© Mike Unwin
It’s a moonless evening and I’m out ‘on call’ with Thea Litschka-Koen. We’re crouched in the abandoned outhouse of a diplomatic residence in Siteki. Somewhere above us, we’re assured by the terrified gathering outside the door, is a 2m black mamba.
‘I love that smell,’ says Thea. She touches a crumbling smear on the wall, sniffs her finger, and shines her torch up into the narrow roof cavity. Black mamba droppings, apparently, smell like curry.
It’s a moonless evening and I’m out ‘on call’ with Thea Litschka-Koen, manager of the Simunye Hotel. We’re crouched in the abandoned outhouse of a diplomatic residence in Siteki. Somewhere above us, we’re assured by the terrified gathering outside the door, is a 2m black mamba. The watchman saw it disappear into the hole just an hour ago and called Thea immediately. It hasn’t emerged yet.
We poke around in the outhouse with grab sticks and head-torches for another half-hour or so. It’s nerve-racking work. Clifton Koen, Thea’s husband, is up on the roof outside, removing tiles. But the mamba doesn’t show. I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed or relieved. ‘Call me in the morning if you see it again,’ she tells the foreman. ‘And don’t take your eyes off it.’ With that, we jump in the car and drive back to Simunye, pausing only for Thea to jump out halfway down the hill, remove a large, hissing puff adder from the road and stuff it in a sack, ready for her next demonstration.
Thea had no interest in snakes until she helped out her son with a school project. Her research soon became an obsession. She learned to identify the snakes she’d grown up with in the bush and took a course in how to handle them. She also learned that snakes are fascinating and important animals, and that the dangerous ones – including black mambas, Mozambique spitting cobras and puff adders – become much less dangerous once you know more about them. Word got around, and soon Thea was being called out to identify and remove snakes from people’s property, the terrified phone calls coming at all times of day and night. This developed into a more formal role, running courses and educating the community, and soon herpetologists elsewhere were calling on Thea’s expertise – especially her experience with black mambas, from which she has obtained vital DNA samples for research.
From rescuing snakes Thea soon turned to rescuing people.
From rescuing snakes Thea soon turned to rescuing people. Her work convinced her that snakebite in Swaziland’s rural communities is more of a problem than is commonly imagined (she has more than once witnessed the death of a child). Antivenoms are seldom available – certainly not for people in impoverished rural circumstances. Thea carries her own supply, with which she can help those victims with whom she comes into contact. Just as important, however, are her snake education courses that explain simple measures for reducing the risk of snakebite and sensible steps to take if bitten. Rural people, perhaps unsurprisingly, see her skills and courage as something supernatural. Indeed, a 2009 BBC TV documentary made about Thea was entitled Black Mamba, White Witch. Thea’s ambition is to build a local snakebite clinic. However, she still receives no funding. Visit her website to find out more, or even make a much-needed donation.