Camels and Cobras and Camera Traps, Oh My!

By Michael Ross
Data Technician, Arabian Leopard Initiatives

A view in the Arabian Desert

This is the second installment of my blog series highlighting the (mis)adventures of a field worker let loose in the vast expanse of Saudi Arabia. I hope you find these interesting or amusing and that they bring a smile to your face and foster, rekindle or further a love for the great outdoors and protecting the wildlife within it. 

If you can recall, I went to Saudi Arabia with a field team to look for animals, leopards in particular, though sometimes we got more than we bargained for. Take camels for example. Prior to leaving I had never had a proper camel encounter. Therefore, when I came to the Middle East, I was determined to rectify this by meeting a camel deep in a wadi. I am not sure why I had a fascination with camels. I suspect that they are just so different from any of our African animals. And I am not sure about you, but when I imagine the desert, I can’t help but picture myself roaming over the sand dunes on the back of a camel. Arriving in Saudi Arabia fulfilled all my dreams in this regard, as there were dromedary camels (i.e., the ones with one hump) everywhere – yay! 

One day while we were out setting up camera traps, an opportunity presented itself. I spotted a camel and the camel spotted me. She blinked her long eyelashes and flapped her wide lips, and at that moment I knew she was the one. I slowly approached making horse clicks (I had, and still have, no idea how best to communicate with a camel, so resorted to the closest thing I knew) and gave her a gentle stroke. It was a very special experience. I vowed to befriend some other camels while in Saudi Arabia, and considered bringing carrots the next time we went out (again, I’m not sure how similar camels are to horses but it seemed worth a try). Shortly thereafter we got the message that camels in Saudi Arabia can carry MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), a coronavirus with a 35% death rate, and can kill people with a vicious kick. I didn’t touch any more camels after that. 

Lucy and a camel

Before I dive into my next story, you’ll need a bit of context. I date an incredible young woman, Lucy, who is also involved with Panthera. She spent 16 months wondering around the bush setting up cameras, either alone or with a game guard, in Kruger National Park and in Mozambique. She is very brave. Among her many stories from the bush, she has a number which involved black mambas. Black mambas are Africa’s most notorious snake. They are highly venomous, with venom so toxic it can kill a person in 20 minutes. They are very aggressive and won’t hesitate to bite. Somewhat surprisingly, they are grey in color but their name comes from the inky black which lines the inside of their mouth - though you really don’t want to ever be in a position to confirm this for yourself. To cut to the chase, she had a number of close black mamba encounters, including one involving a black mamba flying through the air, mouth wide open towards her. Needless to say, her traumatic experiences have left her a bit frightened of venomous snakes.  

To the story! This particular day was much the same as any other. We were heading out into the beautiful valleys of Saudi Arabia to check the cameras that we had previously set up. Nothing seemed amiss and we looked set for another wonderful day out. We had two slangetjie (i.e., a small snake) encounters during the morning, which was unusual, because in the preceding month I hadn’t seen any. The first snake we encountered was lying half in the sun and half in a pool of water. We spotted the little guy and steered clear, snapping a couple of pictures on our way past. Shortly thereafter, we came across another snake, this time somewhat closer. Luckily, no one came in direct contact with any of the (likely harmless) specimens.  

Later that day we experienced yet another snake encounter, and you know what they say, “third time’s the charm.” This time we were walking up a wadi, which narrowed into a rocky gorge about 5 meters wide. A bit ahead of us there was a sunken pool containing many toads floating around on the surface (it seems a favourite past time of Saudi toads is floating around on the surface of a water body, watching you) and something else that decidedly wasn’t a toad. We watched a little longer and quickly identified the yellow scales as belonging to the Arabian cobra.  

Arabian cobra

The Arabian cobra is the region’s most toxic reptile, and certainly not something one would like to be bitten by! We walked around to the other side of the pool and sat down, watching. The cobra periodically lifted its head out of the water before submerging once more. We sat watching for a few minutes until something quite unexpected happened. The cobra, probably close to 2 meters long, started writhing around the surface of the water. We got a bit of a fright, and we weren’t quite sure what that meant, so we decided we would rather not hang around to find out! Why the toads didn’t follow us out remains a mystery — I certainly would not want to be sharing a swimming spot with a massive cobra! 

Unfortunately, heading back home after checking the camera trap wasn’t that simple, as it involved walking back past the cobra lair. We were both a bit rattled after our previous encounter with the cobra, and proceeded cautiously down towards the pool. When we entered into the narrow gorge, we became hyper-aware, looking very closely for any flash of yellow. We crept down the gorge, stomping loudly to give away our presence. Just after we passed the pool I glanced back to see if I could spot any wet patches where the snake might have slithered out the water.  

At that instant I spotted the cobra directly perpendicular to us on the other side of the gorge. I pointed it out and immediately my girlfriend charged past me and down the gorge faster than I have ever seen her run, abandoning me in her wake. Startled by her turn of speed and a worried about the cobra myself, I hurried down after her. With hearts racing and shaky legs, we reconvened at the bottom, still within sight of the cobra. We had a camera positioned at the bottom, so one of us kept watch while the other replaced the batteries and changed the SD card on the camera. Mercifully, the cobra had seemingly had enough human encounters for the day and slithered off into the rocks.  

The snake encounters left a lasting legacy which continued with us for the rest of the trip and a reminder that with the beauty of nature comes the danger of those creatures that inhabit it. We were also reminded that a functioning ecosystem consists of many parts, all of which are inextricably linked. While our project is focused on the Arabian leopard, it is only within the context of a healthy ecosystem that this iconic species can persist, and even the angry cobra is an important part of that. 

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