DAGUA - Most people have an instinctive fear of snakes, which is believed to be evolutionary. Researchers think the fear came about as a prehistoric survival mechanism but this does not explain why humans do not fear other predatory animals as much.
Ophidiophobia (also ophiophobia) is the word used to describe this human fear of snakes. It is a sub-category of herpetophobia, the general fear of reptiles like snakes and lizards.
There is mild ophidiophobia where any encounter with snakes brings fear. And there is extreme ophidiophobia in an abnormal fear of snakes.
In extreme ophidiophobia, sufferers develop physical and psychological stress when near snakes, shown images of snakes or told stories about snakes.
Snakes can be found on all continents except Antarctica and in all places where there is year round snow cover all which are very isolated. They are believed to have descended from burrowing or aquatic lizards during the dinosaur age.
In Papua New Guinea, there are more than 80 different species of snake, and it is believed there are species yet to be discovered. Six of these species are extremely venomous and are responsible for all reported cases of snake bite in the country,
The most dangerous include the Papuan taipan; the smooth-scaled New Guinea death adder; the rough-scaled New Guinea death adder; the New Guinea brown snake; the Papuan black snake and the New Guinea small-eyed snake.
The taipan, brown and black snakes are endemic in certain parts of the southern region. The death adders are in almost all parts of mainland New Guinea and nearby islands. The small-eyed snake occurs in northern PNG and is less distributed in the southern region. They mainly feed on rodents, small mammals, ground birds, lizards, frogs, eels - and other snakes
It is worth noting that these snakes are not found in the New Guinea islands region.
Their habitat includes kunai and pitpit areas, savannah grassland and woodland, and lowland swamps and forest. They can be found near residential areas or human habitation, on the side of walking tracks, in and around garden plots, near (and in) pit toilets, and in coconut plantations and cocoa blocks. That is, just about everywhere.
The Papuan taipan, New Guinea brown and Papuan black are all diurnal, usually coming out during the day. Both New Guinea death adders and the New Guinea small-eyed snakes are nocturnal.
Bites from these snakes can be lethal. The venom contain toxins that can destroy nerve endings and muscles, cause irreversible paralysis, spontaneous bleeding or blood clots as well as heart problems and kidney failure.
All these snakes are generally shy and inoffensive when they move about. They try to avoid human contact but will become aggressive if provoked. They only attack when there is a perceived threat or when they are handled, stepped-on and otherwise disturbed or touched.
Port Moresby-based Charles Campbell Toxinology Centre estimates around 1,000 deaths each year from snakebite in PNG. But it is likely there are many unreported cases.
The centre, in cooperation with universities in PNG and Australia, is now collating data and conducting research into snakebites and anti-venoms. Its PNG snakebite partnership project is currently involved in the distribution of anti-venom around the country.
In the Dagua area of East Sepik Province, where I live, death adders and small-eyed snakes are common. They occur around sago, in swamps, kunai and woodlands, and along forest hills. Apart from snakebites, poisonous bites and stings can also come from large ground lizards, centipedes and scorpions.
In Dagua, the small-eyed snake is called ‘rohihim’ in the Arapesh language. It is a main cause of snakebite and is feared. A nocturnal predator, it can move fast and hunts in sago swamps and along the forest floor near small streams.
A common resting place for the rohihim is under the dry leaf litter of the fruit-bearing taun tree. When coconut plantations were introduced, it would rest under piles of coconut husks. With experience, people stopped piling up old coconut husks on their blocks.
Hunters at night have trained their ears to distinguish the sound of the rohihim as it moves along. It produces a distinctive noise as it moves over dry sago pangal (fronds) and undergrowth. Hunters can differentiate rohihim from bandicoots, frogs and other nocturnal creatures.
The rohihim is aggressive. It has been observed engaging in death struggles with adult eels and is known to feed on juvenile eels. People describe the rohihim and eels as lifelong natural enemies.
The rohihim is also considered cunning and vengeful. When disturbed, it will move away only to return under cover to attack the person or anyone close by. It is believed that a bite from a young rohihim is more lethal.
These snakes are killed wherever and whenever people come across them. People defend their action saying, “If this snake is not killed, it is going to bite someone in future. It must be killed.”