Added 30 December 2009. Last updated 5 January 2010: updated Bibliography.

A Look at the Family Elapidae


Rinkhals, Spitting Cobra


The Rinkhals, Hemachatus haemachatus, is not a true cobra (one of the Naja) but is closely related. It has keeled scales (Naja have smooth dorsal scales), no solid teeth on the maxilla, and is viviparous. The common name of Rinkhals is Afrikaans, used to describe the crossbands on the neck. The venom is less concentrated than in Naja species, and Branch and O'Shea both note that snakebites and human fatalities are fairly few: see however next paragraph.

The Rinkhals is perhaps best known, or notorious, for its ability to spit venom up to 2-3m into the face of a perceived attacker. This is a defensive measure but should be taken seriously, since contact with the eyes is painful and if left the venom can cause permanent damage and even blindness. For this reason the eye(s) should be washed immediately with a bland liquid [Branch]. If this measure fails to deter the perceived attacker, the Rinkhals may then feign death by lying on its back with its mouth open and cloaca gaping. Ironically for such a potentially dangerous snake Branch notes that it settles well in captivity, eating well and living for up to 11 years.

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
H. hemachatus Rinkhals S & E Republic of South Africa, also E Zimbabwe


Max SVL about 1.1m Diet not particularly specialised, but mainly rodents and toads. Scalation details: 17-19 scale rows at midbody; Other: head broad. Coloration: variable, may be overall black, brown or "zebra-striped" [O'Shea]. Branch notes that inland specimens tend to be more uniform, dark brown to black, sometimes speckled with lighter greys and browns, whereas others are conspicuously banded in dark brown to black alternating with pale grey, yellowish or orange. Reproduction: average 20-30, but max 63, young born December-March (summer). [SOURCE: Branch, O'Shea].


Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa, Bill Branch, Struik, Capetown 1998.

Venomous Snakes of the World, Mark O'Shea, New Holland, 2008 edition. Useful overall guide to venomous snakes, few anatomical details but venom is briefly described for each species.

"Introducing Cobras", Scott Pearson, Reptile Hobbyist 2:2, October 1996. Thought-provoking article that advocates private hobbyists not keep any of the Hemachatus, Naja or Ophiophagus species. Even if you disagree in principle, the author's arguments should still be read.