Searching for the Nine...
"There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy's life when he has the raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasures." - Mark Twain
When I met Keir, back in 2005, he was absolutely terrified of snakes. The kind of "freeze in his steps, mid-stride, cannot utter a word" terrified. His attitude towards snakes changed as we started spending time with the Hardakers, and the Dorses – friends we made through a mutual love for the environment. Keir developed a keen interest in reptiles in general (previously it was all about birds), and he started tolerating them at a safe distance. Cliff Dorse caught a Common Egg-eater one day, and whilst he had it in hand Keir spotted a Harlequin snake making a “run” for it. He showed Cliff, who wanted to catch it. Cliff tried to give the Common Egg-eater to our son, who blatantly refused. Keir realized that this was a pivotal moment and that he had a choice, perpetuate the fear with Cian, or bridge the gap and show Cian there is nothing to fear from this harmless species. He bravely took the eggie from Cliff, and that was that. We now cannot stop him from catching and handling all things scaly and cool! Combining the understanding of their ecological function, their habits and ultimately what it feels like to search for, find and observe them, has turned these nerds into snake and reptile enthusiasts.
We love travelling almost as much as we now love snakes. Many a dirt road has been conquered in search of a floral or faunal species. One of these tracks is the lovely road that leads through Seweweekspoort. This pass starts in the Klein Karoo, west of Ladismith, and winds its way through the Klein Swartberg. The sheer scale of the quartzite folds in this pass dwarf you as you drive along this little stream that carved this valley over millions of years. We explored this pass, and as we drove out on the northern side, we turned left into the Groot Karoo. It was not long before Keir was eager to get out of the car to explore up the northern slopes of the Klein Swartberg, searching for one of our target species of the day, the Swartberg Leaf-toed Gecko (Afrogecko swartbergensis), a species of geitjie that was described in 1996. I contacted a local landowner, who gave us permission to access the mountain on his farm. It was mid-day, just after a small rain-shower. I dawdled at the base of the mountain, entertaining the birds with my clumsiness, and scaring away anything that came within focal distance – not getting a single photograph of anything other than an undescribed cricket.
I watched as Keir goated his way up the slope and out of view. Now and then, the ominous sound of a rolling rock made me scour the slope to see where my end was coming from. After about 30min, Keir found his first-ever dwarf adder, basking in the sun, huffing and puffing at this giant human that was staring at it, huffing and puffing equally hard. It was incredible to finally see a Red Adder (Bitis rubida) in its natural habitat. This specimen was remarkable. Apart from being the grey and black colour form of the species (not the red colour form frequently found in the Cederberg and the Klein Karoo), she also sported peculiar dark black marks on her body. These black blotches had no scales, and it was only after discussing this that we realized that she had survived the recent fires that raged through this part of the Swartberg. Her body was still baring the black scars where her scales were burnt off, and her skin was charred black but wholly healed. What a resilient creature, back hunting lizards and most probably the darn gecko we were after, amongst the quartz-rich sandstone slabs on the fynbos covered slopes of her mountainous home.
It took quite some time to come off this high, and it still ranks as one of our favourite dwarf adder sightings.
Our following dwarf adder species was a bit of a surprise. One of the landowners whom we used to work with in the Sandies Glen valley in the Overberg called us to help him with a snake that they found whilst doing invasive alien vegetation clearing. We found a Berg Adder (Bitis atropos) waiting for us in a bucket. We relocated it to a safer area. It was very encouraging to see a snake being caught and kept for safe relocation, instead of being killed on sight. It is amazing how being offered a safe alternative to killing them has changed his mind when he finds them. This species became one of the more common adder species we encountered the past few years, finding them regularly in high-altitude fynbos vegetation on the mountains in the Overberg.
Jannie Groenewald, a good friend of ours, was out doing a botanical survey with the Custodians for Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (C.R.E.W) in 2017. It was his birthday, and he called us to come and look at a snake he had found. We dropped everything we were doing at that moment and rushed out to find Jannie patiently waiting for the nerds where he found a Southern Adder (Bitis armata).
This had, by that stage, been a nemesis species for us for three years. We had spent countless hours traversing the coastal limestone fynbos and strandveld, from Agulhas to De Hoop, unsuccessful at finding them. We were surprised by the size of this adult male that Jannie had found. Although it measured 21cm in length, it could fit under a Nikon 52mm lens cap, curled up with space to spare. A few weeks later, we went back to this site and relocated this individual and a massive female Southern Adder that was gravid. We have subsequently found Southern Adders in many different habitats, at sea level and above 400 meters above sea level – in Sandstone, Ferricrete and Limestone Fynbos as well as Strandveld. They used to occur from the West Coast to Cape Infanta, but due to habitat fragmentation and urban development, they have been extirpated from the Cape Peninsula and have become quite rare on the West Coast.
This fascination with dwarf adders resulted in us meeting some rather special people who shared our passion for reptiles in general. We ended up planning an Eastern Cape trip to find the holy grail of dwarf adders, the Albany Adder (Bitis albanica), with Jo Balmer whom we met when we took him birding on the Agulhas Plains.
Little did we know what an impact the Albany Adder would have on our lives.
We ended up heading out eastwards to meet up with him in September 2017. The Dorses joined us as well, and Jo brought one of his friends along. This is how we met Gary Kyle Nicolau. None of us thought we had any chance of finding any Albany Adders. They had only been seen 17 times in the wild by that stage, and they occurred in reasonably inaccessible areas. Jo was the only one who had seen them earlier in the year.
We spent four days searching for them. We walked kilometers, drove much further, and as our time ran out, so did our morale. On our way back to our accommodation to pack and leave, we decided to stop and have a last go in an area that we thought looked similar to the vegetation we were used to seeing Southern Adder in the Western Cape. Coming around a small bush clump, I almost stepped on an Albany Adder. Jo ran over, Gary almost dived me off my feet, and we almost forgot to keep an eye on the snake! Keir missed all of the excitement due to a nature call, but his face was priceless when he finally joined us a few minutes later. We were overjoyed. The Dorses, who left earlier in the day, raced back and we all had a long googly-eyed look at this animal. It is an incredibly special memory.
Who would have ever thought we would be so lucky to see this species' 18th known record in the wild?
Fast forward to 2021 and Bionerds is now in its third year of implementing the “Averting Extinction: conserving South Africa’s most threatened snake species” project for the Endangered Wildlife Trust, hoping to affect formal habitat protection for the conservation of the core population of this species. Over the past two years, we have had an additional nine sightings of this species in the wild!
A wonderful friendship grew out of this trip, and we invited Gary to visit us in the Western Cape in 2018. It was early April, and after a few days of miserable weather in the Overberg, we decide on an impromptu Northern Cape trip in search of anything that had either zero or four legs. After two nights of poring over the Atlas and Redlist of Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, our species’ target list growing by the second, we were on the road. No accommodation, no route, no solid plan of action on what, where or when... which is just the way it should be.
We spent the first night sharing one caravan between the three of us on a desolate Namaqualand plain with three million mosquitos. Between my snoring and being carried around in the caravan by swarms of mosquitos, no-one got any sleep. We missioned on, finding specials as far as we went. Two days later we ended up on the coastline near Hondeklip Bay. It was a bit windy, but we decided to go for an amble along the dunes. Keir noticed a Tractrac Chat on the dunes. It was all worked up and bouncing its feathery butt around in a small bush not far away from him. He recognized the behaviour as that of a bird being very agitated with the presence of a threat and decided to investigate. The alarm calls from this Tractrac Chat lured Keir straight to a Namaqua Dwarf Adder (Bitis schneideri) sunning itself next to a small bush on the dunes. If we thought a 21cm Southern Adder is small, imagine what a 16cm Namaqua Dwarf Adder looked like? It is the smallest viperid in the world and quite adept at hiding itself in the dunes' similarly coloured sands!
A few days later we were back in Springbok, from where we decided to extend our trip by two days and head up to Vioolsdrift in search of another needle in a haystack. It was smothering hot when we arrived there at mid-day, stopping at the base of the black volcanic andesite rock formations where there was no life other than a lone Tractrac Chat vulturing around the car in the hopes of an easy meal. The boys head into the hills. Two hours passed. Then, faintly carried in on a breeze, came the unmistakable scream from the hills above us. Keir had done it again! He found a Desert Mountain Adder (Bitis xeropaga), a dwarf adder species rarely seen due to the inhospitable terrain it inhabits. These snakes are quite extraordinary; they must have a specialized diet consisting solely out of shards of andesite rocks (really, there was NOTHING living in that habitat that we could see!). How they survive is an incredible feat as they are living in an area where there is no water, and lizards and geckos must be few and far between. Nevertheless, they do survive, and we were lucky to see one of them.
On our drive back that night we were jolted back to reality, our high of seeing such a beautiful snake dampened by the find of not only a dying Fisk’s House snake but also a dying Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis) on the road heading back to Springbok. Both were driven over; the high mortality rate of reptiles on our roads can send the hardiest conservationist into a deep depression.
Word of this successful trip made its rounds, and it was not long until we started planning another trip; this time in search of a species that is a habitat specialist with an incredible range restriction. In spring 2018 we were joined by reptile enthusiasts from all over the country on a trip to the Sneeuberg in the Eastern Cape. We arrived a day ahead of everyone else. True to form, Keir was hardly out of the vehicle when he started heading for the mountains above our accommodation. We were exploring and getting an idea of the lay of the land before everyone else arrived. He explored the mountain, with Cian and I falling way behind. We eventually decided to sit and wait for him on a giant boulder. He eventually rejoined us, we decided to all head back down, and he had hardly taken ten steps when he exclaimed that he had found our target species! The Plain Mountain Adder had only eight confirmed records in the wild before our trip. Keir had found number nine. We were at odds whether or not to let the group know that he had already found one... but the excitement was too great. When they eventually arrived, they were all chomping at the bit to get back up the Siltstone slopes to explore the solid sandstone plateaus of mountains to have a go at finding a Plain Mountain Adder again. Keir found a second individual on the second day, and the third day Luke Kemp found another one!
This left us with one last species to find, the Many Horned Adder (Bitis cornuta). We made two consecutive Northern Cape trips but dipped on this species on both occasions. It broke our hearts every time we found an old, desiccated dead individual on the road.
In October 2020, we went on an exploration of the Richtersveld. We gave ourselves two days extra and spent one of them around Springbok. Luckily, the pandemic lockdown curfew had been lifted, and we were able to stay out a bit later in the hope of stumbling across something special as the sun went down. I phoned Johan Marais and had a chat with him about areas to scour for Many Horned Adders. He could not believe that we had not seen them yet. We put in a few hours searching for any signs of this species that afternoon and late into the evening. We had decided to head back, trying to work out if we would have time to try again on our way back from the Richtersveld when we spied the unmistakable shape of a dwarf adder... finally, amongst the orbicular granite hills that surround Springbok, we found our last dwarf adder species that occur within the boundaries of South Africa, and it was worth every minute we spent over the past four years looking for and hoping to find them.
Nine species, four years, many kilometers, great friends and memorable experiences - what is next? More dwarf adders, of course, this time outside of the boundary of South Africa. Namibia, Angola and Kenya, here we come!