Let’s just say that herpetologists might prefer the Teardrop of India a little more than those with a fear of snakes. To put it another way: There are oodles of serpent species living on this island washed by the Indian Ocean, along with countless venomous snakes in Sri Lanka that you certainly won’t want to cross paths with unless you’re a proper elapid enthusiast.
Yep, between the surf beaches of the southwest coast and the misty highlands where the tea is grown, there are lots and lots of different types of sliding snakes in Sri Lanka. A lot of them posses venom and a lot of them can kill. In fact, the country has a bite rate of about 400 per 100,000 people in the population, which equals about 80k bites per year, of which about 30k are venomous bites and around 400 result in eventual death!
Those aren’t great stats. Still, we don’t think that the presence of venomous snakes in Sri Lanka should put you off a visit to this incredible island nation. There’s just too much to see, from the UNESCO site of Sigiriya to the leopard-spotted plains of the Kumana National Park. Perhaps this list of snakes to watch out for can help you dodge the dangerous ones…
King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)
One of the most iconic species of snake in Asia and the world as a whole, this hooded killer is well-known for its potent venom. King cobras can dispatch human victims in as little as 30 minutes. They have an uber-powerful venom that includes both cytotoxins and neurotoxins, which combine to cause vertigo, nausea, and, finally, total cardiovascular collapse. Yep, a heart attack in 30 minutes!
They’re most notable for the fanned hood and the way they’re said to “dance” before potential victims before striking. They’re pretty hefty customers, coming in at an average length of over three meters, although some of the largest ever recorded have measured nearly six meters (don’t worry, Sri Lankan travelers – that was in Thailand!).
King cobras like to live in rainforest habitats of varying altitudes. They’re common throughout the wooded parts of the Sri Lankan Central Highlands, but have also been seen in the coastal forests, and even around the main beach resorts!
Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii)
Russell’s viper snakes are well-known across India and Sri Lanka. They basically live anywhere below the Himalaya and have significant numbers on this surf-washed island. In fact, they’re responsible for a big chunk of the annual snakebites in these parts and are even up there with the ‘big four’ most deadly snakes of neighboring India.
So, what are you looking for? A snake with a viper-shaped triangular head and a broad snout, joining a narrower body that can grow roughly 1.5 meters from end to end, though can also be up to two meters in total. The patterning is anything between dark brown with black patches to rich yellows and tans.
Russell’s vipers aren’t usually that active during the day, but they do come out more during the cooler seasons of Sri Lanka. That’s usually when they come into contact with humans. Attacks typically begin with a hissing sound – the snake’s way of warning off potential predators. Then comes the bite, and a single bite is enough to deliver far more than the required fatal dosage of venom. Symptoms that follow will include drops in blood pressure and an unsteady heartbeat. Even those who get treated and survive report lingering pain for up to a month afterwards!
Saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus)
Saw-scaled vipers are actually a group of snakes that live all over the world, from the hot reaches of sub-Saharan Africa to the lowlands of Pakistan. There’s one type that also lives across India and Sri Lanka. Cue Echis carinatus, which resides in areas of scrubland and soft soil in the warmer parts of the country.
It’s a classic viper-looking species. You’ll see that diamond-shaped head and the protruding eyes. The body thickens in the middle and flattens on the bottom, all before coming to a narrow, pointed tail. The saw-scaled vipers of Sri Lanka usually have a darker brown color finish, with dashes of light beige and coffee brown for added camo.
When feeling threatened, saw-scales will twitch and rub their scales together in a way that produces a harsh hissing sound much like something sizzling on a hotplate. After that comes the bite; an attack that’s fueled by a venom containing chemicals that cause severe hemorrhaging and kidney failure. Oh, and these vipers are capable of injecting more than double the needed fatal dose in a single bite. Just keep your distance!
Ceylon krait (Bungarus ceylonicus)
The Ceylon krait is arguably the single most dangerous customer among all the venomous snakes in Sri Lanka. Or at least it would be, were it not for the relative chill attitude of this deadly elapid. Yep, they rarely attack, and it takes a lot to irritate them. On top of that, they are predominantly nocturnal creatures and prefer to steer clear of human contact.
The problem is that the venom of a Ceylon krait is crazy powerful. It can kill a human in less than 12 hours and regularly proves fatal if left untreated. It attacks the central nervous systems and causes all sorts of horrible side effects before shutting down the lungs almost entirely.
These guys are usually observed in the tropical wet bands of the highland regions of the island. Sightings have been made in gardens around the town of Kandy and deeper in the mountains close to the old hill stations of Ella and Nuwara Eliya.
Sri Lankan pit viper (Craspedocephalus trigonocephalus)
The Sri Lankan pit viper is the island’s own subspecies of the iconic green pit viper that lives all over Asia and Southeast Asia. Also known as the Ceylon pit viper and the Sri Lankan green pitviper, it’s discernable because of its mottled green pattern, which goes from dark green on top to lighter teal green on the underbelly, punctuated by a running pattern of spots down the back.
These guys can be found all over the island, though they don’t tend to live at the highest altitudes on peaks in the Central Highlands, or in the desert-climate areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka. They usually eat lizards, amphibians, and even smaller forest mammals, and aren’t known to be typically aggressive to humans.
However, if they do feel threatened then things will start with a rattlesnake-style shivering of the tail, followed by a hissing sound. The Ceylon pit viper might then attack, using a hemotoxin venom that causes extreme swelling all over the body and enlargement of the lymph nodes. Death is a possibility, while even survivors of bites have reported feeling pain up to five days after the attack!
Indian cobra (Naja naja)
The Indian cobra is also known as the spectacled cobra. It’s among the so-called big four snakes of India, which is the group of serpents that are responsible for the most bites and fatalities in Sri Lanka’s northern neighbor each year. So, it’s a dangerous customer, but that still doesn’t stop it from being a common part of snake charming shows across the subcontinent.
A bite from a Naja naja is never going to be nice. Things start with severe local swelling and pain, quickly spreading throughout the whole body as the venom penetrates from organ to organ. Victims quickly experience dizziness and headaches, joint pain, and confusion, eventually followed by respiratory failure.
The Indian cobra is present as far north as Pakistan and is pretty successful since it can adapt to a whole host of habitats. In Sri Lanka, they’re regularly encountered in rainforests, in wetlands in the national parks along the south and east coast, and even in the tea fields up around Ella and other hiking towns. Just watch where you step on your way to Adam’s Peak, folks!
Hump-nosed pitviper (Hypnale hypnale)
The Hump-nosed pitviper might be small, with adults hitting only 30-40cm at full growth, but boy does it pack a punch. This one’s venom can cause death within just a few hours, with the added complications of acute renal failure and impairment of blood coagulation.
In fact, the hump-nose has been on a bit of a journey in the eyes of herpetologists – it was considered harmless up until a few years ago but is now rated as one of the most dangerous venomous snakes in Sri Lanka overall!
These snakes are found in the subtropical and tropical regions of south India and Sri Lanka, from the Western Ghats to the jungles of the island’s south coast. They’re noticeable for their pale color scheme and upturned snout, along with the brown mottling pattern on the bottom of the body. They’re mainly active in the early morning and at dusk and will vibrate their tales when feeling threatened.
The most venomous snakes in Sri Lanka – a conclusion
Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 100 species of snake in total. Only some of those are deadly, but, just as this list highlights, there are some seriously formidable venomous snakes in Sri Lanka. From the legendary king cobra to the curious hump-nosed pitviper, there are plenty of serpents to be wary of as you hop between the surf breaks, the curry houses, and the highland tea fields!
Are there venomous snakes in Sri Lanka?
There sure are. Just under half of Sri Lanka’s 100 snake species are thought to be venomous, and about 21 are thought to be deadly venomous, including the king cobra and the Russell’s viper.
What’s the most venomous snake in Sri Lanka?
Most locals will say that the most dangerous of all the venomous snakes in Sri Lanka is the Ceylon krait. It’s got a bite that can lead to death in under 12 hours if left untreated, although the species tends to only come out at dawn and dusk.