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Gerald Durrell, the naturalist, films a snake-pit for the BBC

Posted in Africa, Animals, Communications on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about Gerald Durrell originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Snakes, picture, image, illustration

A montage of snakes with the Gaboon Viper, bottom left corner

‘The pit was about twenty-five feet long, four feet wide and twelve feet deep . . . It was simply crawling with Gaboon vipers – one of the most deadly snakes in West Africa.’

Gerald Durrell BBC Home Service 12 July, 1953.

Standing on the quay at Tiko, on the west coast of Africa, Gerald Durrell glanced at his watch. It was nearly midnight. The Arakaka was sailing for England in the morning, and the wild animals he had collected were to be loaded on to the ship before dawn.

For five months, Gerald Durrell, naturalist and broadcaster, had been living and working in the rain forests of West Africa, watching the forest creatures, studying their habits and capturing them on behalf of various zoos in Britain.

“I’d collected about 200 specimens,” he told me, as we talked at his home in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where he runs the zoo he founded. “These ranged from red river hogs to chimpanzees, from hairy frogs to bush babies and squirrels – and a few snakes.”

Now, as the naturalist moved away to begin the task of loading, a small van appeared and, with a screeching of brakes, shuddered to a stop beside him. Out of it jumped John MacTootle, a young Irishman whom Durrell had met on the voyage out to Africa.

“John had promised me,” Durrell said, “that he would try to find me some rare specimens of snakes. But I hadn’t heard from him, and had practically forgotten all about it.”

But MacTootle had come now to tell Durrell that, on the banana plantation where he worked, he had discovered a large pit which had been used as a drainage sump, and that this pit was full of snakes. If Durrell cared to catch them – well, they were his for the taking.

Durrell’s heart sank.

“For one thing,” he told me, “time was short. It meant doing it that night, and the keenest naturalist would hardly relish the prospect of crawling round a pit full of snakes in the dark.”

However, reluctantly, he agreed to go. He picked up his stick, which had a Y-shaped fork of brass at one end, and a canvas snake-bag, and climbed into the van with several of MacTootle’s friends who had come along to watch the ‘fun’.

A half-hour drive brought them to MacTootle’s bungalow. A big paraffin pressure-lamp was found and tied on the end of a long cord. Durrell watched the preparations without enthusiasm.

And what, he wondered, was the purpose of that spare coil of rope?

“Why, to lower you into the pit, of course,” he was told.

Durrell then tried to comfort himself with the thought that the snakes were probably quite harmless – and that most kinds were extremely easy to capture, if you knew their habits. But to dangle, as he was clearly expected to do, on the end of a rope in a deep pit, without knowing what was waiting at the bottom of it . . . and in the middle of the night . . .

The party made its way through the moonlit banana-plantation to the pit and Durrell crouched down at the edge of it. Slowly the lamp was lowered so that he could see what he had let himself in for.

As he told BBC listeners: “The pit was about twenty-five feet long, four feet wide and twelve feet deep. As the light reached the bottom, I saw that it was simply crawling with Gaboon vipers – one of the most deadly snakes in West Africa. They were not only poisonous but also very wide awake, since their habit is to hunt for food at night.”

The vipers wriggled round the pit and kept lifting their arrow-shaped heads.

“In the case of the Gaboon viper,” Durrell added, “I knew that not only was the poison deadly, but that, because of the length of the fangs, it is injected very deeply into the victim’s body, and so has a much quicker effect.”

It was too late for Durrell to change his mind . . . Or was it?

“I suddenly realised,” he said, “that the clothes I was wearing – thin tropical trousers and a pair of plimsolls – was most unsuitable for hunting snakes. One bite from even the smallest would go right through.”

But it was no good. MacTootle, who was wearing stout twill trousers and a strong pair of shoes, offered to lend them to Durrell. The hunter’s last excuse had gone.

Durrell fastened the rope round his waist. Cautiously, he swung his legs over the side of the pit. Slowly and gently his companions lowered him into the gaping hole. The knot he had tied was a slip-knot and, as it tightened, it took his breath away.

Dry earth crumbled from the sides of the pit, and ominous hisses rose up in protest.

When he was about a yard from the bottom, Durrell shouted to his companions to stop paying out the rope.

“I wanted to have a good look at the ground I was going to land on,” he told me, “to make sure I didn’t tread on a snake.”

But all seemed clear and he told the men up above to lower away.

“Then,” he said, “as I continued my descent, two things happened: firstly, one of my borrowed shoes fell off; and, secondly, the lamp died away to just a glow.

“At that precise moment, I touched ground with my bare foot, and I cannot remember ever having been so frightened before or since. I waited in the dark while my friends hauled out the lamp, pumped it up, relit it and lowered it to me again. Then I was able to search for my shoe.”

Then he set about catching the vipers. Stick in hand, he approached the nearest snake, pinning it to the ground with the forked end. With the other hand he firmly gripped the creature by the back of the neck – and popped it in the bag.

“This was simple enough,” he said, “but what worried me was that, while I was catching one snake, I had to keep a sharp eye open in case I stepped on another.”

As it was, one of the vipers hissed frighteningly near his ear as he bent down. Another bit the wood of the stick and held on fiercely. Durrell shook it with such force that it went flying across the pit, spitting angrily as it hit the ground.

The vipers, beautifully patterned in brown, silver, cream and pink, blended into the background and were difficult to spot, but within half an hour a dozen were wriggling in the bag.

Durrell signalled to his companions to haul him up. Dishevelled, hot and dirty, and clutching his bag of snakes, he clambered over the edge of the pit and threw himself gratefully on the ground.

He was lucky, he thought, to be still alive.

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