Deadly Snake Hunted for Lifesaving Venom

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 10, 2003

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In Australia, life-threatening poisonous animals have always posed a hazard to humans. But some of the most dangerous also act as lifesavers. Such is the case with the notorious death adder, a snake that's essential to the production of lifesaving snakebite antivenins.

The National Geographic Channel tags along with snake wranglers from the Australian Reptile Park in Somersby, New South Wales, as they hunt death adders for their valuable and deadly venom. Death Adder Duet is an installment in the Snake Wranglers series, which brings viewers face-to-fang with the planet's most compelling snakes.

For more than 50 years, the staff of the Australian Reptile Park has raised and milked hundreds of venomous spiders and snakes—including the death adder—for their poisonous venom in order to create life-saving medicines.

The park's venom-milking program is the only supplier of venom to Melbourne's Commonwealth Serum Laboratories—makers of antivenins crucial to treating snakebite victims.

The work is time-consuming and not without hazard. Hundreds of milkings are necessary to create a single dose of antivenin. It's a difficult job, but one that pays tremendous dividends for public health. As John Weigel, director of the Australian Reptile Park, notes, the program helps save hundreds of lives each year.

"Producing the venom that's used to make the antivenin, that's part of the soul of us, part of our heritage and what we do," Weigel told National Geographic News. "We've done it for 55 years and it saves perhaps 280 to 300 lives a year. That's something we feel really good about."

From Deadly Venom to Healing Medicine

Thanks to the widespread availability of effective antivenins, snakebite fatalities in Australia have become rare in recent decades.

The nation's antivenin program suffered a setback two years, however, after a devastating fire raged through the Australian Reptile Park. The blaze gutted much of the park and killed most of its captive animals—including snakes used in the venom-milking program. Since the catastrophe, staff members have traveled Australia to collect venomous snakes in order to rebuild the program.

Death adder venom remains in particularly short supply. Snake wranglers are combing Australia for the reclusive reptiles. "We need something like 50 to 60 death adders to milk every two weeks in order to provide a sufficient quantity of venom," Weigel estimated.

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