven out of their native habitat and are  increasingly to be found in houses and gardens.   I’ve lived here ten years and never heard of a single sighting of the very poisonous banded blue krait near Ubud until this year. But recently there have been several sightings and two fatalities. 

Frogs, insects and especially snakes play an important role in the health of Bali’s rice fields (sawah).  Frogs and toads eat mosquitoes and other pests.  Snakes prey on the rats which decimate rice crops all over Bali.  As snakes continue to disappear, killed by nervous humans and harvested for the food and fashion industries, the rats are getting the upper paw in Tabanan and Gianyar Regencies.  A cobra can consume up to 5,000 rats in its lifetime and a python about half that, so each snake can reduce the potential population of destructive rodents by tens of thousands. It’s a vicious circle.  The snakes get killed so the rats eat the rice, the farmer  becomes discouraged because the harvest is poor and sells his land for development, therefore taking one more rice field out of production and driving the snakes into -– guess where?  The new villa!  Please think several dozen times about building a house on rice land, and then do it somewhere else.  Not only will you avoid taking another painful bite out of Bali’s rapidly shrinking agricultural land bank, but will be helping preserve habitat for the also quickly diminishing wildlife population.

Rapid loss of habitat due to development has resulted in a predictable increase in the number of snake sightings, and this situation will probably result in more snake bites in future.  “Don’t blame the snakes,” says English herpetologist Ron Lilley, whose specialty is Indonesian reptiles.  “Bali’s serpents are shy and retiring, and much prefer not to encounter humans.  They’re not going to seek you out but if they are cornered or frightened, of course they will defend themselves. Food waste around the house attracts rats, which in turn will attract snakes, as will chickens, caged birds and other small pets.  Bali has about 35 species of snakes but only four of them are poisonous: the king cobra, common spitting cobra, green pit viper and banded blue krait.”

Dr Steve Wignall, an American doctor working in Indonesia, shares the current standard operating procedure for any snakebite.  “If you’re bitten by a snake, try to identify it; this is very helpful to the medical staff who treat you,” he advises. “Don’t panic -– very few people are known to have died of snakebite in Bali, and chances are high that the snake was either not venomous, or didn’t release much venom into the bite.  Never cut into a snake bite or try to suck out the poison -– don’t touch the bite at all.  It’s important to lie quietly to prevent the toxin moving more quickly through the bloodstream.  For neurotoxic cobra and krait bites, apply a pressure bandage and immobilize with a splint if the bite is on an arm or leg.  Viper bites should be splinted but without pressure.  If in doubt of the snakebite, don’t use pressure.  Take the bite victim to Sanglah Hospital immediately.”  Krait and sometimes cobra venom can affect the respiratory system, so it’s important get to medical professionals who can recognize and deal with this appropriately.

Size is not an issue with venomous snakes; a newly hatched snake has fully developed venom glands and can pack the same punch as its mama.  Venomous snakes use their venom to subdue and digest their food and are reluctant to waste it except in defense.  So a snake may not inject much or any venom during the course of a bite which is why medical observation is important, especially before giving anti-venom.  Alcohol enhances the effects of snake venom; do not drink it or pour it over the bite.

Biofarma, an Indonesian company in Bandung, produces 40,000 doses of a polyvalent anti-venom each year which contains serum (ABU) for banded krait, Malayan pit viper and common spitting cobra (but not king cobra) bites.  But anti-venom is very specific, and it’s not clear whether the farmed Javanese snake venoms from which the anti-venom is made are effective against all Balinese species.  Still, it is the only one available at this time.

Sanglah Hospital only recorded seven snakebites for the first half of 2010, but this is not at all indicative of the true situation in Bali.  The vast majority of snake bites occur in rural areas and the victims typically visit a balian instead of going to a hospital;  deaths are often not recorded.  It’s very difficult to estimate the true number of snake bites here. 

Ron and Steve share a strong interest in snakebite research and education in Bali.  They are seeking funding to conduct a survey of snakebite in Bali and eventually to establish a venom centre here.  The ideal partnership of a herpetologist and medical doctor has the potential to bring the most current snakebite protocols to Balinese medical care facilities and train medical professionals and ordinary Balinese to recognize local venomous snakes. 

Ron, based in Sanur, is willing to travel reasonable distances to help householders with snake issues.  He has professional catching tools and will relocate the serpent to a more appropriate environment.  Contact him at 0813 3849 6700 and do consider making a donation; his tools are expensive.

For more detailed information about Bali’s snakes, visit Ron’s new website at www.network-bali.com/snake/index.php

Pythons (lipi saab) have no venom but, like all snakes, will bite if provoked. These snakes can grow to over four metres but because the larger snakes are more visible, they are often killed and in fact now seldom attain that length.  Bali’s reticulated pythons have a beautiful and distinctive  pattern of gold, silver and black.  The bite of a python will show a horse shoe-shaped pattern of separate tooth marks as opposed to that of cobra, krait or viper which typically displays two fang marks.  This is helpful in assisting medical staff to make treatment decisions.  Anti-venom should of course never be given for a python bite. This harmless snake should not be killed, as it eats many pests including rats. 

Green pit vipers (ular hijau/lipi gadang) are very common in Bali and I often encounter them in my garden.  They are under about 85 cm (40”) in length and very shy.  Of the four green snakes in Bali, this is the only venomous one and is easily identified by its triangular head, tiny neck and red tail. The bite can be very painful depending on how much venom is released, but is almost never fatal.  My 7 kg dachshund was bitten by one of these snakes and I know several people who were bitten; all recovered.  It is often confused with the harmless vine snake, a much longer, slender snake of the same colour but with a long head without a neck.

Cobras (ular kobra/ular sendok/lipi woh) in Bali come in a wide range of colours, from black and brown right through to tan and pale beige.  They range in size from newborn at 15 cm (about 7”) to the impressive King Cobra of West Bali, which can rear up a full meter in attack position.  These are fortunately rare.  The common Bali spitting cobra grows to about one and a half meters (five feet) in length.  Its blunt face and hood usually have no markings.  As with all of Bali’s snakes, the cobra would much rather not meet you and will only spit or bite if provoked.  It will rear up and inflate its hood before spitting venom up to two meters (six feet) and then possibly biting.  If you or your dog receive cobra venom in the eye, wash out the eyes very well under running water without rubbing them.  The venom is painful but blindness is usually temporary.  Medical professionals will wash the eyes with saline solution and apply topical anesthetic for the pain.

Banded Blue Krait   (ular weling/ular poleng/lipi poleng) Now, the krait is a very poisonous snake indeed.  With increasing development, this shy snake is being encountered more frequently.  Take no chances with this one, it can be deadly. Like other snakes it hunts at night and may enter houses after dark in search of prey.  Kraits usually present with alternating bands of black and white (of equal width or the black bands being wider) but there is a variation around Canggu that is black with a dark blue sheen. Kraits can grow to over a metre in length. Those of you who have read Jamie James’ fascinating book ‘The Snake Charmer’ are aware of the potentially terminal effects of a nip from this snake. 

Two Balinese died of krait bite in the past few months; in both cases the men had been playing with the snakes and provoked them to bite, unaware that they were extremely venomous. So please show this  picture to your staff.

Dragons in the Bath, a collection of Ibu Kat’s stories, it is available at Ganesha Books in Ubud and at Biku in Seminyak, and at Periplus bookstores in Bali. It can be ordered nationally  and internationally through www.dragonsinthebath.com   <http://www.dragonsinthebath.com>

E-mail:  bali_cat7@yahoo.com

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