Article published on 29 January 2024
last modification on 15 February 2024

An image that evokes Black Africa but also many other parts of the world : young white children playing in the family estate but only under the protection of a guardian armed with a stick and ready to protect them from serpents.


In the tropics, reptiles are various and prolific. Stinging, biting, spitting, most of them are venomous and deadly : from the green mamba of Central Africa or the viper of Gabon to the cobra of the Far East and the Spearhead serpent (fer de lance) of Martinique. Sea snakes are among the most venomous.

Only Madagascar is free of dangerous serpents.

If nowadays there are more than twenty institutes around the world for the fabrication of anti-venomous serums the injection of which is essential in the case of snake bites, the pioneer in this undertaking was A. Calmette*, one of the most famous physicians of the Colonial Health Service, who later conceived the vaccine against tuberculosis. His study published in 1907, "Les venins, les animaux venimeux et la sérothérapie antivenimeuse" (a volume of 396 pages) remains a classic.

Describing the symptoms of poisoning, Calmette* distinguishes two varieties :

 the bites of the colubridae, the local symptoms of which are unremarkable but death may follow in a few hours.
 The bites of the viperidae, where the bitten zone is very painful and may undergo necrosis, death following in 24 hours with profuse haemorrhage.

Necrosis after snake bite

The anti-venomous serum is discovered in 1894, on the one hand by Calmette*, on the other hand by Phisalix and Bertrand. But Calmette* is the first to prepare, that same year, in Saigon, a great quantity of serum from the poison of the cobra. Then, under his direction, The Pasteur Institutes of Paris and Lille fabricate a polyvalent serum which immediately renders great service in tropical countries.

Next, the Pasteur Institute of Paris sets about fabricating serums against the specific snake poisons of each region. The different colonial Pasteur Institutes, among others that of Kindia in Guinea, participate in the capture and identification of serpents in their region and also in the preparation of the corresponding anti-venomous serums.

Finally, Calmette* seeks to stop the proliferation of reptiles by introducing their natural enemies into the environment. Various tropical birds, said to be serpent-eaters, devour the snakes; elsewhere the mongoose does the same. In 1921, Calmette* makes a list of serpent-destroying animals.

Necrosis of the hand after snake bite

The study of venomous serpents is done by colonial doctors and pharmacists who organize their capture, collect the poison and send it to Pasteur Institutes for the fabrication of the anti-venomous serums which prove to be so precious in tropical regions.

One of them, the pharmacist Giboin*, makes a survey of the serpents of South India who bit five or six victims a day in the trading posts. In 1948, he publishes a paper on "India’s most common snakes". Given an appointment later in Togo, he continues his researches and publishes, in 1953, another work: "Ce qu’il faut savoir sur les principaux serpents du Togo" ("What you should know about the principal snakes of Togo")".

For further information :

 Goyffon M. Chippaux J.P. : Animaux venimeux terrestres. Encycl. Méd. Chir. Paris. Intoxications. 16-078 A-10,1990.
 Geistdoerfer P. Goyffon M. : Animaux aquatiques dangereux.- Encycl. Méd.Chir. Paris. Toxicologie. 16-078 C-10,1991.