Have you ever seen a snake outside of a zoo or pet shop? Every town and city in Taiwan has many species of snakes, some of which are venomous, but most people do not come across snakes regularly. Even in Taipei, where many districts are crisscrossed by creeks and rivers or are bordered by forested and mountainous areas, snakes are very common. It’s just that most people do not notice snakes – or other wildlife living in the city for that matter – because many critters are nocturnal and they wisely shy away from contact with murderous humans.
People interested in seeing snakes and other native creatures of Taiwan need do nothing more than take to the numerous hiking and riverside trails in the evenings. Armed with a good flashlight, a keen eye and an inquisitive mind, it is very easy to discover the beauty of nature in Taiwan without having to join paid tours, although it is still necessary to exercise caution when looking for and observing wild creatures. This article from the Taipei Times gives some fairly generic advice, with a few quotes from a physician, to outline the basics of what to do if one is stupid enough to annoy a snake, or unlucky enough to accidentally step on one, and then get bitten. There are several shortcomings of offering generic advice like this though, especially since the whole purpose of the article is to offer the doctor a chance to teach people how to react if bitten.
First of all, just telling people “to remember characteristics of the snake’s appearance” is pretty much useless for a positive identification if that is what is needed to choose the correct antivenom. Even seasoned herpetologists often have difficulty differentiating between many species of snake just by glancing at them, and in the heat of the moment when someone has just been bitten by a snake with potentially deadly venom, the chances of them calmly noting down what the snake looks like are pretty slim. Much better advice is to take pictures or even video on your phone, obviously avoiding getting bitten again in the process. Likewise, writing snake species names that most people in Taiwan do not use is totally pointless, even in English. Admittedly, it could just be laziness on the part of the translator of the article, but using names like “Chinese copperhead” to describe what is invariably referred to as a “hundred-pacer”, and “brown spotted pit-viper” for the “Taiwan habu”, seems like it would just lead to more confusion.
Most important of all is the appropriate first aid for a snake bite. In this respect, the advice offered in the Taipei Times has somewhat improved from a few years ago when they recommended that the victim “raise the bitten limb above the heart”, which could actually lead to the venom circulating even more quickly around the body! However, just saying that “the part of the body with the bite should be bandaged” may or may not be effective. If you are bitten on a limb, you could try applying the pressure immobilisation technique (PIT), also known as pressure bandages with immobilisation (PBI), which was developed in Australia specifically for slowing the spread of snake venom, and which could help your chances of survival should you not be able to get antivenom treatment immediately. Using an elastic bandage – or a long piece of clothing or cloth if you don’t have a bandage – you should firmly wrap the affected limb starting from the extremity of the limb (meaning from your fingers for your arm or toes for your leg), bandaging firmly up as far as possible on the limb, including marking on the bandage where the bite site is covered. Ideally you want to immobilise the bitten limb by using a splint, and rest as much as possible to slow your heart rate. The best course of action is always to not get bitten in the first place, so use your common sense and treat all wild creatures with respect by observing them from a safe distance, and then you will be able to enjoy the amazing wilds of Taiwan!