Ringkals, Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus)

Description

A small to medium size snake usually 90 cm to 120 cm in length, but can reach 1,5m. The snake is closely related to the true cobras, but differs from the true cobras in having keeled dorsal scales, in producing live young and in the maxilla bone only carrying the fangs. In all other respects in acts like a cobra, being able to rear up and spread a hood. This snake is more robust in build, compared to similar size cobras, and a specimen of 1,2m becomes quite bulky. The colour is usually a light grey when young turning darker and becoming black when about 1 meter in length. In certain parts of it distribution it has a light yellow or orange colour with dark brown or black bands. The ventral part is normally dark brown or black with one to three white bands on the throat. The name ringkals is derived from the Dutch “ring hals” which means ringed neck, because of the white bands on the neck. The scales are keeled and in 17-19 rows at midbody.
Dentition

An elapid snake with fixed front fangs. The fangs are modified with the venom cannel running through the fang and the discharge orifice making a 90 degree bend thus with the exit orifice facing the front, allowing this snake to spray its venom at an attacker’s eyes. The front or top of an attacker is sprayed at. This snake has to rear up in order to spray its venom, unlike spitting cobra which can spray venom from the ground without rearing up. The venom which comes from each fang in a jet is soon broken up into many small drops which make it easy for some of this venom to land in the eyes. Venom spraying is used as defense. Venom in the eyes causes instant burning pain, and the victim will be rubbing the eyes to get rid of the pain. While the victim is thus occupied the snake will be escaping into the grass. The effective range of this venom spraying is in the 2 meter range. Venom in the eyes is not life threatening and no antivenom need to be given. Venom in the eyes is normally a benign condition which will not lead to blindness as long as the eyes are rinsed out with clean water and protected from bacterial infection. Bacterial infection of the eyes could lead to permanent blindness.

Venom

The venom is both cytotoxic and neurotoxic. The effects are not as potent as those of other cobras, and there are few bites to humans as this snake tends to spit rather than bite. The bite presents as a Painful Progressive Swelling syndrome and the local effects of a bite can be quite severe, and the risk of a finger amputation is quite high if a serious bite is sustained on such an extremity. Neurological effects could also manifests and include general paralysis and impairment of breathing, which can lead to death. Estimated lethal dose is 50 – 60 mg and the venom glands have a capacity of 80 – 120 mg, average yield is 100mg. However these snakes do NOT feature in human bites. Dogs get bitten when they attack the snake.

Distribution

Found from the Western Cape along the south coast, northwards into KZN, Free State, and Highveld areas of Mpumalanga, Gauteng, North West and also Limpopo. Further north it is only found in the Inyanga district of Zimbabwe.

Habitat

This snake prefers moist grassland areas that experience cold, frosty winters. It is common on the Highveld, but avoids bushveld areas.

Habits

This snake is active during the day. Starts its day with a period of basking in the sun, usually from about 8 to 9 am, after which it will start moving around in search of prey, which includes frogs, toads, rodents, birds and their eggs, lizards and other snakes. It will raid chicken runs, and is often found near homesteads in search of prey or water. Dogs on the Highveld in the Johannesburg area kill many of these snakes, the dogs normally ending up with red, inflamed eyes from the venom spray of the snake. Occasionally the dogs may end up bitten, and smaller dogs may die before they can be treated by a vet. This snake will usually flee, but if cornered it will face its attacker, rear the front of the body off the ground and spread a broad hood, exposing the black with white bands on the throat. A very impressive sight! From this position it will lung forward and spray its venom at an attacker, the body hitting the ground and at the same time the snake emits a loud hiss. If the threat from an attacker is kept up, the snake may drop to the ground and turn the front of the body over, open the mouth and lay there as if dead. A very effective ploy that has fooled many people as well as dogs to leave it alone. It will later come to life again when there is no threat and move off. This snake should therefore not just be picked up as it may bite if carelessly handled while playing dead.

Reproduction

The Ringkals is a viviparous meaning it is a live bearing snake. The embryos develop inside the oviduct of the female’s body in a clear membrane with no egg shell and develop until they are ready to be born. This can take as long as 5 – 6 months. During the latter half of this gravid period the female does not eat as her bulk makes eating uncomfortable. The female then lays the embryos when they are fully developed usually from late December to late February. As soon as the baby snakes are laid and they see light, they start wiggling and with a sharp egg tooth on the snout break through the clear membrane and move off to find their own place to stay and hunt. They are about 20 cm in length, as thick as a pencil and exact replicas of the a cobra.