A Close Encounter of the Arachnid Kind

I have been an arachnophobe for my entire life. I don't kill spiders; I will do my best to avoid being in close proximity to one. A recent encounter with a member of the arachnid family has intensified my phobia, and made me all too aware of just how dangerous these members of the animal kingdom can be.

During a recent trip to Save Valley Conservancy I was invited to a picnic at one of the lodges. Before lunch I took a stroll along a river bank, trying to find a clearer angle to take a photograph of a large elephant at the waterhole opposite the lunch site. As I was walking I felt a slight scratch inside my jeans' trouser leg slightly above my ankle. I figured I'd picked up a stick or a burr and decided to take it out after taking my photos. Any photographer knows how important the timing for that perfect shot can be; everything else happening at that moment is secondary.

The elephant had been quenching his thirst for some ten minutes, so I knew he was probably going to leave the waterhole in the next few minutes. I positioned myself and took a few decent shots of my favourite African animal.

I also forgot about the scratchy thing inside my jeans.

After a lengthy, delicious lunch I sat down and started chatting to Lara. When I felt the scratch again I remembered the stick/burr near my ankle. I leaned down and pulled the denim away from my leg, trying to see the size of the burr and how firmly it had attached itself to the fabric.

Time stood still. The first thing I saw was a huge back sting. Then I saw three bumpy matte-black segments.

arachnoid
© South African National Biodiversity Institute


"There's a scorpion on my trousers," I calmly told Lara.

To my horror it began to move up into my jeans towards my knee. I carefully pulled the denim away from my knee and closed my hand over the loose fabric, tightening the jeans around my knee in the hope that this would stop the scorpion moving any higher.
 
Veterinarian Jackie hurried over and confirmed it was a scorpion. Lara immediately pulled the lower part of the denim around the business end of the scorpion and held the fabric loosely closed in her hand, so the arachnid couldn't move. Jackie’s called her husband Josh. I have no idea how they managed to see the scorpion, but they assessed the situation calmly and rationally.

"That is a dangerous scorpion," Josh said. "Parabuthus Transvaalicus – thick-tailed scorpion. It’s one of the most poisonous and dangerous scorpions in Southern Africa. If that stings you it's immediate evacuation to hospital."

Arachnoid
Parabuthus Transvaalicus can reach up to 15 cm in length © Ingwelala

 

He hurried off to get a pair of pliers… or forceps. I honestly don’t remember and forgot to ask. Jackie told us the scorpion contains neuro toxins, and can cause permanent damage to tissues and nerves. People unlucky enough to be stung by one often experience permanent tingling or numbness in the affected area, as well as intense burning pain that is as bad as immersing the affected area into a fire. Victims are usually kept in hospital and treated for the side-effects as the venom works its way out of the system.

While I was waiting a few of the lunch guests spoke about people they knew who’d been stung by these scorpions and the pain they endured. One victim had trouble walking and talking soon after his encounter. I have no idea how I managed to listen to the stories so calmly…

I am proud to say I did not scream, shout, weep or cry once during the entire experience.  Listening to the potentially ghastly results of an encounter with the scorpion I found myself almost divorced from the situation. Not even the realization that I was holding the scorpions’ pinchers in my hand caused me to panic. One of the guys suggested cutting through my jeans.

"No," I answered. "No cutting of the jeans. They are my newest pair and my most comfortable jeans."

Josh returned. Jackie carefully rolled up the hem of the jeans and Lara carefully raised the side of her hand until the sting was exposed in the fabric. She lifted more of her hand, careful not to aggravate the trapped scorpion. When enough of its torso was exposed Josh closed the pliers over it.

Jackie told me to release my hand and the pliers emerged, safely clamped around the scorpion’s thorax. It was put into an empty plastic bottle. I took a photograph before it was taken into the riverbed and released.

Arachnoid
The scorpion in the water bottle, prior to its release © Sarah Todd


Afterwards Jackie and Josh told Lara that this scorpion’s stinger is strong enough to pierce through a thick fabric like denim… Lara is one brave lady!

Every time I think about the scorpion a psychosomatic scratch briefly returns to my right ankle. For the rest of my trip I checked my clothes, shoes, bedding, showers, floors and bed for scorpions. Until this experience I have always been very blasé about scorpions.

Never again.

 

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