Habu. You’ve probably heard about these little buggers in passing while looking up stuff about Okinawa. Since the weather is warming up and everyone else seems to be talking about habu I figured that this was a good chance for me to put in my 2 cents (or yen?) on the matter.
The term Habu refers to a particular type of snake (trimeresurus flavovirdis) which is found in the Ryukyu islands or as they are referred to today, Okinawa Prefecture. These snakes are nothing to take lightly because not only are they venomous but they are also very versatile. The snakes themselves are relatively large growing from 4 to 5 feet although they have been seen larger. (An almost 8 foot long specimen was recorded in 2011.) Coloration of the snake includes light olive or brown overlaid with dark green and brown splotches. Sometimes you can find yellow spots in the splotches as well.
The habitat of the habu usually lies between forests and cultivated fields which pretty much sums up most of Okinawa. They are often found on rock walls, in parks, in tombs and caves. It is also not uncommon to find habu in areas which you might otherwise consider city. Habu can also be found resting in trees and can swim. Is nowhere safe? Naturally this makes it important to be aware of habu at all times, especially in the hotter months of the year and at night.
Needless to say habu are not friendly. They are very irritable and man are they quick. If you’ve ever seen one of these things strike it’s prey it’s quicker then a blink of an eye. And if you’re the lucky target of the habu you can expect some nasty side effects. The venom of the habu is highly toxic however the fatality rate is remarkably low (1%) if medical treatment is sought right away. You’re not out of the woods that easy though. up to 8% of people who are bit my a habu suffer permanent disability. This can be anything from losing limbs or even huge chunks of flesh and muscle.
So what should you do if you happen to be unlucky enough to get bit by a habu? Unsurprisingly enough there are two very different ways to deal with this scenario; The Military Way or The Okinawa Way. Because both of them pretty much contradict each I figure why not just talk about both so here goes:
The Okinawa Way –
1. STAY CALM AND IDENTIFY THE SNAKE – Although it may be difficult staying calm (i.e. keeping your heart rate down) will slow the flow of blood and therefore the spread of any potential venom throughout the body. Identifying the snake is also very important to ensure that you receive the proper treatment. If you do not get a good look at the snake you can tell the type of snake by the bite marks. Habu have 2 sets of fangs which, on a clean secure bite, will leave 4 total puncture wounds. Typically within 5 minutes the bitten area will swell and become very painful.
2. CALL FOR HELP – Do not run! If you must walk do so very slowly to keep the heart rate down.
3. SUCK THE BLOOD AND POSION OUT OF THE WOUND – Carefully cut the area of the wound and suck out the venom and infected blood. If you have a scratch in your mouse the venom may cause slight inflammation. Although the venom is toxic even if swallowed it is broken down my the stomach and will cause no harm.
4. IF THE HOSPITAL IS FAR AWAY BIND THE AFFECTED AREA – This will reduce blood flow to other parts of the body and prevent the venom from reaching the heart. Bind the area loosely enough to insert one finger. Loosen the binding once every 15 minutes. Do not bind too tightly in order to prevent adverse effects from lack of circulation.
The Military Way –
1. REMAIN CALM – Excitation can increase the heart rate causing venom to move through the body quicker then normal. Also, reduce movement of the bitten limb as much as possible.
2. APPLY A TOWEL OR CLOTH FIRMLY AROUND THE BITE SITE -This is supposed to slow the bleeding and slow the spread of the venom throughout the bitten area. The military recommends that you do not apply a tourniquet, with an exclamation point!!!!!! This cause pool the venom in one area causing increased damage to the surrounding tissues.
3. ELEVATE THE LIMB – This should be above heart level, well according Lt. Daniel Szumlas, PhD of the US Naval Hospital Okinawa. However, according to U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Lawrence Decker also of the US Navy Hospital Okinawa (listed only as “emergency medicine physician”) it should be below the level of the heart.
4. SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION IMMEDIATELY – The venom can be destructive especially if treatment is not received within 2 to 3 hours. Also DO NOT (in caps) attempt to make an incision or “such out” the venom, again with exclamation point!!!!! The reason for this is because you could risk cutting arteries, veins or muscles.
Night and day huh? Ultimately the choice comes down to threat assessment, what you’re willing to risk and what it is that you are comfortable doing. That being said I am sure that there are some of you out there who are wondering what I would chose considering that I spend so much time exploring. Personally I subscribe to The Okinawa Way simply because I want a fighting chance. Yes it would be convenient if I were to get bitten by a habu for it to happen in my front yard, 10 feel from my car or better yet in the hospital court yard but that’s not likely going to be the case. You’re probably going to find yourself in a situation where you’re hiking or away from immediate contact with civilization. Then what? Would you chose to be slightly passive and risk the venom getting to your heart or taking the approach where you might lose part of your leg but you’re giving your heart a fighting chance? For me I’ve only got 1 heart and I can learn to live with a disfigured leg or no leg at all.
Once you make it to the hospital treatment (according the the US Naval Hospital Okinawa) will will include pain medication and an intravenous drip. You’ll be monitored for hemolysis and kidney function as well as pain. Treatment for infection and other complications will also be administered but you will not be given an anti-venom right away. This is because the side effects of the anti-venom are relatively serious to include anaphylactic shock. The anti-venom may also cause what is referred to as “serum sickness” which includes a rash, fever and polyarthritis. If you have received the anti-venom previously the risk increases if you have to receive it a second time. This can sometimes result in military personnel being sent off of Okinawa after recovering from a habu bite if they received the anti-venom.
Now that we’ve got all that nitty gritty out of the way lets talk about the simple things you can do to prevent contact with the habu while here in Okinawa. The first thing is save your exploring for the winter months. A lot of people think that summer is the best time to get out and see Okinawa but if it involves being outdoors in the woods or off the beaten path save it for the winter months. Not only will it be better for you because the summer heat can be brutal but you will avoid contact with these types of things. Next you’re going to want to stay away from overgrown areas these are the resting places for snakes and the things they like to eat. When you’re out exploring make your presence known by poking around with a walking stick or better yet get yourself a boar bell. You don’t want to take anything by surprise and give it a reason to feel threatened. Also wear clothing which protects your legs and ankles. Long pants and tall boots are idea when you’re going into an area where a habu might be a threat. Although it might not fully offer you protection is is certainly better then skin to fang contact. Last but not least stay aware of your surroundings even when on base, in the park or in the city. There are grassy remote areas all around the island where creatures can hide out. It is especially important to ensure that children are supervised during summer play for this very same reason.
As scary as I am sure this blog post sounded to most of you who are coming to Okinawa in actuality habu aren’t anything to get overly concerned about. You should know what to do in case you make contact and know what to look out for but you’re not likely to see one of these things in the wild. Whatever you do, just don’t get bitten by one.