Team Snake Panama | Saving Lives
With a snake bite incidence eighty times higher than that of the United States it was Julie Ray of Team Snake Panama, based at La Montaña para Investigación y Conservación Ambiental [La MICA] Biological Station in Panama who chose to not only save humans but to also save the scaly natives as well. Being a proverbial ‘Venom Junky’ I thought we should speak with Julie Ray and find out a bit more about her and her work in Panama and Costa Rica.
In the now immortal words of Indiana Jones
“Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?” How and when did you first discover your affinity for the scaly kind?
Then of course the inevitable next question, why venomous snakes?
My main research focuses on snailsuckers (Dipsas and Sibon), but one cannot work in the Neotropics without being aware of the venomous snakes, especially the fer de lance (locally called “equis” for the X’s on their back.) Additionally, my husband Pablo Santana, who is Panamanian and whom I met while working on my dissertation research in Panama, lost a brother to a snakebite. Becoming a member of his family has really driven home the importance of education and the need to reduce snakebites for the local residents who live and work among these animals [in Panama bites happen in the wild and very few can be attributed to people mishandling or miskeeping reptiles in their home.]
How and why are so many people becoming envenomed by the snakes which inhabit the area?
Where I can located in the Interior of Panama people live and work in rural areas. Many continue to practice agriculture, if only to supplement the food for their family. Bothrops are very common and found in all habitats, active at all times. People are put in contact with venomous snakes all the time and bites are a way of life. In our community, everyone knows someone who has been bitten. Luckily as more and more people use professional treatments there are few deaths, but people are still scarred physically and mentally by the bite.
What is the most often encountered snake species?
Over 150 species of snakes occur in Panama with 26 of them being venomous. Of these, three are relatively common: the fer de lance (Bothrops asper), the eyelash viper or locally called the Bocaraca (Bothriechis schlegelii), and the Central American Coralsnake (Micrurus nigrocinctus). Of those the Bothrops is the most common and problematic. In reality, most of the snakes people encounter are vinesnakes (Oxybelis spp.), parrotsnakes (Leptophis spp.), racers (Mastigodryas spp., Drymobius spp.) and small species like coffeesnakes (Ninia spp.) but all snakes are killed. This is not because they do not realize that some are not venomous, but rather because they do not know which ones and cannot take a chance.
I personally just finished a book you might be familiar with Bushmaster by Dan Eatherley documenting Raymond Ditmars life history and his search for the much feared and in my opinion maligned Bushmaster (Lachesis sp.) Fer de lance (Bothrops asper) overlap in habitat if I am not mistaken. In your observations/experience is one or the other more or less dangerous or encountered on a regular basis?
Bothrops are much more common. In over 10 years in Panama regularly looking for snakes I have seen just one Lachesis, but many many many Bothrops. In our area the local people can readily tell them apart. They will often leave the bushmaster alone as they tend to stay in the same spot in relatively remote habitat and are docile until disturbed. However, Bothrops are killed immediately.
What evenomation protocols are available to both locals and tourists?
Nothing to date, although we are working on developing a snakebite action plan that we will share with ExPats, tourists, locals, and the Ministry of Health (Salud).
When envenomed what is the most common reason for an envenoming to occur? (legitimate or illegitimate bites)
Most often bites occur as people are walking in low light (dusk or dawn) without a flashlight (and usually in flipflops or even bare-footed), working agricultural settings, cleaning up yard debris like palm fronds. Very few bites are related to people handling snakes (unless it occurs as someone is trying to kill a snake), alcohol-related incidences, or keeping of snakes as pets.
What are the immediate symptoms of envenomation?
For vipers, a bite is described as having hot acid or boiling water being dumped on the site of the bite, followed by localized pain and swelling, following by breathing difficulties and vomiting.
Coralsnake bites do not usually show symptoms for 6-12 hours but then onset, especially respiration issues, are very quick acting.
One of the goals of Project BRASS which stands for Bites Reduced AND Snakes Saved is distribution of information on not only how avoid encountering venomous reptiles but also identifying their mimics. Tell our readers a bit more about the Project BRASS and how they can help.
Project BRASS aims to get to as many communities as possible, especially those more remote, to deliver a talk on how basic identification of snakes and tips on how to co-exist with them. We also will donate a copy of my bilingual book, The Venomous Snakes and their Mimics of Panama and Costa Rica. Furthermore, we will listen to the local people, hear their stories, see their areas where they encounter a lot of snakes and try to specifically help each community to reduce bites, have a plan for when bites do occur, and reduce the number of incidental killings. We are raising money to help purchase copies of the book for donation and travel to the various communities. So, even the smallest donations make a big difference in this fundraiser as transportation in Panama is relatively cheap and even $20 gets one more copy of the book out there for people to study and learn from.
Why do we even care about saving snakes, much less venomous ones which are killing humans?
Snakes are an important part of their ecosystem, as both predators and prey items. It is important to remember that venomous snakes first and foremost have venom so they can feed. They only use their venom in defense when absolutely necessary as it is energetically expensive to produce more. Leaving snakes alone to carry on their daily activities is the best tactic as they too really do not want anything to do with us!