The ‘shadow of death’
Black mamba – the name strikes fear into the heart of every African. This fearsome reptile is highly venomous, super-fast (reaching speeds of up to 11km per hour over just 40m) and can be very aggressive. A bite from a black mamba will kill a human being in 99% of cases if left untreated. Being one of the most venomous snakes in the world, they are by far the most respected snake in Africa, treated with grave caution even by experienced snake-handlers.
These snakes got their name from the interior of their mouths, which is pitch black in comparison to their brownish, grey, olive or sometimes khaki bodies. When provoked, a black mamba will raise its head and bare its fangs, revealing this namesake. One of the longest snakes in the world, they can grow over 4m long and can rear up to 1.2m from the ground while in full flight. The black mamba can also strike accurately in any direction, even while travelling at speed.
Being ambush predators, they rarely pursue their prey, and usually only employ their speed to flee from perceived danger. Once they have caught their prey and bitten it, they let go and wait for it to die. This takes a matter of minutes in the case of birds, which are their favourite quarry.
Black mambas swallow their prey whole and can force an object up to four times the size of their head down their throats, by dislocating their jaw if necessary. Not many creatures are brave enough to take on the notorious black mamba, with its arsenal of defences, but yellow mongoose, snake eagles and Cape file snakes are known to prey on them.
Experts agree that the black mamba and the taipan are the world's most dangerous snakes, and wildlife biologist, Dr. Joe Wasilewski, claims that black mambas are also the most advanced of all snake species, having evolved the most effective methods of delivering venom.
Despite these spine-chilling facts, black mambas rarely attack humans. They are shy and secretive, preferring to retreat from confrontation. When cornered they will strike the ground repeatedly in an attempt to scare off their aggressor before attacking. Only when there is no chance of escape, or if the snake is extremely aroused, will it attack.
The Latin name for this snake is Dendroaspis polylepis, meaning 'tree asp' and 'many scaled' respectively, but don't look for them in the trees, they usually remain on the ground and prefer a semi-arid bush habitat. Black Mambas are rarely seen on game drives due to their shy behaviour.