Beach users in Noumea, New Caledonia encounter highly venomous sea snakes very often at popular beaches. Nevertheless, instances of sea snake bites and envenomation are very rare. Here two swimmers come across a Greater sea snake (Hydrophis major) during a snorkel trip. Photo Credit: Claire Goiran.

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More than 100,000 people die each year from venomous snake bites. These deaths are a significant social and economic burden. Most research on the management of snakebites focuses on incidences of venomous bites, and development of effective anti-venom as a reactive measure. However, we can learn much from understanding the ecology of venomous snakes in regions with high human interactions and this information can provide significant insights into developing preventative measures to mitigate the risk of snakebites.

Our research takes place in coastal bays near Noumea, in the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia, which thousands of tourists and snakes use, but bites are very rare. Our long-term study used a combination of snorkel surveys, animal biotelemetry and human surveys to understand movements of venomous sea snakes at tourist beaches alongside patterns of human behaviour at these locations. We highlight key mechanisms that clarify the peaceful coexistence of dangerous species of snakes in highly populated regions where we would expect high rates of snakebite. Although the majority of snakes encountered during the study were a harmless species, we recorded dangerously venomous taxa often enough that we would expect many risky human-snake interactions in these crowded bays. We found that low overlap between humans and snakes in the timing of activity, both seasonally and on the diel cycle, reduces the risk of snake bites. Spatial divergence further reduced the risk: bare-footed beach users stay in sandy areas rather than the adjacent coral-reef areas that snakes prefer. The response of snakes to disturbance is important also: most sea snakes are reluctant to bite even when harassed.

Aspects of human and snake behaviour decrease encounter rates and reduced the danger of snakebite for recreational users of these popular beaches, rendering snakes unlikely to bite even if people contact them. As a result, thousands of snakes and people coexist harmoniously within these small bays. More generally, if we can identify the characteristics of situations where human-wildlife conflicts are minimal, compared to those where conflicts are intense, we will be better-placed to develop new ways to mitigate problematic interactions, and achieve the goal of harmonious coexistence between humans and potentially dangerous animals.