I have a confession to make: the Venom Jungle episode of Biggest and Baddest wasn’t originally meant to be about lots of different venomous animals, it was meant to be about one: the bushmaster. I was in Canaima National Park in Venezuela to film one of the most iconic and feared snakes on earth. The bushmaster is the longest venomous snake in the Americas and has a reputation for serious aggression: they have been known to strike at the headlights of a moving motorbike! The reason we had to change the focus of our film was because after a few days on location it became obvious that we probably weren’t going to see a bushmaster at all, so we had to come up with something else to film while we were there.
When filming for Biggest and Baddest, we rely on the knowledge of local people to get us access to the animals that we need to film. The trouble with this region of Venezuela is that there is so much illegal activity ongoing (predominately mining and logging) that our local fixers couldn’t alert anyone that a film crew was coming, because it would have caused far too much of a fuss! As a result we arrived more-or-less unannounced, and when we started asking the local people to help us find bushmasters we were met with the same response every time: “Why on earth would we want to help you find one of THOSE?!” No matter what we tried, we couldn’t convince anyone to help us look for them. I asked one farmer if he had bushmasters on his land: “No tengo y no quiero!” (I don’t have them and I don’t want them!) Clearly this was going to be a problem!
Bushmasters spend 80% of the time underground, live at low densities and are rare wherever they are found, which means that very little is known about them and that they are very hard to find. We knew that we might stumble across one if we spent long enough yomping through the jungle (which is what we always do!) but we realized that our chances were pretty slim, so we’d better come up with a new narrative and fast! From my time in Canaima, talking to the Pemon Indians who live there, it became clear that although the bushmaster was particularly revered, the lives of the Pemon are affected by a whole range of dangerous animals, so it seemed right that we should spread our efforts across a wider number of venomous and poisonous species. We’d try to find poison arrow frogs, bird eating spiders and bullet ants, but I still wanted to find a venomous snake, and finally we got a lucky break.
Eduardo, one of my Pemon guides, had told his relatives, who have a farm in the forest a few miles away from the main village, that if they saw a snake while we were in the area that they should contact him rather than just doing what they would normally do: which is kill it. We were interviewing a local elder when the call came, and we quickly jumped in the trucks and headed towards the remote farm. We met Eduardo’s cousins at the edge of the forest and walked the rest of the way to the farm house, an open-sided building in a little clearing, surrounded by recently felled trees. Outside, in a small clearing, was a large upturned bucket weighed down rather ominously by a very heavy axe!
I shook hands with Eduardo’s family, all of whom were sitting in the shade of their little house, looking rather nervous, and made a few jokes about my bad Spanish to relax them. We chatted for a while, but the time soon came to see what was under the bucket. I asked them what it was, and they said it was very dangerous, it was the same snake that bit a boy from the village a couple of years ago and he had lost his leg. Normally they would just kill it, they told me, but Eduardo had insisted that they call him, and they wanted to see what I’d do with it! I had no intention of killing it, of course, no matter what it was, all I wanted to do was to identify it, bag it, and relocate it a safe distance from the farm. I took my trusty snake hook out of my bag and headed over to the bucket, removed the axe and flipped the bucket over. There, curled in a ball in front of me, was a beautiful fer de lance: the most dangerous snake in all of the Americas!
Join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to the forests of Venezuela in search of jungle venom on Biggest & Baddest: Venom Jungle tonight at 10/9c on Nat Geo WILD.