Tuesday, May 30, 2023
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Face to face with DR Congo’s deadly vipers

Amid the swathes of forest that cover the country, and behind the headlines of war and Ebola, the Democratic Republic of Congo is at the forefront of a hidden health crisis.

With vast jungles home to numerous species of venomous snakes, DR Congo is a hotspot of injury and death from snakebite envenomation, an issue highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Médecins Sans Frontières as a neglected crisis for Africa.

Photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham has been documenting the issue and capturing close-up portraits of some of the world’s most dangerous snakes, for the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting.

Patrick Atelo displays a live MambaImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Fisherman Patrick Atelo displays a live mamba on the River Ruki. The snake was spotted close to the village and, because of the mortality rate of bites, snakes are feared and often killed as soon as they are seen.

Fishermen on the River CongoImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

As many as 2.7 million people are poisoned by snakes every year, resulting in between 81,000 and 137,000 deaths, with many more amputations and permanent disabilities, according to a recent WHO report.

Years of conflict and political corruption have crippled much of DR Congo’s infrastructure and mean that stocks of anti-venom are scarce or nearly impossible to distribute. With an overlap between the prime habitats for venomous snakes and a rural populace, a lack of access to specialised health care can be deadly.

Alphonsi Ndoma (Wearing red t-shirt) and Guylain Mudjombe check their netsImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Snakes are often caught in the fishermen’s nets on the Congo River, so care is taken when checking to see if there has been a catch.

Forest CobraImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham
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Cunnigham also photographed the snakes close up, such as the forest cobra above.

“By maintaining a calm environment and by remaining very still on the ground, I was able to make portraits a couple of feet from the snakes,” he says.

Francois Nsingi, a technician at the Kinshasa Centre of Anti-VenomImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Francois Nsingi, the technician from the DR Congo Anti-Venom Centre, ensured the most dangerous species weren’t stressed or ill at ease.

African puff adderImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham
Image caption An African puff adder
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Atheris viper (bush viper)Image copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham
Image caption A bush viper
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The non-venomous western black tree snakeImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham
Image caption A non-venomous western black tree snake
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“The strongest portraits were made when the snakes investigated the camera lens. And I felt it was important to photograph them not in a cage or behind glass but moving free in the makeshift studio, just as they would in the wild,” Cunningham says.

“It was incredible to make the snakes more of the story than just an unseen threat – but the privilege of working with Francois, with his years of experience and care for snakes, made it clear that an unexpected encounter would be very dangerous.”

Jameson's MambaImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Joel Botsuna, an assistant at a protected forest space run by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), in Equateur province, holds a dead Jameson’s mamba. The snake was killed overnight by local farmers.

Mambas have extremely dangerous neurotoxic venom – death can result in as little as two hours after being bitten.

A cobra that has entered a fishing trapImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

A cobra that has entered a fishing trap belonging to fisherman Shadrack Ifomi. He has been fishing the river systems his whole life and has been bitten several times but fortunately by smaller species of vipers only.

Jose in the forestImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Working amid undergrowth results in large amounts of snakebites, as well camouflaged vipers and cobras can be disturbed and deliver a defensive strike.

Monique Dongo, a victim of snakebiteImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Landowner Monique was bitten by a snake while walking to inspect her properties.

A traditional healer in Mbandaka shows her remedy for snakebitesImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

A traditional healer in the western city of Mbandaka shows her remedy for snakebites. Herbs and a snake’s head are ground into powder then burnt before being rubbed into small razor wounds made on the arms of a snakebite victim.

These remedies potentially alleviate some minor symptoms or provide a placebo effect but can also cause harm. For instance, making small cuts with a razor to rub a charred substance (including powdered snake’s head) into the wounds can lead to infection.

The herbs are collected by healers such as Bienvenue Efete, pictured below.

Bienvenue Efete, a traditional healerImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham
Dr Anaurite NyabolekaImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

Dr Anaurite Nyaboleka, at the Tabe medical clinic, Mbandaka, has little or no access to anti-venoms and is left providing symptomatic care for snakebites.

Snake meat is also eaten – seen here for sale at the Makila market, in Mbandaka. It sells for 3,000-5,000 Congolese francs (£2.40).

Marie Telese, a seller of bushmeat at Makila marketImage copyright Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

All photographs © Hugh Kinsella Cunningham with the support of the Pulitzer Centre.

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