5 million people are bitten by snakes every year. 2,7 million are envenomed, and up to 138,000 die. Another 400,000 are severely injured, often losing a limb. The rural poor in the Global South are worst affected. They are field and forest workers, children on their way to school, women fetching water, and people asleep in their beds.
As a problem that affects the poor, snakebite was ignored for decades until WHO recently designated it a neglected tropical disease. Now funds are flowing into medical research, but little emphasis is being placed on preventing bites in the first place and on considering how snakes and humans can better coexist; that we commonly fear them does not diminish their ecological importance. Improved antivenins are unquestionably needed — production has remained essentially unchanged for a century — but their development and deployment will take years. Meanwhile, 7 400 people are bitten every day.
Against this context, Thea Litschka-Koen’s work in the kingdom of eSwatini stands out. As in most countries on the African continent, hers is one where snake myths and superstitions abound. Snakes are dreaded and killed when found, often biting their attackers in defence. For years, Litschka-Koen has worked to dispel misinformation, convey snakes’ ecological importance, and teach people to live alongside them. She trains volunteers and people at risk to safely catch and remove snakes, and is working to improve access to life-saving antivenins, and the antivenins themselves. She spends much of her time rescuing people from snakes, and snakes from people.
A juvenile boomslang that had been caught by security personnel in a snake bin at the Mhlume sugarcane estate on 19 October 2019. The boomslang is highly venomous and potentially lethal, but bites are not common. Its venom is slow-acting, and while antivenom is very expensive, bite victims generally have sufficient time to seek treatment. The snake's cloudy eyes are an indication that it is about to shed its skin, and mean that its vision is temporarily impaired.
A juvenile boomslang that had been caught by security personnel in a snake bin at the Mhlume sugarcane estate on 19 October 2019. The boomslang is highly venomous and potentially lethal, but bites are not common. Its venom is slow-acting, and while antivenom is very expensive, bite victims generally have sufficient time to seek treatment. The snake's cloudy eyes are an indication that it is about to shed its skin, and mean that its vision is temporarily impaired.
Clement Magagula, 8, pictured at his home in Mbuluzi in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini on 17 October 2019, was bitten in his sleep by a Mozambique spitting cobra when he was four years old. His father heard him whimpering in his sleep and went to check on him. He noticed something wrapped around his legs and, as he lifted him from the bed realised that it was a snake. Despite receiving prompt treatment, including antivenom, the snake's highly cytotoxic venom caused lasting damage to Clement's right lower leg, affecting the development of his foot and his ability to control its motion. The Mozambique spitting has a reputation for being curious and fearless, and for entering homes in search of prey.
Clement Magagula, 8, pictured at his home in Mbuluzi in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini on 17 October 2019, was bitten in his sleep by a Mozambique spitting cobra when he was four years old. His father heard him whimpering in his sleep and went to check on him. He noticed something wrapped around his legs and, as he lifted him from the bed realised that it was a snake. Despite receiving prompt treatment, including antivenom, the snake's highly cytotoxic venom caused lasting damage to Clement's right lower leg, affecting the development of his foot and his ability to control its motion. The Mozambique spitting has a reputation for being curious and fearless, and for entering homes in search of prey.
A worker on a sugarcane plantation in Hlane in the Lubombo province of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 29 November 2018. Field workers are amongst those at risk of snakebites. Black mambas, with their potentially lethal fast-acting venom, are sometimes found amongst the cane, where they like to bask at head height amongst the upper leaves of the cane plants. The cane leaves are dense and claustrophobic, and it is a very dangerous environment in which to surprise a snake.
A worker on a sugarcane plantation in Hlane in the Lubombo province of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 29 November 2018. Field workers are amongst those at risk of snakebites. Black mambas, with their potentially lethal fast-acting venom, are sometimes found amongst the cane, where they like to bask at head height amongst the upper leaves of the cane plants. The cane leaves are dense and claustrophobic, and it is a very dangerous environment in which to surprise a snake.
Bongani Bheki Myeni carefully searching the kitchen of a remote rural home near Luve, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) for a suspected black mamba on 23 October 2019. As even a large mamba can hide in a very small space, pots, pans, drawers, the oven, the chassis of the fridge and so on had to be carefully checked. A resident of the house said she had spotted a large grey snake  in the room, and had shut the front and back doors of the house as she fled outside. The lights had gone out because a circuit breaker had tripped, but it was in the next room and could not safely be accessed until the intervening space had been methodically cleared. The kitchen and living room, the two rooms the snake could have accessed, were throughly searched, but the snake was not found. (The black mamba is greyish brown in colour; its name derives from the colour of the inside of its mouth, which it opens wide in a warning posture when threatened.)
Bongani Bheki Myeni carefully searching the kitchen of a remote rural home near Luve, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) for a suspected black mamba on 23 October 2019. As even a large mamba can hide in a very small space, pots, pans, drawers, the oven, the chassis of the fridge and so on had to be carefully checked. A resident of the house said she had spotted a large grey snake in the room, and had shut the front and back doors of the house as she fled outside. The lights had gone out because a circuit breaker had tripped, but it was in the next room and could not safely be accessed until the intervening space had been methodically cleared. The kitchen and living room, the two rooms the snake could have accessed, were throughly searched, but the snake was not found. (The black mamba is greyish brown in colour; its name derives from the colour of the inside of its mouth, which it opens wide in a warning posture when threatened.)
Thea Litschka-Koen catching a puff adder that had entered a mens’ room at a fertiliser production factory in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 23 October 2019. She suspected it was in search of water.
Thea Litschka-Koen catching a puff adder that had entered a mens’ room at a fertiliser production factory in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 23 October 2019. She suspected it was in search of water.
A child’s chair amongst upturned armchairs after a search for a suspected black mamba at a remote rural home near Luve, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 23 October 2019. As even a large mamba can hide in a very small space, drawers, cabinets, decorations, curtains and curtain rails, furniture bases and so on had to be carefully checked. A resident of the house said she had spotted a large grey snake in the adjoining room, and had shut the front and back doors of the house as she fled outside. The rooms the snake might have accessed, were throughly searched, but the snake was not found. (The black mamba is greyish brown in colour; its name derives from the colour of the inside of its mouth, which it opens wide in a warning posture when threatened. It’s neurotoxic venom is powerful and fast-acting, and is frequently lethal without the prompt administration of antivenom.)
A child’s chair amongst upturned armchairs after a search for a suspected black mamba at a remote rural home near Luve, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 23 October 2019. As even a large mamba can hide in a very small space, drawers, cabinets, decorations, curtains and curtain rails, furniture bases and so on had to be carefully checked. A resident of the house said she had spotted a large grey snake in the adjoining room, and had shut the front and back doors of the house as she fled outside. The rooms the snake might have accessed, were throughly searched, but the snake was not found. (The black mamba is greyish brown in colour; its name derives from the colour of the inside of its mouth, which it opens wide in a warning posture when threatened. It’s neurotoxic venom is powerful and fast-acting, and is frequently lethal without the prompt administration of antivenom.)
The gauze-packed wound of a nineteen year-old man who had been bitten on the ankle by a Mozambique spitting cobra while asleep at his home is seen at a health centre in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 12 November 2019. According to Thea Litschka-Koen, founder of the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which works to improve the treatment of snakebite, ensure access to antivenom, and assist and supports victims of snakebite, the Mozambique spitting cobra is responsible for the vast majority of serious bites in the country. These often occur when the snake enters homes during the night and, unlike most snakes, it appears to make exploratory bites, often striking sleeping victims on the hands or face. Its venom is highly necrotic, causing severe and lasting damage, and the only antivenom available is not very effective.
The gauze-packed wound of a nineteen year-old man who had been bitten on the ankle by a Mozambique spitting cobra while asleep at his home is seen at a health centre in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 12 November 2019. According to Thea Litschka-Koen, founder of the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which works to improve the treatment of snakebite, ensure access to antivenom, and assist and supports victims of snakebite, the Mozambique spitting cobra is responsible for the vast majority of serious bites in the country. These often occur when the snake enters homes during the night and, unlike most snakes, it appears to make exploratory bites, often striking sleeping victims on the hands or face. Its venom is highly necrotic, causing severe and lasting damage, and the only antivenom available is not very effective.
Snake and snakebite expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, with Qiniso Sihlonganyane, 36, at RFM Hospital in Manzini, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 12 November 2019. Sihlonganyane had been bitten on the hand by a Mozambique spitting cobra while asleep at his home in Nhlambanyane. Litschka-Koen founded the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which works to improve the treatment of snakebite, ensure access to antivenom, and assists and supports victims of snakebite.  Litschka-Koen's research indicates that the Mozambique spitting cobra is responsible for the vast majority of serious bites in the country, and these often occur when the snake enters homes during the night. Unlike most snakes, it appears to make exploratory bites, often striking sleeping victims on the hands or face. Its venom is highly necrotic, often causing severe and lasting damage, and the only antivenom available is not very effective.
Snake and snakebite expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, with Qiniso Sihlonganyane, 36, at RFM Hospital in Manzini, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 12 November 2019. Sihlonganyane had been bitten on the hand by a Mozambique spitting cobra while asleep at his home in Nhlambanyane. Litschka-Koen founded the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which works to improve the treatment of snakebite, ensure access to antivenom, and assists and supports victims of snakebite. Litschka-Koen's research indicates that the Mozambique spitting cobra is responsible for the vast majority of serious bites in the country, and these often occur when the snake enters homes during the night. Unlike most snakes, it appears to make exploratory bites, often striking sleeping victims on the hands or face. Its venom is highly necrotic, often causing severe and lasting damage, and the only antivenom available is not very effective.
A snouted cobra (Naja annulifera) at Thea Litschka-Koen's home. One of a collection of highly venomous snakes, all removed from situations where they posed a danger to people, it will be milked for its venom for a time and then released. The venom is used in developing better antivenins.
A snouted cobra (Naja annulifera) at Thea Litschka-Koen's home. One of a collection of highly venomous snakes, all removed from situations where they posed a danger to people, it will be milked for its venom for a time and then released. The venom is used in developing better antivenins.
A participant recoils at the sight of a live snake during a snakebite first aid and safety course delivered to municipal workers by Thea Litschka-Koen in Malkerns, eSwatini on 15 November 2019.
A participant recoils at the sight of a live snake during a snakebite first aid and safety course delivered to municipal workers by Thea Litschka-Koen in Malkerns, eSwatini on 15 November 2019.
Prophet Robert Malambe, a faith healer, in the room where he sees clients at his home in Lomahasha in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. He claims he can heal snakebite victims with prayer and traditional medicine made from plants. Religious and traditional healers are often the first port of call for victims of snakebite for reasons of belief, as well as proximity to health services and cost. A single vial of antivenom costs approximately ZAR 1500 (£78), and as many as 25 may be needed depending on the species of snake.
Prophet Robert Malambe, a faith healer, in the room where he sees clients at his home in Lomahasha in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. He claims he can heal snakebite victims with prayer and traditional medicine made from plants. Religious and traditional healers are often the first port of call for victims of snakebite for reasons of belief, as well as proximity to health services and cost. A single vial of antivenom costs approximately ZAR 1500 (£78), and as many as 25 may be needed depending on the species of snake.
Juila Antonio Ndlate, 30, pictured at the church she attends in Catembe, Mozambique on 7 November 2019, was bitten by a snake when she trod on it in the dark on the way to the outhouse at her home. The story she relates encapsulates many of the myths, superstitions and challenges that surround snakebite in the region: She first tied a tourniquet around her leg and then drank her own urine, believing it to have curative properties. Her husband called a 'curandera' (traditional healer) who gave her herbs so that she would "vomit up the venom." The next morning, with a tourniquet still around her leg, she went to a clinic which referred her on to another health facility. Here they removed the tourniquet, but said they had no medication. They gave her antibiotics and paracetamol (neither of which is effective against venom) and told her to go elsewhere. Her godmother took her two another curandera, who said she could provide a cure at a cost of MZN 30,000 (€430), which was unaffordable. So they went to a church, where water was prayed over before she drank it, and she was given 'blessed' olive oil to rub on her leg. She says she was ultimately cured, "because I believe in Christ." She believes the her husband's ex-wife sent the snake to her home out of jealousy. It is not certain that the snake that bit her was venomous in the first place.
Juila Antonio Ndlate, 30, pictured at the church she attends in Catembe, Mozambique on 7 November 2019, was bitten by a snake when she trod on it in the dark on the way to the outhouse at her home. The story she relates encapsulates many of the myths, superstitions and challenges that surround snakebite in the region: She first tied a tourniquet around her leg and then drank her own urine, believing it to have curative properties. Her husband called a 'curandera' (traditional healer) who gave her herbs so that she would "vomit up the venom." The next morning, with a tourniquet still around her leg, she went to a clinic which referred her on to another health facility. Here they removed the tourniquet, but said they had no medication. They gave her antibiotics and paracetamol (neither of which is effective against venom) and told her to go elsewhere. Her godmother took her two another curandera, who said she could provide a cure at a cost of MZN 30,000 (€430), which was unaffordable. So they went to a church, where water was prayed over before she drank it, and she was given 'blessed' olive oil to rub on her leg. She says she was ultimately cured, "because I believe in Christ." She believes the her husband's ex-wife sent the snake to her home out of jealousy. It is not certain that the snake that bit her was venomous in the first place.
The room where a sangoma (traditional healer), sees her patients at her homestead in Lomahasha in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. She says she occasionally treats snakebite victims, using a powder containing ground black mambas that is taken orally, but then refers them to the local clinic or a nearby faith healer.
The room where a sangoma (traditional healer), sees her patients at her homestead in Lomahasha in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. She says she occasionally treats snakebite victims, using a powder containing ground black mambas that is taken orally, but then refers them to the local clinic or a nearby faith healer.
Traditional healer, Norman Ngcamphalala (25), pictured on 21 November 2019 at his home near Dvume in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) claims to be able to heal all snakebites. He asserts, however, that the black mamba is the only really dangerous snake, and that puff adders and spitting cobras, which are both considered very dangerous by experts, are in fact harmless.
Traditional healer, Norman Ngcamphalala (25), pictured on 21 November 2019 at his home near Dvume in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) claims to be able to heal all snakebites. He asserts, however, that the black mamba is the only really dangerous snake, and that puff adders and spitting cobras, which are both considered very dangerous by experts, are in fact harmless.
Medicines and a python skin at the home of Norman Ngcamphalala, a traditional healer, near Dvume in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 21 November 2019. He claims to be able to heal all snakebites. He asserts, however, that the black mamba is the only really dangerous snake, and that puff adders and spitting cobras, which are both considered very dangerous by experts, are in fact harmless.
Medicines and a python skin at the home of Norman Ngcamphalala, a traditional healer, near Dvume in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 21 November 2019. He claims to be able to heal all snakebites. He asserts, however, that the black mamba is the only really dangerous snake, and that puff adders and spitting cobras, which are both considered very dangerous by experts, are in fact harmless.
Barend Bloem of South Africa's Lowveld Venom Suppliers carrying a snouted cobra to milk its venom in the living room of snake expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, near Mhlume in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 24 October 2019. Litschka-Koen had invited a team from the company to assist in milking a number of snakes in her care, with the venom to be used in the development of improved and less costly antivenoms.
Barend Bloem of South Africa's Lowveld Venom Suppliers carrying a snouted cobra to milk its venom in the living room of snake expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, near Mhlume in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 24 October 2019. Litschka-Koen had invited a team from the company to assist in milking a number of snakes in her care, with the venom to be used in the development of improved and less costly antivenoms.
A puff adder being milked by Barend Bloem of South Africa's Lowveld Venom Suppliers in the living room of snake expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, at her home near Mhlume in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 24 October 2019. Litschka-Koen had invited the company to assist with milking a collection of snakes in her care, with the venom to be used in the development of improved and cheaper antivenoms.
A puff adder being milked by Barend Bloem of South Africa's Lowveld Venom Suppliers in the living room of snake expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, at her home near Mhlume in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 24 October 2019. Litschka-Koen had invited the company to assist with milking a collection of snakes in her care, with the venom to be used in the development of improved and cheaper antivenoms.
A highly-venomous twig snake peers out from its enclosure as Thea Litschka-Koen makes a phone call in her office at the Simunye Club in Simony in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. The snake was caught by one of Litschka-Koen's snake handlers during a royal hunt to prevent it endangering participants, and was placed in Litschka-Koen's care at the King's request. Its bite is potentially fatal, and no antivenom exists.
A highly-venomous twig snake peers out from its enclosure as Thea Litschka-Koen makes a phone call in her office at the Simunye Club in Simony in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. The snake was caught by one of Litschka-Koen's snake handlers during a royal hunt to prevent it endangering participants, and was placed in Litschka-Koen's care at the King's request. Its bite is potentially fatal, and no antivenom exists.
A cane cutter at work on a Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation sugarcane plantation in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 20 October 2019. Cane is the mainstay of the national economy. Black mambas, with their potentially lethal fast-acting venom, are sometimes found in the fields, where they like to bask at head height amongst the upper leaves of the cane plants. To minimise the risk of bites, when snakes are found personnel simply move on to another area until the snake has gone its way. The fields are also burned immediately prior to cutting to make the cane easier to handle, and this also has the effect of reducing the risk of snakebite.Local snake expert Thea Litschka-Koen has trained RSSC security personnel to catch snakes when necessary, and worked with hospitals and clinics in the area to improve the treatment of bite victims and ensure ready access to antivenom. She and her team also respond to call outs, especially when mambas are involved.Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
A cane cutter at work on a Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation sugarcane plantation in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 20 October 2019. Cane is the mainstay of the national economy. Black mambas, with their potentially lethal fast-acting venom, are sometimes found in the fields, where they like to bask at head height amongst the upper leaves of the cane plants. To minimise the risk of bites, when snakes are found personnel simply move on to another area until the snake has gone its way. The fields are also burned immediately prior to cutting to make the cane easier to handle, and this also has the effect of reducing the risk of snakebite.Local snake expert Thea Litschka-Koen has trained RSSC security personnel to catch snakes when necessary, and worked with hospitals and clinics in the area to improve the treatment of bite victims and ensure ready access to antivenom. She and her team also respond to call outs, especially when mambas are involved.Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
A landscape near Siteki in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 14 October 2019.
A landscape near Siteki in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 14 October 2019.
The cab and tray of a pick-up truck at the homestead of Prophet Robert Malambe, a faith healer, in Lomahasha in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. He says he heals snakebite victims with prayer and traditional medicine made from plants.
The cab and tray of a pick-up truck at the homestead of Prophet Robert Malambe, a faith healer, in Lomahasha in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. He says he heals snakebite victims with prayer and traditional medicine made from plants.
Bongani Bheki Myeni carrying away a harmless spotted bush snake that had been wrongly identified as a boomslang by the security personnel who caught it at a Royal Swazi Sugar Corporation mill in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 25 October 2019.Myeni, who works at the Simunye Club as the storekeeper, was trained to catch snakes by his boss, snake expert Thea Litschka-Koen. When call outs involve the highly dangerous and fast-moving black mamba, Myeni is now the only other person Litschka-Koen will work with besides her husband, Clifton Koen. Litschka-Koenhas also trained the sugar corporation's security staff to catch snakes.
Bongani Bheki Myeni carrying away a harmless spotted bush snake that had been wrongly identified as a boomslang by the security personnel who caught it at a Royal Swazi Sugar Corporation mill in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 25 October 2019.Myeni, who works at the Simunye Club as the storekeeper, was trained to catch snakes by his boss, snake expert Thea Litschka-Koen. When call outs involve the highly dangerous and fast-moving black mamba, Myeni is now the only other person Litschka-Koen will work with besides her husband, Clifton Koen. Litschka-Koenhas also trained the sugar corporation's security staff to catch snakes.
Goodwill Msibi thanking Thea Litschka-Koen after she and Bongani Bheki Myeni, a snake catcher she trained, caught a black mamba found in an outbuilding at Msibi's father's homestead in the village of Lukhula in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini on 15 October 2019.  Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
Goodwill Msibi thanking Thea Litschka-Koen after she and Bongani Bheki Myeni, a snake catcher she trained, caught a black mamba found in an outbuilding at Msibi's father's homestead in the village of Lukhula in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini on 15 October 2019. Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
A participant holding a non-venomous egg eater at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course for road construction company staff delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband, Clifton Koen, in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019. Snakes are surrounded by superstition and lore in eSwatini. Most participants had never touched a snake before, and had to overcome significant fear before doing so. They later moved on to learning and practicing how to safely catch and secure venomous snakes such as puff adders, rinkhals, snouted cobras, Mozambique spitting cobras and black mambas.  Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
A participant holding a non-venomous egg eater at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course for road construction company staff delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband, Clifton Koen, in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019. Snakes are surrounded by superstition and lore in eSwatini. Most participants had never touched a snake before, and had to overcome significant fear before doing so. They later moved on to learning and practicing how to safely catch and secure venomous snakes such as puff adders, rinkhals, snouted cobras, Mozambique spitting cobras and black mambas. Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
Participants at a course delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband Clifton Koen learning how to use snake tongs gently so as not to injure the snake at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course for road construction company staff in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019. Attendees went on to learn how to catch and secure venomous snakes such as puff adders, rinkhals, Mozambique spitting cobras, snouted cobras and black mambas, with the idea that snakes encountered in the course of construction work could be safely removed and later released, rather than being killed.
Participants at a course delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband Clifton Koen learning how to use snake tongs gently so as not to injure the snake at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course for road construction company staff in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019. Attendees went on to learn how to catch and secure venomous snakes such as puff adders, rinkhals, Mozambique spitting cobras, snouted cobras and black mambas, with the idea that snakes encountered in the course of construction work could be safely removed and later released, rather than being killed.
Participants learning how to catch and secure a snouted cobra, one of the seven most dangerous snakes in eSwatini, at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course for road construction company staff delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband, Clifton Koen, in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019.Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
Participants learning how to catch and secure a snouted cobra, one of the seven most dangerous snakes in eSwatini, at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course for road construction company staff delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband, Clifton Koen, in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019.Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
Morris Phakuli (40), pictured in Lusoti in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 19 October 2019. He fell asleep drunk under a tree and awoke to find himself bleeding from the eye. A relative found a snake in his blankets that was consistent with the appearance of a Mozambique spitting cobra, and they believe the snake spat into his eye.While bite statistics are scarce because there has been no formal data collection until very recently, local expert Thea Litschka-Koen estimates that the species is responsible for 70% of bites in the country. The snake has a reputation for entering homes in search of prey and for making exploratory bites. Many victims are bitten in their sleep.
Morris Phakuli (40), pictured in Lusoti in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 19 October 2019. He fell asleep drunk under a tree and awoke to find himself bleeding from the eye. A relative found a snake in his blankets that was consistent with the appearance of a Mozambique spitting cobra, and they believe the snake spat into his eye.While bite statistics are scarce because there has been no formal data collection until very recently, local expert Thea Litschka-Koen estimates that the species is responsible for 70% of bites in the country. The snake has a reputation for entering homes in search of prey and for making exploratory bites. Many victims are bitten in their sleep.
People watching Barend Bloem of Lowveld Venom Suppliers milking a puff adder's venom during a session to introduce delegates of the eSwatini Snakebite Symposium to some of the country's most dangerous snakes at the Simunye Club in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 25 October 2019. An annual event, the symposium is organised by Thea Litschka-Koen with a view to improving the understanding and treatment of snakebite, and to show key characteristics of the medically significant snakes found in the country. This included demonstrating their warning behaviour, and showing that if given the chance they would sooner flee than attack.
People watching Barend Bloem of Lowveld Venom Suppliers milking a puff adder's venom during a session to introduce delegates of the eSwatini Snakebite Symposium to some of the country's most dangerous snakes at the Simunye Club in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 25 October 2019. An annual event, the symposium is organised by Thea Litschka-Koen with a view to improving the understanding and treatment of snakebite, and to show key characteristics of the medically significant snakes found in the country. This included demonstrating their warning behaviour, and showing that if given the chance they would sooner flee than attack.
A Mozambique spitting cobra, one of the seven most dangerous snakes in eSwatini, circling the rim of a snake bin after a participant failed to place it in the bin correctly at at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband, Clifton Koen,  in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019. The Mozambique spitting is responsible for an estimated 70% of envenomations in eSwatini. While its bite is rarely fatal to adults, the only antivenom available is not very effective, and victims are often left permanently disfigured or disabled by its potently cytotoxic venom.Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
A Mozambique spitting cobra, one of the seven most dangerous snakes in eSwatini, circling the rim of a snake bin after a participant failed to place it in the bin correctly at at a snakebite first aid and snake handling course delivered by Thea Litschka-Koen and her husband, Clifton Koen, in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 16 October 2019. The Mozambique spitting is responsible for an estimated 70% of envenomations in eSwatini. While its bite is rarely fatal to adults, the only antivenom available is not very effective, and victims are often left permanently disfigured or disabled by its potently cytotoxic venom.Thea Litschka-Koen’s involvement with snakes began after one of her sons had to do a school project on snakes. She soon realised that snakebite envenomation was a serious problem in the eSwatini. In the fifteen years since, Litschka-Koen has become an internationally-recognised expert, working tirelessly to improve snakebite awareness, education and treatment, and improve access to antivenom. In addition to her full time job managing hotel and other facilities, she spends much of her time responding to snake callouts, “rescuing people from snakes, and rescuing snakes from people.” She established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation, which has set up eleven antivenom banks around the country to reduce the time needed for people to reach lifesaving treatment, has trained a network of volunteer snake catchers, and is working with international researchers on the development of improved antivenoms.
Chef, Britain Watts (left), holding a mildly venomous olive whip snake as he and Bongani Bheki Myeni, storekeeper, clean out its cage in Thea Litschka-Koen and Clifton Koen's (in foreground) office at the Simunye Club in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. Watts and Myeni both work at the club and have become snake enthusiasts and proficient snake handlers under Litschka-Koen's tutelage.
Chef, Britain Watts (left), holding a mildly venomous olive whip snake as he and Bongani Bheki Myeni, storekeeper, clean out its cage in Thea Litschka-Koen and Clifton Koen's (in foreground) office at the Simunye Club in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 17 October 2019. Watts and Myeni both work at the club and have become snake enthusiasts and proficient snake handlers under Litschka-Koen's tutelage.
Young visitors stopping by as Britain Watts, 49, the chef at the Simunye Club in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), checks on a juvenile boomslang that had been caught on the nearby Mhlume sugarcane estate and temporarily housed in a cage in the office of his boss, snake expert Thea Litschka-Koen, on 20 October 2019. The snake will be monitored and rehabilitated if necessary before being released. The boomslang is highly venomous and potentially lethal, but bites are not common. Its venom is slow-acting, and while antivenom is very expensive, bite victims generally have sufficient time to seek treatment. Watts began helping Litschka-Koen with snake care and rehabilitation approximately five years ago, and soon became a snake enthusiast himself.
Young visitors stopping by as Britain Watts, 49, the chef at the Simunye Club in Simunye in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), checks on a juvenile boomslang that had been caught on the nearby Mhlume sugarcane estate and temporarily housed in a cage in the office of his boss, snake expert Thea Litschka-Koen, on 20 October 2019. The snake will be monitored and rehabilitated if necessary before being released. The boomslang is highly venomous and potentially lethal, but bites are not common. Its venom is slow-acting, and while antivenom is very expensive, bite victims generally have sufficient time to seek treatment. Watts began helping Litschka-Koen with snake care and rehabilitation approximately five years ago, and soon became a snake enthusiast himself.
Snake and snakebite expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, and Britain Watts releasing a python near the Sand River Reservoir in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 11 November 2019. It had been found in a pump house on a nearby sugarcane estate. In addition to having set up and running the eSwatini Antivenom Foundation as a volunteer, Litschka-Koen spends much of her spare time "rescuing people from snakes, and snakes from people." Watts is the chef at a club managed by Litschka-Koen, and has become a snake enthusiast himself.  Pythons are royal game in eSwatini, and interfering with them in any way carries a five-year prison sentence. Litschka-Koen has special permits to allow her to capture, rehabilitate and release them as required.
Snake and snakebite expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, and Britain Watts releasing a python near the Sand River Reservoir in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 11 November 2019. It had been found in a pump house on a nearby sugarcane estate. In addition to having set up and running the eSwatini Antivenom Foundation as a volunteer, Litschka-Koen spends much of her spare time "rescuing people from snakes, and snakes from people." Watts is the chef at a club managed by Litschka-Koen, and has become a snake enthusiast himself. Pythons are royal game in eSwatini, and interfering with them in any way carries a five-year prison sentence. Litschka-Koen has special permits to allow her to capture, rehabilitate and release them as required.
A python after being released on a game reserve in eSwatini. It had been safely caught and removed from a pump house on a sugarcane estate by snake and snakebite expert, Thea Litschka-Koen. Pythons are royal game in eSwatini, and interfering with them in any way carries a five-year prison sentence. Litschka-Koen has special permits to allow her to capture, rehabilitate and release them as required.
A python after being released on a game reserve in eSwatini. It had been safely caught and removed from a pump house on a sugarcane estate by snake and snakebite expert, Thea Litschka-Koen. Pythons are royal game in eSwatini, and interfering with them in any way carries a five-year prison sentence. Litschka-Koen has special permits to allow her to capture, rehabilitate and release them as required.
A black mamba being milked by Barend Bloem of South Africa's Lowveld Venom Suppliers in the living room of snake expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, at her home near Mhlume in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 24 October 2019. Litschka-Koen had invited the company to assist with milking a collection of snakes in her care, with the venom to be used in the development of improved and cheaper antivenoms. (The black mamba is so named for the colour of the inside of its mouth.)
A black mamba being milked by Barend Bloem of South Africa's Lowveld Venom Suppliers in the living room of snake expert, Thea Litschka-Koen, at her home near Mhlume in the Lubombo Region of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) on 24 October 2019. Litschka-Koen had invited the company to assist with milking a collection of snakes in her care, with the venom to be used in the development of improved and cheaper antivenoms. (The black mamba is so named for the colour of the inside of its mouth.)

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