Fear of snakes is widespread amidst the human population, and snakes often get characterized as scary and evil. After a snake expedition into the Israeli desert with two herpetologists, or people who study reptiles, it could be time to retell the snake story. According to André Stehlin, a herpetologist from Switzerland visiting Israel, snakes are shy, fair, lazy, and like pieces of art. He arrived excited to explore the snake scene with Israel’s top “snake man,” Aviad Bar, a herpetologist in hobby. The two men share a love of snakes, with their fascination beginning in childhood.
For the Love of Snakes
Stehlin was nine years old when he was introduced to his first terrarium filled with Japanese cobras. He immediately fell in love, and six months later, his parents allowed him his first snake, a Persian water snake. Stehlin’s collection grew into adulthood, and at its peak, he housed up to 250 snakes. Today, he has about 30 snakes, yet boasts one of the biggest private book collections, and believes that “each snake is unique, like a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt.”
Bar’s snake adoration began with his childhood in the Southern desert. When he was seven years old, he used to “flip things until darkness” and said that each snake was like “finding a treasure.” He loved the hunt, learning the techniques, and finding their tracks. To his parents’ despair, he also loved to hide snakes round the house. After finding a prized venomous viper and hiding it in the air conditioning unit, he was forced to release it back into the wild. This is especially good as it is illegal in Israel to house venomous snakes.
Bar works as an epidemiologist in Tel Hashomer hospital, but is the go-to expert in Israel for those seeking a snake expedition, or who may have found a snake in their home. Bar has one snake, which he was called to catch from someone’s home. The snake is a Californian viper, which is not native to Israel and so cannot be released into the wild.
A Global Snake Scene
Bar and Stehlin shed plenty of light into the global snake scene, having visited countries like Australia, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Thailand. While scientists believe evolution takes a long time, snakes seem to evolve rapidly for survival, and play a crucial role in the ecological system. Stehlin mentions that in the past decade, three new species of rattle snakes have emerged, showing that snakes are highly adaptable creatures.
Israel is a unique ground for snakes, housing 42 various species, with a variety of habitats in a small area. Being central in the Middle East, Israel is home to species from Asia, Africa and Europe. Nine of the species are venomous, and only two of the species, the Palestine viper, Israel’s national snake, and the Lebanese viper are found in northern Israel. The rest can be discovered in the dunes of the desert.
While snakes are known as predators, Stehlin describes the snake as a shy animal, mostly acting in defensive survival mode. Snakes are also prey, often eaten by large birds and even other snakes. During the winter time, snakes are less active and go into a somewhat hibernation. They are most active between April and November. They are nocturnal, and mostly come out after sunset, also finding the Israeli summer heat unbearable.
Into the Desert
Bar led the snake expedition after receiving a permit from the Israeli Nature Authority, as it is illegal to disturb animals in their natural habitats. However, Bar is skilled in his tracking technique, and knowledgeable, also having co-authored the first English book about the topic, The Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Israel, with Guy Haimovitch.
During the trek, the group spotted a Desert horned viper, a Sahara sand viper, and a Crowned leaf nose snake. Trekking with a group of snake lovers, it became clear that perhaps the feared snake simply has a bad reputation. Bar says that people who get bitten by snakes are either “lucky or stupid.” Lucky if you step on a snake because they are elusive creatures, and stupid are the ones trying to capture or kill snakes.
Stehlin chimes in, admitting he received a few snake bites, yet speaking of a snake’s fairness. Snakes will always give a fair warning before an attack, shaking its rattle, releasing its scent, or showing its belly.
Israel houses two anti-venoms for the 300 people per year who do get a snake bite. To put it into perspective, Bar says that “0.7 people die per year from a snake bite, and about 400 people die per year from car accidents.”