Authored by Julie Ray

A developing initiative within the Orianne Society promotes snake conservation within Central America, which includes our bushmaster field work. In building this program, an important partner has been Team Snake Panama at La MICA biological station in El Copé, Panama. One of our shared goals is to increase tolerance of all snakes through education and awareness of how to avoid and treat venomous snakebites. Below, the director of Team Snake Panama and La MICA biological station, Dr. Julie Ray, describes a new initiative she is launching that works toward this important objective.

For over eight years I have studied snakes in the cloud forests of Panama. Before moving to Panama, my life and research in the upper Midwest of the United States allowed me few encounters with venomous snakes or snakebite victims. My first night in the field in Panama, I realized how common the Fer de Lance (locally called equis) could be and how incredibly camouflaged they were among the leaf litter. My interaction with the local people, through living in their community and hiring them as field assistants, made me quickly realize how many people had been affected by venomous snakes. Everyone knew someone who had been bitten, and many could show me scars.

In the United States we hear of incidental bites, typically in the Southwest, acquired while working or recreating outside. We also hear of bites unfortunately gotten while showing off to friends while consuming alcohol. However, bites are uncommon. Things are different in Panama. A recent publication reported 2,800 annual bites treated in medical centers in Panama! A vast majority of the bites are acquired in rural areas where people live and work among venomous snakes, especially the Fer de Lance. Bites are acquired while moving palm fronds, harvesting yucca or walking to destinations, often in the cool, early morning when it is still dark. Furthermore, some people live in very rural areas, especially within the indigenous comarcas (similar to a reservation but with more local governing power) or the Darien and simply cannot reach a hospital in time. Finally, there are still areas where people practice traditional (although ineffective and even dangerous) treatments and do not attempt to make it to a medical center—surely the actual bite count is higher.

My interactions with the local people have led to several asking me for information regarding which snakes are venomous. They admit that they kill every snake they see, but with kids and pets in the yard they feel they cannot take a chance on it being venomous. In reality, of the 153 species in Panama, just a handful are venomous and are commonly encountered by people in even the most rural of areas. Education on how to identify snakes combined with tips on how to avoid bites and co-exist with snakes will go a long way towards reducing bites. Furthermore, we still know little about many of these species of snakes, so researchers must continue to document where they see different species so that proper anti-venom treatment, along with trained personnel, can be available to clinics in even more remote areas.

Team Snake Panama, based at La MICA Biological Station has launched Project BRASS: Bites Reduced and Snakes Saved (www.lamica.org). This educational initiative aims to distribute information to communities, especially in remote areas, on the identification of and co-existing with snakes. To do so, we will visit communities throughout Panama and Costa Rica to deliver a talk about local snakes and snakebite prevention, donate educational materials, including posters, coloring sheets, and a copy of our bilingual book The Venomous Snakes and their Mimics of Panama and Costa Rica to health clinics and schools, interact with local people to understand their fears and needs, and participate in guided tours led by residents to better understand the habits and distribution of each species of snake so that snakebite prevention and treatment can be improved.

This project promises to provide much needed information to the local people who seek facts and provide a lot of data on distribution and biology of a number of poorly known species. More information and the opportunity to assist with a donation can be found at: http://www.gofundme.com/dh9p8c.

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